The second chapter of the book of Acts describes how the earliest Christian church took hold in uncertain and fearful times.
It says: “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. … They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
|A young girl peeks through a window into San Antonio Methodist Church, one of many house churches in Cuba. The girl's father is the church pastor. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.|
Those house churches formed the backbone of the fledgling movement for Christ.
That example is being followed today by believers in Cuba, where despite steady increases in the number of believers and more freedom to openly worship, some government obstacles remain.
The state still prohibits the United Methodist Church from building new sanctuaries; and with thousands of new people in that island nation responding to the word of God, finding a place to gather could be a problem.
But the Cuban people don’t focus on the obstacles. They don’t focus on where they meet.
They focus on God.
They find a way.
House churches took root in Cuba when crowds wishing to attend the services grew too large for existing sanctuaries. In gathering spots all over the island, six, eight, 10 or a dozen people gather to sing praises, pray, study the scriptures and simply be with fellow believers. They start off as a study group and eventually spread a message of hope and salvation one convert at a time.
The group is called a cell; and, when it outgrows a house, part of the cell may form a new group in a different house.
“It’s the only way for the Methodist church to grow in Cuba,” said Icel Rodriguez, director of Global Missions for the Florida Conference.
The Florida Conference, through financial assistance and missionaries, is helping build many of those houses. George Reed, chairperson of Methodists United in Prayer (formerly called the Cuba/Florida covenant) said a little bit of money raised in Florida can go a long way.
“There is an advance set-up that I basically would call a co-op program,” he said. “The Florida Conference has been instrumental in helping with funds, books and responding to their needs.
“If a sister church here in Florida wants to help buy a house church, the Conference matches that up to $3,000. That’s $6,000. In eastern Cuba, that will buy a house.”
|A worship service is taking place at "A Place of Hope Methodist Church," a converted auto repair shop located in Santa Clara. More than 900 new churches are in formation in Cuba today. Photo by Mike Dubose, UMNS.|
Last year, Florida resourced more than $120,000, enough to buy or repair more than 20 houses. That house becomes the gathering spot for believers, and believers spread the word.
“I grew up in Cuba. When I committed my life to Christ 30 years ago at age 20, there might have been, on a good Sunday there, 20 or 30 people in worship,” Rodriguez said, referring to the local church she attended.
“You go there now and there are two services with more than 400 people. Without the support of churches in Florida and the generosity, the churches in Cuba would not have been able to grow as much as they have.”
In an interview, Bishop Ricardo Pereira said United Methodist membership in Cuba has grown by at least 10 percent in each of the last dozen years.
“In terms of places of preaching, we’ve grown even more,” he said. “We started in 1999 with only 96 pastoral charges and now we have over 416 pastoral charges in addition to at least 900 new churches in formation.
“People ask me how this is possible. Well, I have to say the church in Cuba is a church that is very committed to prayer, reading the Bible and seeking theological formation as much as possible. But much of it also has to do with some modifications of the liturgy of the Methodist Church in Cuba.”
One of the “modifications” was a change in the way music was offered. It had a big impact.
“For many years, we were using Wesley hymns translated into Spanish. Now we welcome more of a Cuban rhythm. It helped us grow,” Rodriguez said.
There is no accurate count of the number of house churches in Cuba, but everyone agrees the number is increasing. With that comes a demand for more pastoral training.
“Their model in Cuba for training pastors is different from what we’re used to in the United States, where we send them to seminary first,” Reed said.
“What happens in Cuba is that lay people start a mission first that evolves into a church. If that missionary has been called into full-time service, then he or she will receive additional training. What basically happens is that they put a pastor in the church and say go get it. If they’re successful, then they’ll send them to seminary.”
A candidate will receive two years of instruction at a local level before moving on to the seminary in Havana for the final four years.
The evolving movement in Cuba has had another positive development. There are fewer reports of state-ordered crackdowns or persecution of Christians.
“The government doesn’t seem to be quite as restrictive about the church’s evangelism in the streets as it once was,” Reed said. “There were at least a couple of cases where they allowed public worship.”
Rodriguez said she even heard reports of large-scale Christmas services that were openly held in stadiums this past year.
It all adds up to promising growth as The United Methodist Church helps spread the word of Christ to people eager to receive it.
“I think what we’re seeing is a witness to the faith of the church in Cuba,” Rodriguez said. “But the covenant between Florida and Cuba has a great deal to do with that. Amazing things are happening because of that.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon