NEWS | President Obama’s announcement Dec. 17 that the U.S. will renew its relationship with Cuba had pundits talking about the political and economic implications. Meanwhile, many Christian leaders focused on what the decision could mean for Cuban believers.
Phil Nelson has traveled to Cuba 11 times since 2003, speaking openly about the gospel with college students and on one occasion, a university president.
“Everybody we met with, we talked with about the gospel,” said Nelson, pastor of Lakeland Baptist Church in Carbondale. The Cuban Christians he has worked with are “passionate about the gospel, unashamed about anything. They had a boldness that we just don’t know anything about here in the United States.”
Still, there is the specter of oppression, said Kevin Carrothers, who traveled with Nelson to Cuba in 2006. He remembers noticing from Cuban people and visitors to the country that no one wanted to draw attention to themselves. The stereotype most people apply to the Caribbean – bright clothing, a festive, celebrative atmosphere – didn’t hold water in Cuba, said the pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.
Their mission team saw people come to Christ, though, including one woman who stopped them by the side of the road to ask for a drink of water. Nelson talked with her about the living water that Jesus offers; right there on the road, Carrothers said, she accepted Christ.
After Obama’s announcement, leaders weighed in on whether the decision would help or hurt people in the country. Nelson is skeptical that a re-opened relationship between the U.S. and Cuba will increase freedoms. Admitting he’s just one person assessing the situation, he said he expected the Cuban government to crack down even more. A contact of Nelson’s in Cuba reported three months ago that police had shut down student ministry groups.
There also is concern, Nelson said, that what happened in the former Soviet Union could happen in Cuba. Once the iron curtain fell in that region in 1989, the “prosperity gospel” went in. Nelson called it a “tsunami of heresy” that hurt the church, rather than helping it.
Other leaders with knowledge of Cuba also expressed caution. “This change is not going to help the Cuban people [under] a communist government in power for more than 50 years,” said Óscar J. Fernández, a Tennessee minister who holds political asylum from Cuba. “I will applaud if Cuba makes any concessions, but they are not [likely to do so],” he told Baptist Press.
But David R. Lema, whose family left Cuba for Spain when he was 7, said “any normalization of political ties between Cuba and the U.S., regardless of political implications or results, should prove beneficial for Christian work.”
“Travel for Americans going to Cuba would flow smoother and with less inconvenience—anyone that has gone to Cuba knows what I am talking about here,” Lema, director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami, told BP. “Churches and individuals will have more freedom to help the churches directly without having to worry about U.S. embargo violations.”
Carrothers said he didn’t know whether more mission teams will begin traveling to the Caribbean country. “What I do know, and what I think the reality is, is that where the church has been oppressed, and the church has been persecuted, the gospel has flourished.
“And that certainly was the case in Cuba, the gospel was flourishing in the midst of oppression.”
By Meredith Flynn, with additional reporting by Baptist Press