Cuba (MNN) — As the United States constructs new political ties with Cuba for the first time in over fifty years, the optimism isn’t trickling down to the public. In fact, poverty continues to afflict most of the population. As new policies are designed to bring the two nations closer together, local Christians warn against false hope.
While rules about travel and embassies in the two countries are being reinvented, the average Cuban does not benefit from these changes like the governments do. More and more Cubans are taking to sea in an attempt to beat the clock. If the two nations establish diplomatic relations, it will mean that policies allowing Cuban refugees to seek residency on United States shores will be eliminated, forcing authorities to turn them away.
If the situation of the average citizen is not improving, the persecution facing local Christians is actually getting worse. Although the number of incidents where the Cuban government has violated religious freedom remains unchanged, it seems each incident is worse than the last. Local religious leaders are reporting harassment and threats from authorities, as well as fines, vandalism, and confiscation of property. For the first time in almost five years, a church leader has been imprisoned, and any students involved in unapproved religious groups are being expelled from their schools.
However, all is not lost in the Cuban mission field. One ministry leader supported by Christian Aid Mission reported that he has helped plant a church in the mountains near the site of the beginning of Castro’s revolution. In the course of one year, 1,256 people came to Christ at this church alone, and it’s happening all over the country.
The program was started by a seminary school on the island, where the students are schooled in Scriptural knowledge and church-planting. Right now 270 graduates are working to plant churches all through the mountains, and last year 26 succeeded in establishing long-lasting churches and building a relationship with the new congregations.
Christian Aid Mission is doing its best to aid the ministry in its work. About three quarters of the new congregations don’t have working electricity in their homes, so Christian Aid helped local missionaries buy lanterns for those homes. They also helped two missionaries buy mules, allowing them to farm coffee and cocoa beans as well as travel what would normally be a 3-hour uphill hike through the mountains.
Food is also an issue that persists throughout Cuba, and the ministry worked to distribute over 1000 plates of food throughout the congregations. For most of the hungry children, these donations were the only thing they ate. Many were so fascinated by the love shown by the missionaries that they continue to come to the weekly church services, searching for the source of this compassion.
Another great ministry opportunity comes in the form of sports. Baseball is not only one of the most popular sports in the nation, it’s also closely intertwined with Cuban patriotism as a sport with a long national history. Ministry leaders at the churches teach children and adults alike how to play the sport, working with them daily to teach them about baseball and the love of Christ. The ministry is so effective that last year alone over a thousand people came to Christ.
Christian Aid Mission is also helping local mission workers through soccer, providing enough balls for the churches to field about thirty teams. Each soccer session ends with a worship meeting, and the families involved often start coming to church. One church that started the program gained 40 new kids in their Sunday school class over a period of less than ten months.
As the U.S. tries to reconnect with Cuba, local missionaries are taking another step. They’re building more than just wary relationships with the surrounding villages. They’re changing lives for now and forever.