By Brian Koonce
HAVANA, Cuba – As the plane was making its final approach into José Martí Airport, something about the sight of moonlit Havana struck Ken McCune as odd: It was dark.
“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “Usually when you’re coming into a city at night – even in Third World countries, the city is all lit up. You can make the connection to spiritual darkness. There just isn’t much light, and the light there was sparse.”
McCune, multicultural church planting strategist for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), and Luis Mendoza, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Palabra Vida (Living Word Baptist Church) in Kansas City, traveled to the Havana neighborhood of San José de las Lajas Sept. 2-9. It was not a traditional mission trip, nor was it an MBC-sponsored trip, but was a personal vision trip and a chance to connect with family of members of Palabra Vida. The relatives of those at Palabra Vida are the core group at la Iglesia San José de las Lajas, and the Missouri pair joined with them in several worship services as well as evangelism.
“We had a lot of interaction with the youth,” McCune said. “They have a very strong youth group at that church. They were very outgoing and had a lot of fun. We established a lot of relationships.”
McCune and Mendoza saw seven people accept Christ during the time they were in the country.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation of 11 million, and Americans are not permitted to travel there – even through a third country such as Mexico or Canada – without a special license. McCune and Mendoza received a religious worker license from the U.S. State Department and a visa from the Cuban government. The U.S. has had a trade embargo on the Caribbean nation since 1961.
“Going through customs was very strange,” McCune said. “It’s different. In fact, it was very, very different. They don’t stamp your passport, so it was almost like you were never there.”
Cuba’s constitution defines the state as secular and most people fall into that category. The constitution recognizes the right of citizens to freedom of religion, but according to the U.S. State Department, the government de facto restricts that freedom.
Twenty-five denominations are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC). Most CCC members are officially recognized by the state, and the government does not favor any one particular religion or church; however, the government appears to be most tolerant of those churches that maintain close relations to the state through the CCC. Unregistered religious groups experience various degrees of official interference, harassment and repression, according to the U.S. State Department. The Ministry of Interior engages in active efforts to control and monitor the country’s religious institutions, including through surveillance, infiltration and harassment of religious professionals and practitioners. The most independent religious organizations – including the Catholic Church, the largest independent institution in Cuba today – continue to operate under significant restrictions and pressure imposed on them by the Cuban regime, State Department research indicates.
Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), a non-profit, inter-denominational Christian organization dedicated to assisting the persecuted church, lists Cuba as a “restricted nation.” VOM says that in the 1960s, Castro promised to rid the country of religion within 10 years. Forty-eight years later, there are eight times more Christians than before. Out of the population of 11 million, nearly one million are believers. According to VOM, strict regulations against house churches went into effect in September 2005, prohibiting a church from being located within a mile and a quarter of another of the same denomination and restricting meetings to three per week. Other regulations require strict building permits for constructing new churches, and these permits are never granted. Christians circumvent these rules by building church buildings without walls.
“The Catholic church is there, but it’s not very strong,” McCune said. “The Catholics that are there are largely Catholic in name only. I think there’s something in people that it doesn’t matter if you tell them God doesn’t exist. There’s that spiritual hunger. God’s Church is still there and it’s going to keep going.”
There are four different Baptist Groups, including one that relates closely to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). McCune said the Church is not hidden or underground, and has signs proclaiming that it is indeed a church.
“From what I observed, it’s not forbidden to have church, but it’s definitely not encouraged, he said. “Your time is filled up with work or ideology. I never sense that you couldn’t be a Christian. There are probably some limitations, but I didn’t recognize them, and it certainly hasn’t killed the Church’s thirst for God. If the day ever comes where there is real openness, I think there might be real revival.”
The idea of “openness” leads to a question for any American traveling in a communist country that is as obvious as it is broad: What was it like?
“It was like stepping back in time,” he said. “The whole environment was different. You’ve probably seen the old cars they’re using. If they were in a parade in the U.S. instead of being used everyday we’d call them classics. The people outside the church we dealt with weren’t overly friendly, but they were cordial. I got the idea that you were supposed to make things look good for the outsiders. The local pastor shared that there was a subsidized store where you could buy rice, beans or sugar, but a lot of times it wasn’t enough to last the month. When they go to the non-subsidized store, even the basic things are very expensive.”
After hearing of toilet paper shortages in Cuba, McCune peeked into an airport restroom and sure enough, the stalls were empty. Other things many Americans consider basic were not available. They were able to send e-mails home, but it was not a direct connection to the Internet and was filtered through the government’s Intranet and was most likely screened before being sent on.
“That’s definitely cutting off sources of information from the outside world,” McCune said. “Most of the people who are there have lived their whole lives under Castro and don’t know anything different. If you’re 60 years old, you would have been 10 at the time of the revolution. It’s what they know and they accept it. Socialism is the overwhelming ideology and I think they believe things are good.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution in Cuba and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. McCune said the preeminence of the Communist Party was obvious.
“All throughout Central America you’ll see signs for different political parties everywhere,” he said. “Everyone has their party colors on signs, billboards, painted on rocks or murals. Here, that didn’t exist. There wasn’t even much advertising for products. It was all ‘The Party,’ celebrating the revolution and people like Che Guevara, or signs encouraging people to work and be united.”
It was far from an easy trip home. Since no U.S. airlines offer service to Cuba, McCune and Mendoza had to book their trip through Cancun, Mexico. There was no problem leaving Havana, but once they landed in Cancun, things began going wrong. First the fuel indicator on their plane malfunctioned. Then, just as it was repaired, a Bolivian hijacker took over another plane at the airport and threatened to detonate a bomb. The hijackers were soon arrested by Mexican authorities and no one was injured, but every plane at every airport in Mexico had to be offloaded and searched before air traffic could resume.
“We didn’t know exactly what had happened,” McCune said. “Our pilot just told us there had been a security breach and we needed to get off the plane. Pretty soon, though, the people starting checking on their cell phones and we knew what was going on.”
McCune urged people to remember the people of Cuba and specifically Iglesia San José de las Lajas in their prayers.
“Pray that their eyes will be open to the complete Word of God,” he said, “and that they would have the discernment to know how to share. I think there could be revival if things were more open, but it could happen without. God does things that man tries to squelch, but He can do it anyway.”