Religion: born again Cuba

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HAVANA, Cuba — In a country with virtually no commercial advertising, where most public signage is the property of the state, the growth of Cuba’s evangelical movement can be measured in the number of church placards spreading around this city.

Some are barely visible, hanging from the doors or windows along residential streets. Others are displayed prominently, like the stately red-lettered sign for the Principe de Paz Pentecostal Church in Diez de Octubre, a gritty Havana neighborhood where nearly everything else is worn and faded.

Over the past two decades, the number of evangelical Christians on the island (pop. 11 million) has soared from roughly 70,000 in 1991 to more than 800,000 today, according to Cuba’s Council of Churches. While the Catholic Church and Afro-Cuban traditions have also made large gains since religious persecutions eased in the 1980s, evangelical Christianity may be the communist-run country’s fastest-growing practice.

The spiritual revival has coincided with a long period of economic hardship that Cubans have faced since the demise of the Soviet Union and the abrupt loss of its generous subsidies. The crisis continues today, with the government announcing last month that it will lay off 500,000 state workers over the next six months.

Faced with shrinking state benefits and fading revolutionary zeal, many Cuban families have turned to churches to fill their economic and existential needs. The growth began in the early 1990s, a time when transportation networks were virtually frozen for lack of fuel and spare parts. Evangelical churches — often tiny congregations meeting in private homes — had the advantage of being local and easily accessible, said Marcial Hernandez, president of Cuba’s Council of Churches.

“Any crisis generates insecurity, and people take refuge in religion,” said Hernandez, who is also a Pentecostal minister.

“But there is something else happening here,” he continued. “People are looking for spiritual fulfillment — not only material. The evangelical faith is the future of this nation.”

In some cities in eastern Cuba like Moa and Baracoa, evangelicals make up 65 to 70 percent of the population, Hernandez said, reflecting the legacy of a strong missionary presence there. Evangelical Christianity has also made huge gains in poorer parts of Havana, where many rural migrants have arrived in recent years, and might find community and a sense of belonging at a local church.

A Pentecostal temple with capacity for 5,000 worshippers has already been approved for construction among the battered tenements of the Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, according to Hernandez, though church leaders are still raising money for the project.

Enrique Lopez Oliva, a religious scholar who teaches at the University of Havana, said the origins of evangelical Christianity can be traced back to Cuba’s independence movement in the late 19th century.

Many of Cuba’s anti-colonial patriots saw themselves rebelling against both the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, which had dominated the island for centuries. They converted to Protestant faiths while plotting their uprising from exile in the United States.

Cuba Pentecostal Evangelical
Pastor Pedro Juan Castro leads services at the Buenas Nuevas Pentecostal Church in Havana. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

When the United States invaded the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops were followed by “a wave of missionaries,” Lopez Oliva said, and the American military government decreed freedom of religion on the island.

“That was the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly in Cuba,” said Lopez Oliva, who is Catholic. Cuba’s first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, was a Protestant, he noted.

Today the island’s fastest-growing evangelical strain is Pentecostalism. It arrived in Cuba with American missionaries prior to Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, then went dormant in the 1960s and 1970s when Soviet ideology and militant atheism reigned. Religious believers were routinely fired from their jobs and sent to labor camps for “re-education.”

In recent decades, as religious fervor has surged in Cuba, scholars say the appeal of Pentecostalism is so strong that many traditional Protestant denominations have increasingly assimilated its worship style, with vibrant music, passionate sermons and testimonials of personal salvation and miraculous healings. Nadiesca Cisneros, 29, said she became a Christian as a teenager because she felt a "spiritual need to be close to God."

"I needed to know my life's purpose," she said. "And that purpose is serving God," she said.

At the Marianao Methodist Church in western Havana, the congregation has grown from 300 to more than 2,300 since 1994, said Jorge Ortega, a pastor there. Today the church practices “Charismatic” Methodism with electric guitars, drums and little resemblance to the traditional Methodist churches of North America and Europe.

“Our congregation is growing 11 percent every year,” said Ortega. “People are looking for help. There’s a great deal of need here.”

Ortega, who was raised in a secular family, said he was born again 22 years ago when he emerged from eight days in a coma during a battle with spinal meningitis. A music teacher by trade, he said he’s been able to recruit new converts from the public schools where he works, even though it’s prohibited to evangelize there.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the church’s basement was packed with young people, all computer science students from Cuba’s prestigious University of Information Sciences, whose campus was created out of a former Soviet spy base. Christian students there aren’t allowed to have Bible study groups, or hold their own services on campus, but on Sundays they travel to the church en mass for hours of singing and sermons.

“There are still a lot of restrictions,” said one evangelical student, who didn't want to be named, fearful he could be punished at school. “But every year it seems like there are more of us.”