Brethren in Christ in Cuba grow as restrictions relax

May 23, 2016 by and

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Anabaptism is on the rise in Cuba. A Breth­ren in Christ presence is growing among a people who in recent years are experiencing newfound freedoms.

New pastors are introduced in March 2015 at the BIC Cuban Missionary Society's annual assembly. — Brethren in Christ Church

New pastors are introduced in March 2015 at the BIC Cuban Missionary Society’s annual assembly. — Brethren in Christ Church

Constain Carrillo, BIC U.S. regional coordinator for the Caribbean, said that while last year’s thawing of diplomatic relations by the U.S. State Department was a watershed moment, restrictions had been relaxing since former President Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2008.

The succession of power closely matches some of the fastest growth in the history of Sociedad Misionera Cubana Hermanos en Cristo (BIC Cuban Missionary Society). In 2009, it reported 3,400-4,000 members in 82 churches. Since then, the Mennonite World Conference member’s most recent figures indicate the denomination has more than doubled to 8,426 members in nearly 200 congregations.

“They were not allowed to purchase any property at all — no buildings, no construction of churches — and they believe that helped the growth of the church because of the restrictions and persecution,” Carrillo said. “They started to congregate in houses. It’s very typical to have a hundred people in a house, and they have the service inside and in the backyard and around the front and sides.”

Reluctantly left

BIC mission efforts in Cuba began in the early 1950s when the BIC Cuban Missionary Society was founded. Howard and Pearl Wolgemuth of Lancaster, Pa., were the first to arrive, eventually being joined by others. By the end of the decade, mission workers reluctantly left the island due to rising anti-American sentiment surrounding the Cuban Revolution.

Ministry efforts were left in the hands of Cubans. For decades, many Americans had no idea what became of the young conference under Castro’s rule due to restrictive embargoes and language barriers.

The BIC’s growth was stunted by the government banishing some of the most outspoken and passionate evangelists. They went to places such as Nicaragua, Mexico and Peru and planted churches there.

“Some of them were willing to lose their lives if need be, in order to honor God and maintain their faith, to show the government there was no threat to keep them from serving,” Carrillo said.

Cut off physically and financially, the U.S. BIC managed to continue supporting the movement it started by sending funds to the BIC in Canada, which sent it to the Sociedad board.

A little bit goes a long way in a country where Carrillo said workers such as doctor specialists make the equivalent of $40 a month.

“The ideal situation for them is to dedicate themselves to be a pastor. They don’t like the idea too much of being bivocational,” he said, noting typical U.S./Canada support of $20 per month.

“. . . Those who have better connections have way more — $100, $150 — maybe even more. So a regular pastor could see himself making more than a doctor.”

New rights, gradually

Change has been slow, but many of communism’s strictest prohibitions have eased. The first signs of openness came in the early 1980s. In 1992 the government took atheism out of the constitution.

The state-run economy is still rigidly controlled, but reforms introduced in 2011 are gradually giving new rights to citizens to own property and even travel.

The U.S. loosened travel restrictions at the beginning of 2015 before the two countries restored diplomatic relations last July. Former Sociedad President Francisco Martinez Corcho, along with a number of pastors and delegates, attended last year’s MWC assembly in Harrisburg, Pa.

Corcho had to resign his position after recently emigrating to the U.S. for family and medical reasons. Though diplomatic relations have been restored, the U.S. still classifies Cuban immigrants as political refugees who get preferential status. People are emigrating by the thousands, including Sociedad staff and members of the board.

“In the past two years it has been gradually more flexible. . . . [Cuban officials are] granting more visas because that is very profitable to them,” Carrillo said. “The process is very expensive. They spend thousands of dollars to get out of the country.”

The new ability to travel internationally is not just a one-way endeavor. Carrillo hopes greater Cuban openness strengthens relationships across the Caribbean.

BIC in Cuba have built a three-story Bible school training center. It is a piece of rare church infrastructure that others in the region could use. Cubans could offering trainings in other countries, such as the Dominican Republic.

“The new policy would actually facilitate traveling,” Carrillo said. “There are people traveling who before never thought they’d be able to leave the country.”

No Anabaptist is an island

The Brethren in Christ Cuban Missionary Society is the only Mennonite World Conference member church in Cuba, counting 8,426 members in 195 congregations. Other Anabaptist groups in Cuba include:

– Mennonite Church in Cuba — 10 congregations with 100 members
– Anabaptist-Mennonite Missionary Church of Cuba — eight congregations with 120 members
– Mennonite Christian Fellowship (Cuba) — one congregation with 14 members
– Unaffiliated Mennonite — one congregation with four members

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