Standing on a narrow street in Cuba’s second largest city, my cameraman, our translator and I are shielded from the wicked, late morning sun by a row of colorful, weather-beaten buildings that look like something straight out of the 1950s. Even though this is December, it’s close to 90 degrees and the humidity has to be approaching 100 percent. My shirt is soaked through with perspiration and I can feel the sweat running down my neck and back. But the pastor I’m talking with doesn’t seem to mind or even notice the heat. He has come to Santiago from a small, rural church about three hours away and is excitedly telling me about his nation, his people, and their hunger for God’s Word.
We keep having to put the interview on pause as vendors roll past with their clunky, steel-wheeled carts, shouting to the locals in an effort to hock their vegetables, sandwiches, drinks…
We have also drawn an audience: an old man with a face like a catcher’s mitt perched on the white, concrete steps of a cramped, one-room home; a woman leaning against the rod-iron railing of her tiny, second-floor patio, smoking and glaring at us with distrustful, half-opened eyes; a tiny, slow-moving abuela who glances over her shoulder at us suspiciously as she hangs laundry on a makeshift clothesline strung from one electrical post to another… A half dozen school-aged kids are running into and out of the shot, laughing, playing with a skateboard, and periodically making peace sign gestures, curious about what the gringos are up to and clearly anxious to be on camera.
As I listen to the pastor, I’m surveying the area, wondering if a Cuban security agent is going to pop out of the network of grimy little alleyways, ask us for a permit (which we do not have), and confiscate our equipment. Or worse, invite us to accompany him to an interrogation room somewhere in the bowels of the city from which we never return.
We’ve heard the horror stories – the man who was down here from the States to increase internet capacity, was accused of spying, and ended up occupying a nasty little jail cell for 12 years; the man from the States who was here on legitimate business, was accused of spying, and spent 21 years in prison… It always starts with an American, involves a false accusation, and ends terribly with the poor guy languishing in a dungeon where he loses his teeth to malnutrition.
We’re all familiar with the revolution, Castro, communism, the breakdown between the U.S. and Cuba, and the trade embargo that followed. Even if you’re too young to remember them, you’ve heard of the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. What you may or may not realize is that things are changing. After more than a half-century of economic hardship, during which the residents of this nation were forced to do without products and services from the outside (witness the plethora of automobiles from the ‘40s and ‘50s, kept running by parts factories here on the island), diplomatic relations are slowly beginning to open back up. In 2012, humanitarian aid was given the green light and a shipment went from the U.S. to Cuba for the first time in over 50 years.
Since then, the two countries have exchanged political prisoners, the U.S. has reopened its embassy in Havana (in 2015, the American flag was raised over the embassy for the first time in 54 years), and promises have been made regarding increasing trade.
But even with things improving between the U.S. and Cuba, there is still tension. Tourism, per se, is not yet allowed, and an atmosphere of mutual distrust continues to linger in the air.
Getting our cameras into the country was no easy thing. As part of a group of ministries that included Adoracion 24/7 and Biblica, we procured a religious visa and were up front about documenting a series of Christian gatherings. However, after deplaning in Holquim (pronounced Ol-geen), the immigration agents wanted to examine and know the working details of every piece of equipment – from the mics to the DSLRs to the hard drives to the GoPro.
We had heard of crews having their gear confiscated and never getting it back. This “contraband,” we have been told, gets sold on the black market. Though many high tech items are not for sale in Cuba, some of the locals have better equipment than we do. (We even encountered people with drones – which are strictly prohibited.) One man with a very expensive DSLR explained that he bought it from a customs agent who took it from an unsuspecting American. He also told us that the agent has since been arrested and is currently in prison.
The pastor, oblivious to the onlookers, is clearly not worried about doing video on the street like this. He is too involved in his story.
His responses to my questions are in Spanish, a language I am woefully inadequate in, but my translator, a kid named Jose, is helping me catch the gist: For years, the pastor’s church had only one Bible. They took turns reading it and eventually began tearing pages from it to share among the congregation. Now, with things changing, he is hopeful that God’s Word will be made available throughout his beloved Cuba.
When he finishes, he has tears in his eyes.
Next, we interview a pastor who was part of the first in-country printing of the Bible. Originally from Havana, he now resides in Texas and is part of a para-church organization aimed at training Cuban pastors and helping the church here grow.
When he has shared his vision for what God is doing in this nation – something I won’t fully appreciate until I get the transcript translated – I spy a woman with one of the Bibles we gave away the night before. I can tell it’s one of ours because of the distinctive Biblica logo on the back.
The event she attended was held in an open-air stadium and drew a crowd of more than 11,000 people. Every seat was taken and hundreds more stood outside behind barricades, hoping to gain entrance.
The original plan for this worship extravaganza was to have a top-notch band, several well-known singers, and some powerful preachers take the stage to jumpstart a move of the Spirit in Santiago. But even before it officially began, it became clear that God was already on the move.
What amazed me the most was that this meeting was permitted by the authorities. I had assumed that a mass gathering of Christians would not only draw the attention, but the ire of the ruling government. Instead, people came from miles and miles around to praise God. And they did so quite exuberantly, without any governmental interference.
Another part of the plan was to have 30,000 Bibles on hand to give away. However, after giving initial approval for this, the Cuban government balked and threw in some extra red tape that delayed the delivery from the States.
That’s why our entire ministry team stuffed their baggage with Bibles in Miami just before embarking to Holquim.
Thousands came forward at the stadium event to receive Christ. When our meager supply of Bibles was offered to them, a riot nearly ensued.
I see the joy and gratitude in this woman’s eyes as she recounts in Spanish the story of how she gave her life to Christ. As she clutches the new Bible to her chest and talks about her newfound faith, it occurs to me once again how precious God and His Word are to these people – and how those of us living in America risk taking things for granted.
We interview one more person – a female pastor from Havana – on the noisy street. Somehow, the temperature seems to be climbing and I have to remain absolutely still to keep from getting overheated.
As the woman provides enthusiastic answers to my questions, I can’t help but wonder what we will encounter in Havana, our next stop. Another large event is scheduled, this time in an old theater where Fidel Castro once lifted the name of communism. We’ll be lifting the name of Jesus from that same stage.
“Cuba para Christ!” the woman declares, raising her hand high into the air. She doesn’t care that the old man, the suspicious woman, the grandmother, or the children are all looking at her like she’s out of her mind.
“Cuba para Christ!” she shouts again, both hands raised now. Cuba for Christ!
Postscript: God is obviously doing a new and amazing thing in Cuba. However, despite our experience in the country, this revival might be attracting the attention of the government. Reports reveal government attacks against churches and congregations. Approximately 200 church leaders and members were then detained. And the battle between light and darkness continues. Pray for Cuba.