During the fifty-eight years since the Cuban Revolution brought communism to my country, Jesus’ kingdom has been advancing in Cuba. As pastor of a Cuban church throughout these sometimes-difficult decades, I should know. Let me tell you my story.
I was born in a village on the northern coast of Cuba, where the sugarcane industry overshadowed every aspect of life. My father was a sugarcane cutter, which meant he worked at most three or four months a year. Life was hard. How do you feed a family of twelve when there is no work? When my siblings and I reached second or third grade, my father took us out of school. The girls cleaned, cooked, or washed for the landowners. They were paid next to nothing. We boys went to work in the fields, helping our father but earning nothing ourselves. Poverty and misery marked all of our lives, but together we survived. My father drank a lot, and his example prompted most of us to evade reality through alcohol.
I was sent to help a family in the country when I was eleven. After three years, I returned to town looking for work, which I found selling vegetables from a wheelbarrow. I was filled with hate and sadness, which I desperately tried to drown by drinking. One evening in December 1952, disgusted with the life I was living, I went to bed crying. I had no idea how to pray, but almost drowning in tears I repeated a Bible verse I had once learned, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Immediately I felt something new, although I didn’t understand what it was. That was the moment Jesus Christ came into my life. For the first time I could remember, I slept peacefully without being drunk.
I began to attend church services and was baptized five months later. A visiting preacher challenged us to use the new life God had given us. I said I wanted to become a pastor. Although I was almost completely illiterate, I passed the entrance exam to enter seminary at seventeen, with the help of the preacher and his wife.
Becoming a Christian in a Changing Cuba
The seminary was sponsored by Southern Baptists, so almost all my professors were from the United States. Through their influence, I began to adopt a new outlook. I wasn’t interested in what was happening in Cuban society, politics, and economics because the professors weren’t interested. Then in January 1959, while I was still in seminary, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces ousted US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. That was something one couldn’t ignore. I became interested in what the new government was doing to benefit the poorest and most disadvantaged.
The life of a Christian extends beyond the four walls of the church.
My wife Clara and I served as pastors in Colón for nine years. I was not of age for military service, but while we were there, I was drafted to the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). Despite its name, this wasn’t really military service, but rather a system of forced agricultural labor camps for Christians, criminals, conscientious objectors to military service, homosexual men, and anyone else the revolutionaries labeled perverse. That experience taught me that even though I had no pulpit or church, I did not cease to be a Christian pastor. In 1968, the government ended the UMAP system, and I returned home to Clara, my son Joel, and my newborn daughter Raquel.
Although many Christians fled the country, Clara and I saw that the revolution did accomplish many good things. We couldn’t condemn it wholesale and flee; we had to find ways to address the bad things we saw. The life of a Christian extends beyond the four walls of the church. If we want things to change, we have to get involved where the problems are and work at them, without being Communists, without being politicians, but by being Christians. At this time, I read the Bible in a new light. The Bible tells us we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the yeast that makes the dough rise. Yeast makes bread soft – if you don’t put yeast in, it will be hard as rock. When Christ tells us to be yeast, he wants us to be an element of transformation in society.