Behind Closed Borders: Growth Marks the Church in Cuba

Olivia B., Nathan Clark

On a hot February morning in Cuba, 60 pastors—many from the underground house church movement—gathered in an open-air chapel for a conference that would unite them in a way they’d never before experienced. The pastors came from varying denominations and regions, making their gathering unique, as the government prohibits inter-denominational gatherings among Christians. A handful of Northlanders were also there, attending and hosting the week-long conference.

This wasn’t Northland’s first trip to Cuba. Despite the fact that Cuba’s borders were closed to Americans, Northland has been traveling there for the last 16 years. Over those years we’ve learned about the differences between life in our two countries. In America, Christians are free to gather in public, including in large communities of faith like Northland. But in Cuba, churches met in small communities, hidden in homes from the eyes of the government.

The Cuban government has long suppressed Christianity. But in 1990, a revival sparked rapid growth of the church throughout Cuba, particularly amongst the underground house church movement. But as the growth happened, there were points of division which caused rifts within the church. In a country where Christianity was already scrutinized, the public discord within the Cuban church made it hard for the Cuban church to reach their nation.

Despite the differences between our cultures, Northland has built strong relationships with several churches and networks in Cuba. These relationships have weathered political change and natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew. For our partner churches, fostering a relationship with Northland has been a part of their journey towards building unity with believers from different backgrounds within their own country. 
 
During the course of the conference, we began to see some of the long-term divisions melt away. One pastor commented that the biggest take away from their time together was “seeing the need for the church to become one. It’s a challenge in Cuba to see that unity. This week has been very good for us to see what our other brothers in Christ are doing and that God is putting all our work together.”
 
As each pastor and leader began to grasp the beauty of unifying towards their common goals of spreading the gospel throughout their regions, they began to realize that their differences were part of how God can help them work together. A young pastor remarked that “God was playing chess with us to put us in the right places.”
 
There was no doubt that the strength of unity was encouraging to the leaders as they shared stories of their experiences. Each person had their own struggles and stories that helped equip others – some faced witchcraft in their communities, while others came from communities that had never been exposed to any religion. Many leaders shared the common struggle of dealing with broken families. As they reflected on where they had come from and the challenges they had faced, many also remarked on what was to come. 
 
“The church must be firmly rooted so we can respond to our country’s changes,” reflected one pastor. That’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by most of the pastors in attendance. Especially as the outside world continues to intrude on Cuba and contribute to an increasingly changing society.
 
Despite the challenges they have and will face, there was an evident hope amongst those that had gathered that helped ignite a new sense of passion around what they knew God was calling them to.
 
For most, the call they feel is to spread the Church from house to house in their communities. “Small groups of believers going into a neighborhood and sharing about Jesus in people’s homes is how the church will grow,” said a pastor from Havana. Despite all the challenges they have and will face, these believers took with them what they had learned from each other. One pastor urged his brothers and sisters to continue in the spirit of unity, across churches and denominations, “So that the world may know that we are one.”