The tang of the fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and the bouquet of moist avocados still linger in my memory. I can still hear the sounds of squeaking bicycle wheels and smell the stench of highway diesels. Now, Proust-like, I sit in New Jersey trying to reconstruct my times past in Cuba.
Invited late last year by the Methodist Bishop of Cuba to address the Ecumenical Seminary at Matanzas, I went to listen to the voices of Cuban Christians. My motive: to attend carefully to the specific timbre of their voices, to hear exactly what they were saying, and to bring their thoughts to a North American audience.
It is difficult for non-Cuban Americans to get into Cuba except by specific invitation. Thus for years there was a motley parade of ecclesial sycophants making their way to the country to pay homage to Fidel and condemn American policy. Knowing that I could not even pretend to do the same, I was relieved to discover that it was no longer necessary. Formerly, the only link between Cuban evangelical congregations and the North American Christian laity had been an ultra- liberal church bureaucracy whose liberation theology rhetoric had now come to sound extremely dated and passe to Cubans, with the result that communication had become rather disjointed between Cuban postrevolutionary Christian revivalism and American church bureaucrats.
The posters in Havana’s Jose Marti Airport gave me my first glimpse of a seismic shift taking place in Cuban consciousness. Near the airport one could see faded Spartan red and black posters declaring “Socialism or Death.” But in the airport proper one found freshly painted murals of scuba divers, surfers, colonial architecture, and exciting night life-a frank appeal to tourism.
I was never once hungry in Cuba. The staple foods are a delicious rice and black beans, a lot of fresh fruit, many textures of breads. Then there is that marvelous Cuban ice cream.
I was reminded of my boyhood days in Oklahoma in the thirties. We never once thought of ourselves as poor, though Oklahoma was as hard hit as any state by the depression. Cuban parents are similarly proud as they engage in a constant battle to provide enough calories for their families. Many material goods are, of course, simply unavailable. What is learned in an economy like this is: you get by, you invent. You enjoy what you can-everyone in Cuba, for instance, seems to enjoy dancing. When I was a kid, we never threw anything away, and repeatedly recycled what we had. That is what Cuba feels like to me. Under these conditions you become very creative. Take automobiles, for example. They are kept running for decades after their contemporaries have disappeared from Miami streets.
In Matanzas City I walk past a movie theater whose paint is peeling on the outside, but inside its lobby remains daringly elegant, with its marble floors, mahogany furniture, and a graceful old Spanish colonial ambience. A hand-made sign announced the next movie: Falling in Love in the USA -in color.
I step into a dank and dimly lit government food store, where powdered milk is going for two pesos per kilo, but only when available. The rice was advertised as imported. Other prices listed were sugar, black beans, and onions. Very little stock was visible. Next door an orthopedic shoe was priced at twenty-three pesos, other shoes for fifteen. A few doors down was the Vietnam Bookstore, with titles displayed such as The History of Precapitalist Economy , How to Build a House , a medical textbook, and The More Transparent Region by Carlos Fuentes.
Unforgettable for me was the sight of the lean faces of Cubans looking into the window of a “dollar store,” gazing upon the consumer world of soap and perfume and electronics from which they are barred. Since I had dollars, I was permitted into this elite supermarket world of glimmering goods, as hungry faces peered in through the glass. Still, this does not seem to be greatly diminishing their actual levels of happiness. Consumer goods seem far less important to the scale of happiness than North American consumers take them to be. I see a young couple holding hands as they walk by. What else do they need? They have each other.
Yet any statement one makes about Cuba always seems in the next breath to be partly wrong, crying out for qualification the moment after it is observed. Every accurate report thus has to be dialectical, descriptive of unfolding juxtapositions.
Many factories and businesses are either closed or working half time, due to the oil shortage. I could see oil wells pumping in many places, yet Cuba itself is supplying only about 5 percent of its petroleum needs.
During the Soviet dependency there was never really any unemployment to speak of. Now when a factory is closed down, people may try to find another job, perhaps in agriculture, sometimes with retraining. What makes things so difficult for ordinary families is that the 150-200 pesos the government gives for monthly salary does not supply sufficient calories to survive. 150 pesos trades on the free market for a couple of dollars. Professionals may make 250 pesos, but all they can buy is what is rationed out in the government food stores, whose shelves are often mostly empty. A tube of toothpaste or bar of soap would cost most of one’s monthly salary in pesos-if one could only find it to buy. Even one who has pesos often cannot buy anything with them.
Cubans have become economically creative. They bargain and barter among themselves. They often find ways of pilfering from their jobs, or they hustle as entrepreneurs. If someone works in a factory making coffee, he may find ways of marketing coffee privately. If another works in a plumbing parts factory, he becomes a part-time plumber.
It is no longer illegal to hold dollars; no one is arrested as he would have been a few years ago. But dollars are hard to come by. Tragically, the rapid growth of prostitution is evidence of how desperate young single mothers have become in shifting to a dollar economy.
There are more professionals in Cuba than in any other Latin American country. Anyone can acquire a free education if only he solemnly pledges to rule out all talk of God or any religious premise for social change. But just having an education does not mean you have a job or income.
When I asked a friend how long the people will put up with this, he first reminded me that he could go to jail for answering, and then told me:
Once it was the case that if you did not support the government, you could not get a job or an education. Now more and more are needing less and less from the government to survive. Increasingly the government does not have much more than words to offer. As people depend less and less upon the regime, they have more freedom to think for themselves politically. Cuba may be in the last months or years of this system.
The prevailing ideology is now popularly called not socialism but socio-ism—which means “who you knowism.” Socio means friend. What you get depends on whom you know. If you have a friend who works in a TV factory, for instance, you may have a way to get your TV repaired. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the economy has been reduced to barter and hustle.
No Cubans I met were tempted to counterrevolutionary violence. Only expatriate Cubans fantasize that scenario.
Socialist educational policies have ravaged the family, once the very centerpiece of traditional Cuban life. Young people as a matter of educational policy are separated from their parents for several years at puberty. The kids must leave their families and go off to study socialism and work in rural cooperatives. They are sent to schools far away. But lately the young people are coming back to their families in droves. Like almost everything else in Cuba, the family separation policy is not working.
Free love may not be encouraged, but it is offered no moral restraints by the official ideology. And AIDS has hit Cuba with a vengeance. An HIV-positive readout will thrust one instantly and irreversibly into a permanent quarantine in an isolated sanitarium. Women entering the work force are often separated from their husbands for inordinate periods of time. In short, the nuclear family is in an uphill struggle to survive the assaults of socialist ideology. Still, there is no question that, its damage having been done, that ideology has lost its grip.
It remains precarious to be a postrevolutionary Christian in Cuba. To be sure, believers are gradually becoming less wary of surveillance by the old neighborhood block informers. Still, I was able to tape record many of my conversations with them only after receiving an anguished permission. Some asked not to be recorded at all. Sometimes in the course of a taped conversation I would be asked to turn off my recorder, due to anxiety about the safety and well-being not of the speaker but of his children.
The church itself is getting bolder, however, willing to suffer if necessary for Christ’s sake, just as many Christians are increasingly willing to put their bodies on the line to attest the resurrected Lord. Every adult baptism, for instance, is charged with a sense of great consequence. In this environment, the commitment to personal evangelism ranks above every other objective, far above any political identification. In other words, whatever the future holds for the Cuban government, the Cuban church is becoming clearer about its own particular identity and mission. Any former identification of theology with socialism has by now largely been shattered. Which does not mean that the church has now become a self-conscious counterrevolutionary force, but that its most characteristic form of decisive Christian action is simply to make the gospel of Christ available to the Cuban people.
Moreover, the church has determined to share the desperate poverty created by socialism without relying on outside sources of support. A phrase I heard repeatedly among Cuban Christians is “the church is accompanying the people.”
The metaphor of “accompanying” is contrasted with that of “departing”- applied to those who have left the island. Those who left have irretrievably left not only their wealth and property but their family ties in Cuba. Thus those who remained behind are clearly distinguished from those who departed. On this question we find an almost complete polarization. The diaspora Cubans who left under duress and are committed to returning feel that they have the right to participate in the political future of the island. They have suffered a painful disruption of their lives and families, they still love Cuba, and they want to share in its future. Whereas the “homeland” Cubans feel that those who departed did so voluntarily and most of them will never return from their present lives of ease and prosperity; hence they have no right to participate in the political future of the island. Many have been gone thirty-five years; their kids are hooked on a standard of living and economic expectations that could never be adjusted to the actual conditions in their former homeland. This is the polarity that now vexes the Cuban reality.
Among many devout Catholics and Protestants on the island, however, one can now sense the beginning of a new spirit of reconciliation, not yet strong, but growing: the view that all Cubans, both at home and abroad, belong to one family and must remain so.
Whether the Castro regime stands or falls is a question that the postrevolutionary Christians treat with considerable nonchalance. What does matter to them is whether the church will continue to accompany the people, walking in the Way. Cuban evangelicals now insist on nonidentification with any political ideology. they especially resist being identified with any loose counterrevolutionary talk, having decided to walk patiently with the people who are determined to survive all forms of political messianism, whether of the left or right.
To be sure, there is much anger directed at the old system of socialist education and the failed command economy. Christians remember how some schools founded by the churches were destroyed by mobs. They are mindful of how church properties were vandalized after the revolution, of how the old school in Santa Clara was converted to a Communist Party headquarters. But there is a will to forgive and move on.
Some of these church educational institutions are coming back. There are legal petitions now being submitted to reclaim them rightfully: hospitals, church camps, parochial schools, church buildings, social rehabilitation and mission agencies. In some cases where the original property is not being returned, new options are being made available. The regime is no longer able to ignore the claims of long-suffering church plaintiffs.
The special challenge of the church in these times of spiritual crisis, economic blockade, and physical hunger is to help people understand, especially as they come to realize that the gods of Marxism-Leninism will take them exactly nowhere, the hope that comes from God.
When many Protestant pastors left Cuba following 1959, the lay leadership found itself entirely free to reinvent the church, with the result that the present revival is being led by the laity and the youth rather than by the clergy. The Catholic form of charismatic renewal, like the Protestant, is largely a postrevolutionary youth-led movement. Each month there are 1,600 or so baptisms of Catholic young people. They come from wholly secularist forms of education, knowing almost nothing of Christian symbols or holy writ, but desiring to learn.
And those members of the clergy who remained have been uncommonly courageous about helping to enable this lay renewal-a true lesson in providential missiology.
One of the results of the revolutionary period was the growth of the house-church movement. This was not planned, but an outgrowth of government policies that made it illegal either to renovate churches or start new ones. The faithful learned that they could safely invite people to their homes for prayer, testimony, hymn-singing, and Bible study. Thus the resourcefulness and vitality of the Cuban church has borne undeniable testimony.
One day I spoke with His Excellency, Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana. The archbishop had served in forced labor camps alongside Methodist Bishop Joel Ajo. This seemed a most interesting circumstance. When I asked whether there are any serious bilateral ecumenical conversations between Methodists and Catholics, I got the same answer from the Archbishop as I did from Methodist leaders. There are formally cordial fraternal relations, but since the mid-seventies there have been fairly deep strategic differences between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics feel that the Protestant liberation theologians and the Ecumenical Council have been too snug with Fidelismo. Protestants do not see the Catholics as ready for any significant dialogue, still protecting their privileged prerevolutionary turf. One could not escape the feeling that if Protestants and Catholics could ever get together, the balance of power in Cuba could shift dramatically. The regime undoubtedly delights in watching the old enmities between Protestants and Papists being rekindled. Would a unified Catholic-Protestant voice annoy the regime?, I asked the Archbishop. “I do not ignore the possibility that the government might wish to see greater disunity between Catholics and Protestants, with the purpose of exercising greater control over the religious opposition,” he answered.
How did Catholics view the radical Presbyterian Confession of 1977 that declared participation in the Marxist revolution to be a premise of church membership and an expression of the kingdom of God? Archbishop Ortega: “Protestant liberation theology has never had much impact upon Cuban Catholics. It never resonated very deeply with the Cuban reality.”
As for the serious rekindling of Protestant religion in Cuba, my first glimpse of it was in an Afro-Caribbean Methodist Church on the sprawling fringe of Havana. The church was jam-packed-filled to the brim. Many were young people under twenty-five. Escorted to the front row, I was wedged in as if with a shoehorn. Directly in front of me was an electronic keyboard, a jerry-rigged assortment of archaic percussion instruments, and a jumble of steel guitars and maroon tambourines. Cuban Christian renewal was clearly coming alive to a strong Afro-Caribbean beat.
The black pastor asked for someone to come forward who had never before been to church. A couple brought up an infant-not for baptism, but for earnest prayer looking toward a possible future baptism. Baptism is a clear-cut countercultural decision in Cuba.
The prayer proceeded, and I noticed that a gaggle of neighborhood boys were squinting through the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the action. The communion liturgy was followed by fervid preaching, an invitation to repentance and evangelical faith, and concluding with a healing service that offered prayer for all who were infirm. As “glory singers” led the congregation in impassioned, rafter-raising song, whole families swayed together in heartfelt, rousing praise of the Lord, hands uplifted. An invitation was given for all to offer thanks to God for special graces of recent days.
It was a vivid, unforgettable, live happening of new birth. It could not be fabricated. It was an unaffected, unpretentious work of God the Spirit. The evidences of revival were the fervency of prayers, the intensely felt presence of the Holy Spirit, lives being morally transformed, behavior patterns reconstructed, courageous decisions made. I knew instantly I was a part of this body, and they were living members of the body of Christ in which I live and breathe. You are in my prayers, I said. The white-necked North American walked through the congregation exchanging warm greetings in the Lord.
As the cadence and intensity mounted in exuberance, the lights went off unexpectedly-a frequent irritation of Cuban life today. A bright kerosene lantern was quickly lit and brought in and hung swaying on the ceiling, illuminating the singing, rocking congregation, which never skipped a beat.
The preaching was as impassioned as the praise, its focus being that each one is in a war with Satan. The final outcome at the end of history we already know, but the struggle continues this side of the end in every soul. Each one must do his own battle with Satan. You have never met such an adversary. He presents himself to you as a friend. You cannot afford to be naive about this combat. You will be mocked by others. They will not understand you. They will scold you. But do not be alarmed, and do not complain. These things of the flesh must be understood through the spirit. Rejection is to be expected, even within your own family. You are called now to make a decision, the preacher continued. It could be the most important of your life: Accept Jesus in your heart. Trust him for forgiveness of your sins. The Spirit was ricocheting through the packed hall. Fourteen answered the invitation, willing to put their lives and careers and resources on the line. Several were young people, one a mother with a baby in her arms, another a lean, strong man in khaki working clothes.
The sinner’s prayer brought new life as the penitents prayed with the pastor, repeating each phrase aloud: I repent of my sins. I accept Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I want to be his servant. Give me grace to follow, to engage without complaint in whatever battle is required, to face rejection if necessary, to be faithful unto death. I renounce sin and Satan. I belong to Christ. I want to walk in the way. Lift me up, Lord, from my fallen condition, and present me reconciled to God the Father. Later, many other congregants of all ages came forward for prayer for the sick.
From that moment on, I decided I must not allow myself to be distracted from the most consequential event in Cuba today: the work of the Spirit to reawaken faith in God. I knew that I had to resist the temptation to become fixated on political ephemera when a bona fide religious reawakening was transpiring before my eyes.
Unquestionably a true revival of religion is unfolding. To North American eyes, it appears at first glance to be very charismatic . But on closer inspection the charismata have a distinctively Cuban rhythm and sound and stamp. Later I would discover that this religious revival is affecting the whole spectrum of Christian communities from Roman Catholic to Baptist.
On another occasion, I was invited for pre-breakfast coffee by a venerable professor who had witnessed three generations of change. In his spare apartment, potent black coffee was served in a delicate demitasse.
I asked about spiritual formation in the seminary. “Reading the Bible, allowing the Word of God to address the inner precincts of the heart,” he answered. “This is how the Spirit enables Christians to come alive.”
The churches are full of secular rebounders searching for meaning, he continued. Cuban Christianity is now at a point of development similar to the first three centuries of Christianity, when the church was living in a hostile environment. “Before Constantine, when the road was extremely difficult, the church was empowered by the Spirit through crisis after crisis. Then came Constantine and offered the church a favored place in the world. That is when its deepest spiritual temptations appeared. It was more difficult to be a Christian under Constantine than under Marcus Aurelius, more difficult to test out the promises of God. To live the Christian life is objectively just as difficult in a consumer-oriented economy as in a deteriorating socialist economy. Our faith calls us to live as if objectively insecure, so as to be better able to receive the security that faith distinctively gives, the security that abides through conflict and limitation.”
In a Marxist society it is hardly a social advantage to be a Christian. Christian existence becomes an exciting, risk-laden summons rather than a boring obsession with establishment safety. “God only illumines the next step, not long distances ahead. We would like the way to be illumined for whole distance ahead, but the flickering light of the Word shows only the next step. God called Abram: Leave Ur. I will then tell you where you are going. To Paul he said: Go to the next city. I will tell you there what next. The risen Lord said to his disciples: Go to Galilee. You will find me there. It is humbling for the pilgrim to not know what is over the hill, to have no more foreknowledge than the next man. But this is precisely a part of our spiritual training-to take small steps without knowing what is over the hill, but trusting God on final outcomes. It is not enough that our students have enough to eat, and books to read. They must also learn to look daily to God for sufficiency.”
The Cuban church is trying to decide whether it can bear the responsibility for bringing hope to Cuba. To be responsible for hope is to decide to bring hope in God into an otherwise hopeless situation. The stark absence of hope is partly a function of the failure of socialism, where humanistic hopes have been raised so precariously high. The collapse of these hopes now offers an unexpected opportunity to the proclaiming community to breathe out a new message of hope.
At the Ecumenical Seminary, all the students and faculty eat together, three meals a day. “The little we have we want to share with all who sit at our table,” the rector said. “We do not want to have a table with much food but without love.”
As I walked into the seminary’s library, I had the feeling I was back in the antiquated city library of my youth during the 1930s. A large-print Underwood typewriter, vintage circa 1946, was the sole technological device in sight. I was shown a separate room of the library in which students were given the privilege of reading books. Not checking them out-reading them. Books are so rare and irreplaceable that the library cannot afford to let them be checked out.
Could North American seminarians send you books, I asked? Well, not by mail. They would likely be pilfered or lost in the mail. Why lost? Either they would be rerouted for profit through the black market or simply mislaid. A few might get through. How then could I deliver books? Try Cuban pastors in the U.S. who will then contact Cubans in transit to Havana. Is this dangerous? No, the police do not surveil books coming into Cuba with airline passengers.
As I sat in a modest apartment cradling a tiny cup of ebony coffee, one of the theological students calmly fleshed out this idea: The Methodist Church was born in America amid a sacramental void resulting from the Anglican clergy having fled to Canada. Thus American Methodism can rightly be said to be born out of the hunger for holy communion, for Wesley would never have ordained Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury apart from this long-standing, unresolved sacramental crisis. In just this way, the student continued, the Cuban church today, feeling, as it does, cut off from the rest of the ecumenical whole, especially treasures holy communion, and feels its unity with the body of Christ through the sacrament.
Here was an example of how the Cuban church spirit shows an extraordinary capacity to generate theological insight despite severe limitations. I have pondered and taught the documents of the Wesley literary corpus to graduate and theological students for three decades, but had never before that moment heard what now seems to me an almost obvious thesis stated so arrestingly. This student belongs to a Cuban Methodist family that remained in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Only a few pastors were able to offer holy communion and baptize in due order. The hunger for the Eucharist never faded, and although eucharistic practice had become sporadic and uncertain, there is a deep postrevolutionary desire to rediscover a more meaningful sacramental life.
Buzzards circled the valley below the Seminary. A stone’s throw away from the seminary grounds, I noticed a lone black buzzard sitting patiently fifty feet atop a high tree overlooking the leafy valley. His accomplices circling the valley below flew effortlessly, exploiting the wind. The freedom and ease of their flight was positively stately. What was it that was dying in the valley? A revolution. A system. An economy. A dream. A rhetoric. Insects, too, remain profusely alive on this lush green island. Everywhere this miniature biotic world is prospering amid the collapse of colossal economic and ideological schemes. The grass is growing fast around Matanzas harbor. Castro’s revolution is being overtaken by time, despair, and frustrated hope. New hope must come from elsewhere.
Thomas C. Oden is the Henry Anson Bates Professor at Drew University’s Graduate School and Theological School and author of Life in the Spirit , the third and final volume of his systematic theology.