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Small ministry investment reaps big results in Cuba

   

April 19, 2004
-by Dan Dyck

 


Pastor Andres Olivares leads the house church Casa Culto, in Havana, Cuba. His daughter Carmen looks on.

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Pastor Andres Olivares, leader of the Iglesia Evangélica Misionera de Cuba specifically thanked Mennonite Church Canada donors for the funds that allowed them to refurbish this piano for a house church in Havana.

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Winnipeg, Man.— A total Mennonite Church Canada Witness investment of $15,000 since 2002 is having a significant impact in Cuba.

The Ministries Commission of the former Conference of Mennonites in Canada (now Mennonite Church Canada Witness) began visiting Cuba in 1999 in response to an invitation of the Iglesia Evangélica Misionera de Cuba (IEMC). Now, Cuban church leaders have adopted the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as their own. MC Canada Witness has also delivered teaching materials and presented teaching modules on Anabaptist centered faith, leadership development and biblical reflection. Since 1996 the church has set a vision of growth based on a simple strategy: each member will invite one person to church each year.

According to reports from IEMC church leaders, the strategy seems to be working. The IEMC has grown from one lone congregation to more than 25, most of which are cramped for space. Across the country, the Christian Protestant church has grown 5 fold since 1992, when Cuba left behind its status as an officially atheist country. Today, one can find articles about faith in the on-line magazine Cuba Socialista, a self described “Theoretical and Political Magazine founded by Fidel Castro in 1961and edited by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.” (http://www.cubasocialista.cu/indexeng.html)

The Western world knows a Cuba popularized in the media – as a highly regulated society. But by Latin American standards, the state has brought a degree of equality to the people that is unknown in countries like Haiti or Colombia. The government offers certain social benefits to its entire people at minimal cost to individuals: these include university level education, food education and basic food rations, healthcare, including vaccinations, for all, and employment opportunities.

Janet Plenert, executive director of International Ministries for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, recently visited Cuban church leaders, and returned filled with enthusiasm and hope for the church. She reported that interest in Christianity and the church is at an all time high.

In Havana she met Pastor Andrés Olivares, leader of the IEMC. He specifically thanked her for the Canadian funds that helped repair their broken down piano, built one of their few church buildings, and provided Bibles and commentaries to pastors. When speaking of the workshops that Jack Suderman (MC Canada Witness executive secretary) has lead over the past 4 years, Olivares said “Please tell your churches that they are an important part of every life that is transformed in our churches. Please thank them for us.”

Plenert also participated in a Lectura Popular de la Biblia, an inter-church bible study attended by 65 people at which 7 denominations were represented. “Ten years ago this would never have happened, yet now the Martin Luther King centre organizes several per year,” said Plenert. The Martin Luther King Centre has been a central connecting point in bringing together the Cuban church with other international church groups.

Plenert also learned about Mennonites in Holguin, the Conservative Mennonite Brethern of Cuba. “Perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip was to discover that there are 3 legally registered Mennonite congregations. These are very conservative groups with a baptized membership of sixteen. Women wear veils and simple dresses, men wear moustaches and beards. They cannot use radio or TVs. They began about 10 years ago.” she said.

Plenert notes that there currently is a window of opportunity in Cuba “… to openly share in the gospel and to help shape the formation of Christian communities.” When asked if it was difficult to share God’s word and bring people to Christ, leaders all said it was very easy. But local leaders know that this window will not stay open indefinitely. “People are trying on the church to see if it is relevant, meaningful, integral,” adds Plenert. “They have all the passion and conviction needed to plant and lead churches, but they lack solid leadership training and are asking for our help in this area.”

Local leaders say that church growth is no problem, but they are now holding numerical growth together with qualitative growth, said Plenert. During a workshop with pastors and leaders, conversation coalesced on a few needs that are critical in the rapidly growing church: leadership training; literature and study resources; worship buildings (the state sees low value in churches occupying land); transportation for pastors and missionaries (bicycles); and music and youth support.

Plenert has made several recommendations for Mennonite Church Canada Witness to continue ministry in Cuba. These include continuing regular teaching and encouragement visits and committing to a 4 year program of teaching two courses per year. The courses would focus on Anabaptist content with a certificate in leadership training.