A Mission Trip to Cuba

by Robert Sundell

“Hallelujah! I never thought I would live to see this day!” It was September, 2006, and my wife Gwyneth and I had just arrived with others from our “Volunteers in Mission” team and were attending a service to welcome us to the small Methodist church in Limones, Cuba. The speaker was Tomas, a man in his 70’s, who stood in the service to share his story. Tomas related that he had been an active member of this church his entire life. As a young man the church had been growing and spreading the faith. However, in 1959 everything changed due to the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro took power and Cuba was declared an atheistic state. The church, as was true with almost all churches in Cuba, lost its pastor and dwindled to only three people, he Tomas and two others. But these three had been faithful and continued to meet weekly to pray that God would someday revive this church. For over 40 years they had persisted in this prayer and now he said his prayers haved surely been answered. Two years previously, a new pastor had arrived and the church had begun to grow. “Today,” he said, “we have a team from the U.S. worshipping with us. God is faithful!”

Rob and daughter Nancy Sundell

My wife and I were part of a Volunteers in Mission team from United Methodist congregations in northeastern New York sState, which was to work with this congregation to build an extension to their church. The story of the Methodist Church in Cuba is interesting.1 Methodism was introduced to Cuba in the late 1880s by returning Cubans who had lived in the United States. The first Methodist missionary arrived in 1898. In the 50 years following, many U.S. missionaries worked in Cuba, planting churches, starting literacy programs, establishing schools and performing social services. In 1946 an ecumenical seminary was established by the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. However, shortly after the revolution in 1959, most missionaries were withdrawn from Cuba and 85% of the Cuban Methodist pastors emigrated along with a large number of laity. The Methodist Church, once 10,.000 strong, dropped in membership to around 2,000. Only seven ordained clergy remained to serve more than 100 congregations. Worship in established sanctuaries was permitted, but schools, education buildings and uninhabited parsonages were confiscated by the government. Religious expression was not allowed outside the sanctuaries, and the maintenance and repair of existing standing sanctuaries was prohibited.

Then, in the late 1980s, a series of events resulted in a softening of the government’s position on religious activities. Castro noted the work of Christians in Nicaragua providing medical, agricultural and social services. Then, Jesse Jackson visited Cuba to attend a memorial service to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Methodist church, and Castro accompanied him. The congregation welcomed Castro to the church and shortly thereafter he began to acknowledge that Christians were a part of Cuba. The fear of retaliation for church attendance was also eroded when people saw Castro attending a church. In 1990 Castro issued a public apology to Christians for the treatment that they had endured. In 1991 Fidel Castro’s government officially changed from an atheistic state to a secular one.

Notably, in the 1990s the Methodist Church began to experience a great revival. The so called “special period” in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cessation of its subsidy of to the Cuban economy had led to a serious shortage of basic family goods, such as food, , and school supplies, and personal hygiene products, and hospitals faced a serious shortage of supplies, including medicines and equipment. The apology of Castro together with the severe economic situation led to a “back to church” movement, as people looked to the church once again for hope. Church leaders in Cuba note that there has been a visible moving of the Holy Spirit among the people.., in particular, young people are turning to the church in droves after several generations of schooling without even a concept of God. The Methodist Church in Cuba today has more than 40,000 members on its rolls and more than 200,000 new members in process—a process that is about two years in length.

With the relaxation of the policy regarding religious activity came permission for the repair and rebuilding of church facilities. These facilities were in severe decay, and the Methodist Church in Cuba was permitted to invite church guests for help. After obtaining an agreement with the U.S. Treasury Department, the United Methodist Church in the U.S. began sending Volunteers in Mission teams to Cuba. These teams have provided much needed funds and human resources to repair churches in Cuba., and they have also provided donations of much needed clothing, school supplies, personal hygiene items and medicines. In addition to repairing churches, they have assisted in the building of Camp Canaan, a new national retreat center operated by the Methodist Church in Cuba where churches can hold annual conferences, youth camps, family camps and pastoral and laity training institutes. In this past April, 2009, I traveled to It was to Camp Canaan in Cuba to which I traveled this past April, 2009, this time with my daughter Nancy, on another Volunteers in Mission team. Our work involved digging and refilling ditches for underground power lines and the painting of apartments built for retired Methodist pastors. The camp is used by various denominations since it is the only church camp in Cuba. Currently the camp has a capacity of 600 and plans are to increase capacity to 1400.

N.T. Wright in his book Simply Christian states that “God’s sphere and ours are not far apart, and that at certain places and moments they interlock. Sometimes the boundary between them is like a thin partition, in which…a door is opened or a curtain pulled back.”2 That certainly seems true in Cuba. We had the opportunity to worship with seven different Methodist congregations of the Methodist Church during our last visit to Cuba. Most of the Methodist Churches in Cuba are charismatic in their services with enthusiastic singing and clapping using Cuban instruments and rhythms. The majority of Christians are new to the faith and their joy and enthusiasm for Christ are contagious. During a reception for us in Havana at the last church we visited, we met Jorge who is a lay leader in the church. He related the story of how he had come to faith. Life in Cuba is difficult and before he found faith he had little hope for the future. A man on the street spoke to him about Christ and prayed with him. He did not understand much of what the man said, but that evening he felt a strange lightness and joy that he had never experienced before. To learn more about what had happened, he visited a church and eventually came to faith.

The time spent working and worshipping with the Christians in Cuba was life changing. I like to imagine that I experienced a little of what the first century church must have been like when many first discovered the hope and joy in the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” As they say in Cuba, Gloria a Dios!

1. 1. Barrell, Veronica “The Methodist Church in Cuba”, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, General Board of Global Ministries, New York, NY

2. 2. Wright, N.T. Simply Christian, Harper San Francisco (2006), p. 144