the Cuban Soul
Researcher: Kelly Jackson Richardson
by Mimi Chakarova
Oscar Leon Damien parts
the faded floral sheet that serves as a bedroom door and steps into
his blue shoebox of a living room. He sits in the wooden rocker, picks
up his bible and runs through notes in his head, making mental checks
to ensure that his sermon is in order.
A few blocks away Mario
Luis Ramos Madera rolls out of bed. He pulls an old but clean soccer
jersey over his well-built shoulders. He slips past his son, careful
not to wake him, and steps outside to have a smoke. He lights an unfiltered
Popular Cubas national brand and offers a bit of
tobacco to Eluggua, the orisha of opportunity.
These routines seem ordinary
enough, but Cubas religious revival has sparked fervent debates
that have been absent for decades. As Cubans again begin to consider
God some for the first time profound theological and social
questions arise. Who is God? Who needs him? And whose God are Cubans
likely to worship?
Pinar del Rio is a small
town in the interior of Cubas most important tobacco growing region.
The coastal sea breeze that cools Havana never arrives here, leaving
the dusty streets to bake in the Caribbean sun. UFO-shaped Soviet-era
water towers hover on the horizon, hoarding the provinces lifeblood,
as Pinarenos scurry along the shady side of Avenida Jose Marti,
the towns only major thoroughfare. Locals are proud of their tobacco
and their baseball the provincial team always challenging Santiago
de Cuba for the national title. But in Pinar del Rio, as in many other
towns, religious possibilities are stirring the spiritual. Here Catholics,
Evangelicals and Santeros vie for souls on an island where most religious
activity stopped when the Revolution took hold.
When Fidel Castros
Revolution triumphed in 1959, 80 percent of the population considered
themselves Catholic. Many Catholics also practiced Santeria, and Evangelical
Churches were just a blip on the holy radar. Before the Revolution,
many priests were anti-Batista and imprisoned and tortured for their
political views. But church bishops supported the dictator until the
end, and when Castro came to power, many of them fled to Miami with
their rich congregations. Still, Castro initially indicated tolerance,
if not support, of the church. In early 1959 he praised religious education
in state schools. But as Castro began his social reforms, the churchs
support for the Revolution faltered. By the end of the same year, many
young Catholics had denounced Castro and the Catholic Youth organization
published an article that said reform could be carried out without Communism.
This opposition made Castro
take a second look at religions role in his Revolution. Santeria
was still tolerated, but the government decided Catholicism belonged
to the conquistadors and the wealthy. Although Castro never outlawed
its practice outright, attending church became associated with antisocial
behavior the government placed hurdles in front of the openly religious.
They were barred from the Communist Party, the military and the university.
The Catholic Church kept up its pressure and in August 1960, less than
two years after Castros victory march through Havana, those bishops
who remained denounced Castros government. "Whoever condemns
a Revolution such as ours," Castro responded to the criticism,
"betrays Christ and would be capable of crucifying him again."
With Castros feelings
clear, if Christ remained in the hearts of some, practicing religion
became a clandestine affair. Religious education was banned from school
curriculum. Many churches shut down and fell into disrepair. Catholics
and Evangelicals met in small groups behind closed doors where the pious
erected makeshift altars in their living rooms. Most Cubans learned
to live without religion and to love the Revolution religious
believers dropped from more than 70 percent of the population to less
than 30 percent according to official numbers.
again begin to consider God some for the first time
profound theological and social questions arise. Who is God? Who
needs him? And whose God are Cubans likely to worship?
But when the Revolution
lost the Soviet bloc in the late eighties, things changed. The country
entered the "special period." Times were tough Soviet
subsidies were gone and Cubans were left to fend for themselves. While
much of the older generation persevered, the younger generation became
disheartened and began to look for salvation elsewhere. Sunday attendance
rose at the few remaining churches and new ones opened. Evangelical
groups expanded and university students formed religious groups. Religion
exploded and Castro retreated. He admitted in 1990 that the religious
had been treated unjustly, and in 1992, the once atheist government
declared itself a secular state and banned religious discrimination
with an amendment to its constitution. The official number of Evangelical
churches almost doubled to 1,666 between 1992 and 2000 (although Protestant
groups insist the number is much higher), and at least 55 denominations
now practice on the island. In 1998, 500,000 Cubans crowded into Havanas
Plaza de la Revolución to attend Pope John Paul IIs first-ever
mass in Cuba. And a year later, a rally jointly organized by leaders
of 49 different Protestant churches drew 100,000 people to the same
plaza, with Castro himself seated in the first row.
But impacts of the old religious
policy remain. In 33 years without organized religion, many Cubans have
grown up with no notion of how it operates in other countries. Take
Reinaldo Arenado, an angst-filled 18-year old for example. Hes
a pinareno who has spent his whole life in Cubas near spiritual
void. He lives with his grandparents and his disabled father in the
center of town. When Arenado was ten, his mother left the island suddenly,
rowing for Florida. "She just kept telling me that she was going
over the big water, but I didnt understand what she meant."
He hasnt seen her since, and in her wake, Arenado has become an
introspective soul searcher. Although he isnt religious, Arenados
intrigued by religious mysticism. He sits hunched in front of a small,
worn TV balanced on a rickety wooden bookshelf in the open-air living
room of his house an old, colonial villa that the Revolution
has long since divided among several families and pops a pirated
copy of the film Stigmata into the VCR.
33 years without organized religion, many Cubans have grown up with
no notion of how it operates in other countries.
"Where did you get
that?" I ask, knowing that the Exorcist-style religious
thriller is banned in Cuba.
"From a friend,"
he responds simply and quickly changes the subject. "This movie
is pure fantasy
Its stupid," he says, but admits that
hes never seen it. Arenado turns off the lights forcing the dingy
but ornately carved ceilings to fade into the darkness. As the FBI warning
flashes on the screen, the house falls silent, interrupted only by the
occasional dog barking in the distance.
He was right. The film is
stupid. Its about a young American woman who becomes mysteriously
afflicted with the same wounds as the crucified Christ. The Vatican
responds by deploying an envoy of priests, comparable to the CIA in
their cunning and efficiency, to the womans home in Pittsburgh.
Arenado was mesmerized. With his deadpan stare illuminated by the rolling
credits he asked, "Is the Catholic Church really that powerful?"
American friends want to know if there are any youth in the church,"
Damien calls out to his congregation at a youth meeting at his Assembly
of God church on a Tuesday night in March. The crowd erupts in affirmation.
At 60, Damien the Evangelical minister has aged gracefully with a slight
paunch and hair that is just starting to gray at the temples. His face
is dominated by a pair of thick, square glasses that constantly slide
down the bridge of his round nose. As always, he dons a pair of worn
dress slacks and one of his multi-colored guyavera shirts.
is a concrete box that sits on a long, dusty road on the outskirts of
town where the scent of burning tobacco fields often fills the air.
A squat, blue steeple adorned with a small, wrought iron cross barely
pokes above the surrounding rooftops. The provincial baseball stadium
a temple of a different sort looms on the distant horizon.
by Mimi Chakarova
Christians from across the province have descended on Damiens
church to discuss the churchs rural growth. Because Damien has
no car and little money to pay for other transportation, its a
rare opportunity to meet with members from outlying communities. The
group consists of mostly twenty-somethings, many with their young children
in tow, still yawning from the long days journey. The churchgoers
take special care to greet each other, one by one, with a handshake
or a hug.
The music starts
and Damien times his words to the beat of a salsa rendition of "May
God Always Bless You." A shabby three-piece band of drums, guitar
and synthesizer pounds out the tune. "I need somebody who can ride
a bike and who has enough faith to carry him along," he implores
the congregation the microphone cord coiled in his left hand
in a style reminiscent of a fifties-era Vegas lounge singer. There is
new interest in the Assembly of God in San Cristobal, a nearby rural
community, and Damien is looking for someone to spread the good word.
since his conversion at 14, Damien says that despite its limited resources,
his religious community has exploded. In the nineties alone, the Assembly
of God grew from 89 to more than 2,000 churches. But it isnt just
Damiens group. Mario Cesar Aguilar, the pastor at Catedral San
Rosendo, has also witnessed tremendous growth at his Catholic Church
on the other side of town. Aguilar says when he came to Pinar del Rio
in 1984 the church had less than 100 parishioners. Now he preaches to
a filled chapel every Sunday.
the Assembly of Gods Caribbean Area Director in Florida, admits
that he doesnt fully understand why religion is growing so fast
on the island, but says that it is "fulfilling something in Cubans
lives that needs to be fulfilled." For Damien, its simple.
"Young people feel they are missing something," he said. "For
many years the government said there was no God. But God cannot be ignored
neither can the pope. Religious attendance surged in Catholic and Evangelical
churches alike after his visit to the island in 1998. As of 2000, four
million Cubans or 40 percent of the population were baptized
Catholic. Official Protestant membership is also up to 500,000, although
many Evangelicals believe the true number to be much higher.
not enough just to believe in God. You have to be consumed by him,"
said Ramon, a nineteen- year- old Baptist youth group organizer. His
reverend, Juan Carlos Rojas, agrees. Rojas is awed by the surge in young
membership at his church. "Cuban youth are an example to the world.
They truly are inspired."
yourself of Satan. Accept Jehovah as your savior!"
who is Satan? Its a slippery question for many pinarenos.
be a man of faith if youre not obedient!" an assistant yells
out to Damiens congregation. He is a tiny man leaning over a small,
wood-paneled podium. He waves his arms to forcefully emphasize each
word. The audience quickly turns their backs to the altar, kneels on
the floor and puts their heads face down on the rickety pews. Damien
watches from behind a ramshackle piano. "Cast Satan out!"
the man continues, his voice now becoming hoarse. The congregation begins
to speak in tongues some barely whispering, others nearly shouting
in an almost rhythmic cadence. The smell of sweat fills the small temple.
"Cleanse yourself of Satan. Accept Jehovah as your savior!"
But who is
Satan? Its a slippery question for many pinarenos. For Damien
and other Evangelicals, he is embodied almost everywhere especially
in the Santeria ceremonies that take place in their very neighborhoods.
They say the worship of saints, or orishas as they are known in Santeria,
is a dangerous and powerful black magic not to be trifled with. And
the use of money in its ceremonies compounds the evil.
is the devil," Damien says plainly, his voice lowering as he pushes
his bifocals back up the bridge of his nose.
devil is just a few blocks away, locked up in Maderas closet.
Here, behind a ramshackle wooden door in the corner of the house, Madera,
a Pinar del Rio native and one of only three bablaos in town, guards
his most powerful Santeria ceremonial tools: a goat skull attached to
a wooden stick, some bleached squirrel bones, a long, white candle mounted
on the skull of a cat. But Maderas tools are no anomaly. For centuries,
Santeria has been ingrained in Cuban culture and has transcended
traditional religious boundaries as Catholics and non-Catholics alike
have dabbled in the faith. "Santeria isnt just a religion,"
said Dr. Margaret Crahan, a history professor at Hunter College in New
York, who has studied religion on the island for more than thirty years,
"its part of the Cuban identity."
a mixture of Catholic and Yoruban traditions that evolved when Spanish
fanaticism forced West African slaves to worship their orishas under
the guise of Catholic saints. By 1840, the majority of Cubans were of
African descent and Santeria had entered the mainstream.
who lived in close proximity [to Santeros] began to adopt Santeria,"
Crahan said. "You can see how it permeated." And it continued
to permeate as blacks moved from the plantations to the cities, taking
their religion with them.
In modern times,
Madera says Santeria has been the darling faith of the Cuban people.
According to some estimates, as much as 70 percent of the population
practices some form of the tradition, many still blending it with the
Catholic faith. Castro routinely refers to Santeria as a point of pride
in Cubas afro-Caribbean culture, and ceremonies are often broadcast
on the national TV station. Now, however, some non-Santeros are openly
people feel they are missing something," he said. "For
many years the government said there was no God. But God cannot
be ignored or denied."
to turn off the television almost every night," said Rojas. "It
disgusts me, with all the dancing. Its the work of the occult.
Its nothing more than folklore." Rojas, the son of a minister,
coordinates seven churches in the countrys fourth largest Baptist
mission. He and his family live in a small apartment above the missions
largest church, located in Pinar del Rio. He says that Santeria is widely
celebrated because so many people in the government practice the religion.
But for religious
leaders, popularity doesnt equate legitimacy. To this day, many
Evangelical and Catholic authorities question whether Santeria is a
true religion. When the Pope visited Cuba in 1998 he said that traditional
Santero beliefs deserve respect but cannot be considered a "specific
religion." But its unlikely to disappear. Santeria is born
out of resistance and survival. Cubans have always flocked to Santeria
priests, or babalaos, during hard times to ease their weary bodies,
minds and souls; and the current climate of economic instability is
no exception. Madera says demand for his services has grown noticeably
in recent years. Its a popularity that frustrates many Evangelicals.
and Christianity cannot exist together," said Ramon, a youth-group
organizer at the Baptist church. He is standing in front of the temple
and sweat gathers on his forehead as the Caribbean sun beats down. A
medley of vehicles sputters by, spewing black exhaust into the church.
"The bible says there arent any other gods but Him in the
heavens or on the earth."
But for Madera,
Santeria is more than just a religion its his life. "The
Evangelicals," Madera says from his living room, "have a tremendous
struggle. Theyre very self-righteous. They think they have the
answers to everything. Everyone keeps their religion like a son. But
Santeros dont go out to criticize other religions."
pipes in Maderas mother, an ancient woman with fiery red hair
and gray stubble on her chin, "those Evangelicals think they know
he adds, "if you feel badly spiritually, psychologically
or physically you come to me, we pray to the orishas, and you
feel better. How can healing be diabolical?" But as vocal as Cubans
can be about their beliefs, Madera says he keeps his opinions to himself.
"I have many Christian and Catholic friends," he says, "but
I dont talk about religion.
do you call that hat?" I ask.
hat," he replies
mother, his wife and their son, a spry little boy who shares his mothers
translucent green eyes, live in a two-roomed hovel at the end of a long,
narrow passageway that winds its way off the street. The Spartan abode
is a cool refuge from Pinars heat. Madera sees between seven and
eight clients per day but he says demand for his services has gradually
increased in recent years. Sometimes he goes to a Santeros house
to perform a caracol or a limpia, the Santeria counseling and cleansing
ceremonies, but usually worshippers come to see him.
off your shoes and place your feet on the mat," Madera says to
a client as he prepares for caracol. They are in the back room of his
house. The sharp scent of urine fills the room a reminder of
the small pig theyre raising in the corner. "It only costs
a few hundred pesos to buy one when theyre young," Madera
says, referring to the pig. After only a few months of eating whatever
scraps of food the family can muster, the piglet will soon be fat enough
to butcher and eat.
While the young
woman sits erect on a chair, her bare feet on the straw mat, Madera
puts on a red and black velvet beret that he reserves for such ceremonies.
do you call that hat?" I ask.
he replies, the corner of his mouth curling into a smile. But the headgear
is only a small part of the Maderas arsenal of religious paraphernalia.
The dilapidated piano that juts out from the undersized kitchen is saddled
with religious shrines, or soperas, dedicated to a motley array of orishas
Obbata, the god of power and health, Chango, the god of morality,
Yemaya the goddess of water.
his and the womans hands with white chalk and asks her to place
a bill on the pile of shells and stones in the center of the mat.The
monetary gift is a crucial element in Santeria ceremonies and
one that Evangelicals criticize. "Money and religion dont
mix," Damien says. "He can only say what he understands,"
Madera says, responding to the criticism. He says Santeria isnt
a get-rich-quick scheme for babalaos. "Santeria is for everyone,"
he adds. Most of the clients money is used to buy the tobacco,
rum and sometimes animals that are offered to the orishas in various
ceremonies. "Its not like in the United States," Madera
says. "If I were living there, Id be a millionaire from all
the money Americans pay to those telephone psychics."
throws the stones, shells and money onto the mat as he chants to the
orishas. The shells that land face-up are speaking; the ones that land
face down are not. He studies the patterns, and offers the woman his
advice. "You are generally healthy, but if you feel a pain in your
abdomen, go to the doctor it could be your ovaries
are trustworthy and people are attracted to you. But be very careful
with some of them, especially lesbians, homosexuals and drunks."
Evangelicals criticisms dont end with the Santeros. Relations
with the Catholics have also been strained. They view Catholicism as
a tired religion that relies on rehearsed prayers and arcane traditions
to bring salvation and theyve taken their critique to the
streets. In Havana, an Evangelical group recently passed out religious
pamphlets after Sunday mass in front of Santa Rita, one of the largest
churches in the country.
by Mimi Chakarova
mind if theyre handing out pamphlets in front of the store or
in front of military housing or wherever," said Jaoquin Bello,
a layman volunteer for the church, his tight polo shirt straining to
contain his round belly, "but after our masses? No."
just count numbers and say enough," Father Aguilar
says back in Pinar, adding that Evangelicals are too preoccupied with
their official membership numbers. Aguilar, a chubby patriarch of a
man who begins most of his comments with "Well, my son," continues
on. "You have to evangelize, but we try not to do it with fear
or aggression. We try to educate with love and with God and love
is often fleeting in Pinars churches and the towns religious
leaders find themselves bickering over the particulars of faith. Aguilar
believes that communication is as imperative as boosting church memberships,
but he says the Evangelicals have been stubborn. The Catholic Church,
he says, has invited Damien and other Evangelical leaders to discuss
the state of religion in Pinar del Rio as well as the possibility of
coordinating small charity programs. The offer, he says, has been declined.
"Dialogue between the churches is very important," Aguilar
says leaning back in his rocking chair. "But it takes two sides.
We have demonstrated good faith
they have not. I hope that relations
unlikely for now. "There is a famous Cuban saying," Rojas,
the Baptist reverend says as his five-year-old son uses a sword to attack
stuffed animals at his feet, "A good wall makes a good neighbor."
Damien agrees. "I dont want to criticize. There are many
Catholics that are very sincere in their religion I was Catholic
before I found the Evangelicals when I was fourteen. But you cant
erase history. The Inquisition was brutal," he says, referring
to the Catholic Churchs purging of Jews and other minorities in
fifteenth century Europe. "Theyve invited us to these meetings,
but we dont go," he adds, sipping on a glass of watered-down
juice a common beverage in these times of scarcity. Damien says
the Catholics history of global politicizing has damaged their
relationship with God. "The Catholics are diplomats. Politics and
religion shouldnt be mixed."
But the squabbling
hasnt deterred locals from practicing religion. And for some pinarenos,
the particulars of each church arent important. "I go to
the Baptist church often," says Mary Baez Iglesia, an elderly woman
with dyed, jet-black hair and pearly white dentures who lives around
the corner from Rojas church. When she hears that Im investigating
religion, she disappears into her bedroom to dig up her old bible. It
takes her several minutes to locate the worn, paperback volume that
looks as old and dusty as her pre-Revolutionary house. Iglesia was raised
Catholic, but stopped practicing during the Revolution. In recent years,
however, religion has beckoned once again. "The Baptist church
is very beautiful," she says, as her non-religious husband grunts
under the worn bill of his baseball cap, "But I go to the Catholic
Church a lot too. I just like it, with all the singing and the mass."
churches isnt always so easy. And with many Cubans practicing
religion for the first time, differing beliefs have created internal
family strife. Jeremiah, a thirty-something Assembly of God member who
is always flashing a broad smile, joined Damiens church four years
ago along with his mother, two brothers, wife and daughter. Damien introduced
him as a convert; "he used to be a Santero
a drunk and a
Baptist church is very beautiful," she says, as her non-religious
husband grunts under the worn bill of his baseball cap, "But
I go to the Catholic Church a lot too. I just like it, with all
the singing and the mass."
face drops slightly behind his smile. "Yeah, I used to be a Santero,
but that was all I knew. I didnt know Christ and I didnt
know it was diabolical." But he still has a brother and several
friends who are practicing Santeros. He says their religious differences
force them to have many discussions. "He talks and I listen and
then I talk and he listens," Jeremiah explained. "He hasnt
converted yet, but I have faith in Jehovah."
Ramon, a nineteen-year-old
Baptist youth leader, says he joined the church two years ago after
he accepted God into his heart. But now, Ramon is having similar problems
with his secular family. "Its difficult," he said with
a nervous smile, "but now, God is my life. The church is my life.
They dont understand, but Ive had a complete conversion."
Cubans, and especially Cuban youth, are joining churches in part because
they are feeling increasingly disenchanted by the governments
shortcomings and are looking for fulfillment outside of the Revolution.
"Young people feel particularly betrayed," she says. "In
part, this is because the promises of the Revolution and its certainties
are obviously not seen to hold water with these individuals."
doesnt speak so pointedly about the Revolution, but in these times
of scarcity, and with basic medical supplies at a premium, he admits
that stories of Gods healing powers helped peak his interest in
the Baptist church. "There are many examples of God saving children,"
he said, remembering the story of a young boy who was suffering from
a degenerative muscular disease. The boys father, an unbeliever,
brought him to several doctors, to no avail. "But one day,"
Ramon said, "the boy accepted Jesus into his heart, and now hes
in the military," a young newlywed told me in the back of Damiens
church as she flipped through snapshots of her wedding. The woman, in
her early twenties, joined the church with her fiancee a year ago
now theyre the only Christians in her family. She doesnt
oppose the Revolution, but she says parts of it frustrate her. "You
cant have any religion in the military and thats been a
huge stress on our relationship."
So now, many
young Cubans are looking for promises and certainties in churches like
Rojas. On most Sundays, the faithful are forced to jockey for
position outside his temple so they can peer in through the open-air
windows that flank the building. One churchgoer said it was only a matter
of time before more pinarenos started practicing religion. "After
the Revolution, el comandante said we couldnt practice anymore.
But we kept pushing," he added, thrusting his elbow at an invisible
a flip side to Evangelical growth. Despite the influx of young people,
its been difficult for the churches in Pinar del Rio to recruit
middle-aged members. Damien says attracting men of 35 years or older
to the church has been especially daunting. "They have work or
theyre in the armed forces," he explains.
the older generation is simply coming from a different place. "These
are the people who participated in literacy campaigns, they received
health care and they do remember pre-Revolutionary Cuba," Crahan
said. Their feelings are "things have gone bad, but you cant
blame the Revolution."
young Cubans are looking for promises and certainties in churches
But politics and religion are becoming inexorably intertwined. As Cubans
continue to scramble for basic necessities, they have become increasingly
dependent on churches to provide clothing, medicines and even food to
make up for the governments shortcomings. Now religious leaders
find themselves walking a precarious line between providing spiritual
and physical fulfillment and angering Castros government.
Damiens hands still tremble when he speaks about the state. He
suddenly looks all of his 60 years and uses hushed tones as he talks
about how difficult it has been for him to be a Christian in Cuba. Damien
and his wife first took over the church in Pinar del Rio in 1984 and
for several months they ate nothing but the rations of rice, beans and
five eggs they were allotted from the bodega each month. They avoided
the black market like the plague, refusing to supplement their diet
with additional eggs or meat as many Cubans do because
they felt they were under constant suspicion. "One day my wife
just put her head down on the table and cried out This is so hard,
why are we doing this?"
has to change here," Damien continues, his brow knotted in concern.
"Before, when the Soviets were around, we had everything, everyone
was for socialism. But now we have very little. Its nothing for
you to offer us aspirin, but you cant imagine how many people
come to me every week asking for aspirin or some other medicine."
And still, he says, its not completely safe to be a Christian.
"See that man over there?" Damien asks, pointing a careworn
finger at an elderly man at the back of the church, "Hes
in the police
You dont know what its like to live
as a foreigner, as an enemy, in your own country."
is tired of being the enemy. He laments over simple things. "You
know how difficult it is for me to go to Havana?" he asks, referring
to the travel expenses and the inability for most Cubans to stay in
a hotel. But even if he had the money, it doesnt matter he says.
"You have to have relatives to stay with or the government is suspicious.
Even going to our beaches for a visit is impossible. Theyre only
for the tourists now."
Madera and the others stop short of saying that their churches are hot
beds of dissident organizing. "Santeria is a religion of peace
and healing," Madera says. "It cant be about rebellion."
know if there are dissidents in the church because we dont ask,"
Damien whispered one afternoon from inside his darkened, empty temple.
"Thats very dangerous. We dont mix politics with religion."
Rojas agrees. "Theres no room for anything but the bible
in my church."
He may be right,
and many Evangelicals believe thats how the government wants to
keep it. To accommodate their growing communities, Rojas and Damien
have solicited construction permits from the government to build new
temples for their respective churches. Both have been rejected. The
state routinely denies such permits, forcing many groups to open informal
facilities in members houses. Many Evangelicals see these denials
as a way for the government to control religious growth on the island.
at us, we have to hold classes outside," Rojas says from the small
vacant lot behind his church where he someday hopes to build a new temple.
Small groups of Sunday school students sat scattered around the yard
discussing the days gospel some huddled beneath an ancient
tree while others leaned against the whitewashed wall of a makeshift
And space is
even tighter at the Assembly of God. Damien lives with his wife in a
tiny apartment above the church. The couple hopes to convert their small
storage area into a much needed temple addition. Theyre still
waiting for a permit. "Here, theres only one employee, the
government," Damien said. "In one way or another, it always
comes back to the government."
To deal with
space shortages, Damien says his church has opened "preaching points"
in members houses throughout the province. The Assembly of God
has established 890 preaching points across the island. But still, Damien
says officials will shut meetings down if more than 15 people are present.
Now the church constantly rotates the meetings between different living
rooms. Johnson, the churchs Caribbean director, says the government
also tries to exert control over his church by grossly misrepresenting
membership to downplay its impact on the island. Official numbers report
83,000 baptized Assembly of God members in Cuba, but Johnson says there
are tens of thousands more practitioners.
Father Aguilar also feels discrimination despite Cuba having become
a lay state. "The method of oppression has just changed,"
Aguilar says. "Now the government uses more psychological repression
than physical," he adds, referring to government policies that
still restrict complete religious freedom. The state routinely shuts
down religious meetings in homes, for example, citing laws that limit
the number of people allowed to congregate in private locations. "Perhaps
its changed in the sense that people can breathe easier, but its
not, Cubas Catholic Church isnt the same organization that
involved itself with the Latin American Revolutionary movements of the
seventies and eighties. Although the majority of priests supported Castros
Revolution, much of the hierarchy was in line with Batista and fled
the island in 1959. "The churches keep their distance from dissidents,"
Crahan said. She says liberation theology hasnt taken hold in
Cuba. Crahan remembers a recent conversation with a Cuban; "I asked
him about liberation theology, and he responded What do we need
that for? Weve already had our Revolution."
think there are only two options," he says, holding up his
pinkie and index finger. "To be for the Revolution or against
the Revolution. But theres a third way," he added while
extending his thumb, "to be a Christian."
Evangelicals have organized several events to spread Gods word.
Last year the Assembly of God and other churches held an Evangelical
religious rally in Pinar del Rios nearby baseball stadium. But
the Catholics, Damien said, werent invited. The gathering came
on the heels of a Protestant rally in Havana that drew more than 100,000
Cubans. "If the Pope could do it, so could we," Damien said
with a chuckle, referring to the 1998 papal mass that drew hundreds
of thousands of Cubans. "We had to prove that we werent inferior."
Despite prohibiting private gatherings of more than 15 worshippers,
the government has permitted the occasional release valves of religious
American churches have shown their support by establishing relationships
with their Cuban counterparts to help them cope with scarcity on the
island. Pastors for Peace has been delivering "friendshipments"
to Cuba since 1992. In Havana, two American school buses from Pastors
for Peace San Francisco were recently parked in front of a Baptist church.
They were covered with social-political statements painted in bright,
multi-colored letters written in English: "This bus is going to
Cuba with medicine in defiance of the unjust US created embargo on Cuba."
And on the back bumper, "Be a real Revolutionary
relationships have allowed many churches to provide much needed clothing
and medicine to some Cubans, and in these times of scarcity, foreign
donations can be a boon for local memberships. "If one minister
has a car or a school, hell be more popular," Crahan said.
"Of course economics influence membership," says Rojas. "If
you have a bible to read and there are fans around to keep you cool,
you will enjoy church more." But hes quick to note that people
are drawn to modest temples as well. "Look at us," he says,
"we have to hold classes outside."
Even in Pinar,
some religious leaders have traveled to the United States to foster
these relationships and speak about conditions in Cuba. Rojas has visited
several times, and has been invited twice to First Baptist Church in
Archdale, North Carolina to preach and to receive "love offerings"
of medicines, bibles and other necessities to distribute to his congregation.
Although Rojas still has several friends at First Baptist, he was shocked
by the state of the Baptist faith in the United States. "They havent
lost their vision," he says, "But there is also great weakness.
People work too much. They worry too much. Materialism has corrupted
just a whole lot more staunch in his beliefs," says Gary Green,
a First Baptist Church member in Archdale, adding that he was a bit
ashamed that his brethren drank and smoked in Rojas presence.
also fostered relationships abroad. He has visited Assembly of God Churches
in Los Angeles and Las Vegas ("People arent meant to live
in those conditions," he said, commenting on the desert heat),
and Father Aguilar has spent many months in Miami most of them
while recovering from knee surgery.
religions ever-changing role in Cuba and its ability
to provide for some where the government cannot its difficult
to know if churches will prove to be a major point of resistance against
Castro. "Im not going to predict what is going to happen,"
Crahan says. "Churches are stepping in to fill that void within
their means. Their overseas connections and access to money make them
prime candidates to do so."
In Cuba politics
are life, but for Damien there are alternatives. "People think
there are only two options," he says, holding up his pinkie and
index finger. "To be for the Revolution or against the Revolution.
But theres a third way," he added while extending his thumb,
"to be a Christian."
And for Jeremiah,
thats getting easier every day. "Before, it was impossible
to be Christian you couldnt get a job, people made fun
of you," he said. But now, Jeremiah greets people in his neighborhood
with "May God bless you," the familiar Christian salutation.
"Its so much better. People ask me Are you a Christian?
So am I!" Jeremiah isnt alone. He and
the others hold great hopes for the future of their churches as religion
is reborn in Pinar del Rio.
is about to start," says a plump man donning a Catedral San Rosendo
T-shirt in front of Father Aguilars church. Hes waving the
faithful into the colonial temple, now just a shell of its former grandeur,
floating on a sea of brown grass.
A few blocks
away, Madera thinks about how he will one day pass the knowledge of
the orishas on to his son, like his uncle did to him. He is comforted
in knowing that the legacy and the faith will continue.
remembers his brothers that have left Cuba for the United States in
the hopes that they could practice their faith in peace. He thinks about
them, and about his experiences at home, and he knows he is where he
Aguilars church, neighbors greet each other with handshakes and
kisses. A young mother shows off her newborn to the congregation under
the watchful eyes of the wax saints enshrined throughout the temple.
Aguilar stands in front of the Cuban flag on the altar and looks out
on his community.
And Rojas sits
at the head of the table to leads his family in grace, thinking about
the message of his last sermon: Christ doesnt control our lives,
he only tries to direct us, like a bridle does a horse.
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