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Church revolution birthed in Cuba 45 years after political revolution begins

   
 


Idelsy Olano, Andres Olivares, and Madelin Ramos (l-r). Olanos is testing a call to ministry for one year under the tutelage of Ramos, who is also the vice president of the Missionary Evangelical Church in Cuba. Olivares is president.

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February 9, 2005
-story and photos by Dan Dyck

Holguin, Cuba — At 60 years old, Pastor Andres Olivares was planning his retirement. Instead, he is following a call to shepherd a new, and as yet unregistered, church in Cuba.

The soft spoken, gently mannered father of three daughters and one son formerly led a Baptist congregation of 1000 members in the mining city of Moa for many years and served for a time as president of the Baptist convention in Cuba. In recent years he has found a new, spiritual bond in Anabaptist heritage – a bond he feels is already leading to an exciting new alternative for Christians in Cuba.

Trained at a Baptist seminary in Cuba over three decades ago, Olivares has seen the fruits of the political revolution that began in 1959 – a revolution that also froze the church in time.

The son of coffee farming parents, Olivares became a Christian in 1948, studied and worked in agriculture for a time before being drawn to a theological education. He was briefly out of the country when tensions between church and government peaked in 1963, resulting in the imprisonment of many church leaders. On his return to Cuba, he kept a low profile, and found a teaching job – a position he eventually lost because of his Christian beliefs and background.

While his country began a political revolution in 1959 that has led to improved economic conditions for the masses, the church in Cuba is beginning its own revolution now. “Cuba has focused on two very basic fundamental things every human being requires and has a right to in their life. One is education and one is medical attention,” said Olivares through a translator.

“We believe that the Christian faith teaches us [about] two huge directions that the church needs to be involved in, one upward in its relationship with God, and one horizontally in its commitment to people. These are values that we share with the [political] revolution even though [the government] moves toward these values with a secular mentality. We move toward these values with a Christian mentality.”

In the emerging Evangelical Missionary Church of which Olivares is the current president, believers are encouraged to read and analyze scriptures for themselves – a significant shift from the Cuban Protestant tradition of having the gospel interpreted by key leaders from a pulpit.

At a gathering of the Rose of Sharon congregation at a member’s home near town of Las Tunas, Pastor Madelin Ramos has the worshippers break up into small groups. She assigns a portion of scripture from Mark to each group, and asks them to respond to a set of questions about the seed and the sower. Their responses will later be acted out in impromptu dramas.

 


Learning tour participants Anne Winter, Alex Janzen, Nyle Martin, Marlene Ens, Jack Suderman, and Werner Ens, together with the rest of the congregations, join two junior youth and their Sunday School leader in song.

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This form of participatory worship and Bible study, “… is pure revolution in itself” in Cuban church circles, says Jack Suderman, executive secretary of Mennonite Church Canada Witness. Suderman has been visiting Cuba regularly since 1988, and has presented annual teaching seminars to local leaders since 1994.

Combining worship and Bible teaching is in a large way driving the excitement and growth of the Evangelical Missionary Church in Cuba – a group that has decided to adopt as their own the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective – and encourages believers to delve into the meaning of the words on the page in a way few have engaged with scripture before. This distinction is not lost on Ramos.

“The importance [given] to the study of the Bible and getting from the verses the most they can… for me it is a great experience because it has made me realize about the need I have to study the Bible and extract all the juice. You could see in the faces [of the worshippers] how they learn more by this methodology,” she said.

 


A member of the congregation in Baire, Cuba, greets Trudy Federau in the traditional Cuban way.

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Ramos, a Christian of twelve years, has already begun three congregations in the Las Tunas area. Humble, wise, articulate in English and Spanish, this extraordinary 36 year-old single women simply loves people into faith.

Her style is humble, straight forward, unassuming, firm when it needs to be, forgiving, and full of grace. It is little wonder that people of all backgrounds find themselves drawn to her. She appears equally at home talking to strangers on the street or fellow believers in their homes.

In a five day tour of seven churches, she slips with ease into various roles: interpreter, greeter, preacher, worship leader, music leader, and accompanist (she plays both piano and guitar).

Part of a family of five, Ramos says she was the first to become a Christian. “I was the first one, and my family followed me. But it was a process. I had to pray a lot for them,” she says, noting that her parents have always had deep roots in the Catholic church.

The parallels between the vision of the political revolution, such as education and healthcare for all, and the vision of the gospels, are evident for Ramos and Olivares.

“Good works are very important,” says Ramos, but are no substitute for the humility required for confession and repentance. “… but the most important thing is to confess our sins and to repent."

 

Musical instruments in Cuba are a rare and sought after commodity. A percussionist leads an all-rhythm worship band in Moa, Cuba, on a drum kit that is held together with all manner of skins, springs, wire, and custom made wooden foot pedal parts.

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The Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba is just ten years old, and already has 23 pastors and 28 congregations – plus numerous new church plants. Since its inception it has doubled membership every year through a simple strategy: each member brings one person a year to the church.

Ask a local pastor about the vision for his or her congregation, and the answer is consistent: to reach out, to grow the church. Rather than base goals on numerical numbers, they use strategies that involve a multiplying effect to produce leaders so that more congregations are planted and nurtured in a pattern that radiates out from a geographic core.

Their biggest need is leadership training – an effort that has Suderman and others delivering week long Anabaptist theology training workshops to a growing cadre of leaders each year. Demand for these workshops increases each year, in part because mainstream protestant theological schools have begun accepting only students that belong to their affiliated denominations.

Idelsy Olano, a thirty-year old who came to faith four years ago as a result of a prayer visitation from Ramos is hoping to attend the next workshop in the fall of 2005. She pulls me aside after a warm Sunday afternoon worship service to tell me, through a translator, the importance of Mennonite Church Canada’s leadership development work in Cuba. “The methods we are learning are helping us explore the gospel in new ways,” she exclaims, beaming. Olano herself hopes to pursue ministry fulltime, despite the church’s inability to support her financially. She is shadowing Ramos for a one year trial period to test her calling, and relying on her husband’s income as an athletic cycling trainer to supplement the 15 day ration supplied each month by the state.

Over time, government-church relations have become considerably friendlier than they were four decades ago, said Olivares.

“First of all, the revolution itself has recognized officially that it has made significant errors in the process of engaging the revolution to the point where the decade of the 80’s was declared by the government as being a decade of correcting the errors of the past, correcting the errors of the revolution that they had made up to that point. The 1960’s and the 1970’s were two decades where there was a lot of tension between the church and state.

“There was tremendous miscomprehension, misunderstanding. The church misunderstood the intentions of the state and the state misunderstood the intentions of the church and that caused a lot of conflict and tension…It was not at all common for a communist party member or a [member of the] youth communist party to attend a church until the decade of the 1990’s. The government noticing the sincerity and integrity of the Christian church and its leaders began to change, and in 1992 there was a major philosophical shift in terms of how the state understands its role in society.”

“So now in the constitution there is an article which says that the government recognizes, guarantees, and respects the right of every Cuban to have the religion they want, that they can change religions, or not to have any religion at all. So now it is possible for a Christian person to be a member of the communist party or for a member of the communist party to be a member of the church. At this moment the relationship between the church and state is magnificent,” said Olivares.

One year ago authorities asked the church to help them deal with addictions in society. “The government is recognizing that there is a place for religion,” he adds, noting that that four government authorities have been selected to represent the churches to government. “The revolution has been making concessions,” he says confidently.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Missionary Church of Cuba is pursuing the legal process of registering the church with the appropriate government authorities – a process leaders are hopeful will be completed this spring. Official recognition of the church by authorities will make leadership and church development an easier task, and allow them to establish permanent meeting places outside of members’ homes.

Olivares has a message for the congregations of Mennonite Church Canada. “We very closely identify with the theological, ethical, missiological vision that we have received from the Mennonite Church so far.

“We would like you to talk to your congregations about how grateful we are for the way Mennonite Church Canada is helping us in the formation of our leaders. The work … has been very highly esteemed, and very highly appreciated by the pastors and the leaders of the church. You should also cite 1 Corinthians 15:58 to your congregations where it says that the work that you are doing, the ministry you are doing, is not in vain and will not be in vain.”