This article excerpt comes from the United Methodist News Service. Writer Linda Bloom and Photographer Mike DuBose traveled to Cuba in November 2016 on behalf of United Methodist News Service to learn more about the Methodist Church in Cuba. Their report, Singing the spirit in Cuba, covers worship, evangelism and ways the church has combined Wesleyan and Pentecostal elements to form a unique identity. Four-part series debuts Jan. 31, 2017 at this link.
Cuban Methodists are packing the pews
Many people in the packed pews wave their arms as they sing “derrama tu Gloria” — spill your glory — and the city is visible through the stained glass windows that are opened onto the street, Calle 25.
View Slideshow: Singing the Spirit in Cuba
Their voices on this November morning may even be loud enough to be heard a couple of blocks away outside the Habana Libre Hotel, where Fidel Castro set up temporary headquarters for his new revolutionary government in 1959.
Although it still represents less than one percent of the population, the Methodist Church in Cuba has made its presence known across the island. And what was once a carbon copy of the U.S. order of worship has transformed into music-filled calls to prayer with a Pentecostal vibe.
“Eighteen years ago, when I started ministry as a pastor…there were around 190 Methodist churches (in Cuba),” says the Rev. Lester Fernandez, 43, who leads the Vedado church. “But now, there are over 400 churches.”
The death of Fidel Castro, on Nov. 25, 2016, has left Cuba’s future open to speculation. But Cuban Methodists already have their goal in place — convert more to Christ — and a means to achieve that goal through street evangelism, prayer and fasting.Today, by its own count, the Methodist Church in Cuba has more than 43,000 active members and a community of more than 65,000. Eighty percent of the municipalities in Cuba have a Methodist church and 98 percent have preaching locations. In addition to the more than 400 pastoral charges, there are some 1,000 missions and several thousand cell groups.
“In Cuba, we don’t talk about decreases,” Fernandez explains. “It is almost a law that the churches have to grow.”
While some Cuban Methodists come from a Christian background, many more are converts. Fernandez, who describes his parents as “ex-Communists,” decided to walk into a church one day and became a Christian at 15. Four years later, he was a pastor and now he is one of the more experienced pastors in the denomination.
The official Methodist presence on the island dates to 1898, when the Rev. W.A. Candler became bishop of the Florida area of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and sent missionaries to Cuba. A former Methodist high school near the Marianao Methodist Church still bears a plaque with Candler’s name and operates as a public school today.
The family of Aldo Gonzalez was among those touched by the missionaries who settled in his home province of Pinar del Rio, west of Havana. He was baptized as an infant and attended a Methodist high school in Matanzas. His mother, a teacher, helped establish a Methodist church.
Early in 1962, when Gonzalez was 17, American Methodists helped his family come to the U.S.
Ninety percent of the Methodist pastors who remained in Cuba after Castro’s revolution went to jail for a couple of years for practicing their faith, says Gonzalez. “The stories that these folks tell are really impressive on how they continued to believe that what they were doing was right.”
It was the stubborn remnant of that church, which became autonomous in 1968, that attracted young people like Ricardo Pereira Diaz, the fourth and current bishop.
Some of Cuba’s most difficult times in recent decades were also times when Christians tried harder to make their voices heard. For example, Cuba’s economic crisis in 1991, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuing U.S. embargo, became a “special period” of food and oil shortages.
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Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and based in New York. She and UMNS Photographer Mike DuBose visited Cuba in November. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at 615-742-5470 or email@example.com