“Maybe 20 people were there … and that was on a good Sunday,’’ she said. “The numbers were small, but people clung to their faith.’’
That faith was rewarded over time.
Rodriguez, now director of global missions for the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, is overwhelmed at the church’s growth in her native land. In the past 16 years alone, Methodist church membership has increased by 306 percent in Cuba, the Communist island nation located 90 miles from Florida’s nearest shore.
|The Marianao Methodist Church is a long-established presence in Havana and the pastoral home of Bishop Ricardo Pereira. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.|
There are Methodist churches in 99.4 percent of the island’s municipalities.
“And there’s no slowdown in sight, not in the foreseeable future,’’ Ponte Vedra Beach’s George Reed said.
He is the chairperson of the Cuba Covenant for the Methodists United in Prayer organization, who accompanied Rodriguez to Cuba’s General Conference (Iglesia Metodista en Cuba) in March.
Rodriguez and Reed were there when the conference re-elected Bishop Ricardo Pereira, who has overseen the growth while working through an often-delicate political climate. They met with pastors from Florida’s sister churches in Cuba and made some new friends, too.
But mostly, after experiencing the passion and energy from Cuban Methodists, they were renewed.
“I am very, very, very proud over what is happening in Cuba,’’ Rodriguez said.
She has carefully researched the Florida Methodist relationship with Cuba. The church underwent stark changes after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro into power.
“Almost overnight, all the American missionaries left,’’ Rodriguez said. “Many pastors left. There were only three elders left in the entire (Cuban) conference. Many members left and the attendance, which had been more than 10,000, was less than 3,000.
|Parishioners raise their arms in praise during worship at Vedado Methodist Church in Havana. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.|
“In the 1980s, a revival started and spread across the island. People got serious about praying, fasting and seeking God’s face. It has grown from there.’’
It coincided with changes in Rodriguez’s own life. At 21, after two years of being away from the church, she gave her life to Jesus.
“You have to understand what it is like in Cuba,’’ Rodriguez said. “There are no Christian programs on television. You don’t have the freedom to give a message or stand on the corner and talk about Jesus. The message is basically spread from one to one.
“God changed my life overnight. He took me from the darkest place, where I was totally lost, and made me new. I went to church one day when I was 21, and someone said she felt the Holy Spirit leading her to lay her hands on me and pray. I was filled with the Holy Spirit right away. I left the sanctuary singing and jumping, not knowing what to do with my life.’’
In 1994, Rodriguez left Cuba for good. It was supposed to be a trip to Russia, a country that didn’t require a Cuban visa, but she never boarded the next plane after a layover in Germany
Instead, she bought a ticket for Sweden. Eventually, she wound up in Costa Rica, where she was reunited with her two children and has been in Florida for 18 years.
Her connection to Cuba remains strong. Her mother and sister-in-law still live there. And, she has witnessed first-hand the island’s embracing of the Methodist church.
“Going to the (general) conference is always a great reason for joy and hope,’’ Rodriguez said. “This time around, I don’t know what it was, but it was even more so this time. I was so joyful, so filled by what God is doing there.
“It has grown so much. In a way, I miss the old days, the evangelism that used to take place. Every day before I would go out, I would pray, ‘Lord, show me someone who needs to hear your word today.’ That still exists, I’m sure, but the growth is at a much higher level.’’
|Pastor Ricardo Rivero and his wife Ana Maria Torres, along with their son Ricardo David, started a Methodist Mission in Placetas, Cuba. Rivero, a former mason, made repairs to the home, which also serves as a worship space. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.|
Reed said the Florida UMC Conference continually helps with resources, sending food, clothing, shoes, medicine, musical instruments, whatever is needed. The conference also helps with water treatment systems, seminary support and help for retiring pastors.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the Conference aids with the development of “house churches (prayer cells),’’ which has spurred the growth.
“There are nearly 2,000 prayer cells across the island,” Rodriguez said. Every week 41 people are received into the membership of the Methodist Church in Cuba. It is just phenomenal.”
Through the Cuba/Florida Covenant, established in 1997, the Florida Conference sends about 350 members to Cuba annually. With more than 400 Methodist churches now on the island, those members feel at home.
In the United States, there are generally many more members of the Methodist church than are reflected in attendance numbers. In Cuba, it’s the opposite.
There are 51,266 Cuban Methodist church members (up from 12,622 in 2003), but an estimated 80,000 people attend Sunday worship services on the island.
“It’s not all that easy to become a church member,’’ Reed said. “It requires two years of training. It’s a long, serious commitment. But it’s another example of how the faith is sought, needed and pursued. You’ve got to really want it—and they do.
“That’s what we see each time we go to Cuba. It’s thoughtful growth. It’s a lot of passion in spreading the word. It’s just an inspiration to all of us.’’
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer from Tampa.