Harvest of Souls: Cuba's Church Stages Comeback
HAVANA -- When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, communism gained a foothold in the western hemisphere. The United States responded with an embargo, effectively cutting off the island nation from American goods and services.
In the 50 years since, more than a million Cuban citizens have escaped the repression brought on by what is known here as "The Revolution."
Today, the average Cuban still can't change jobs without government permission. Even an unauthorized Internet connection could land you in jail. The government owns most businesses, and the average citizen makes only about $15 per month.
Church Stages a Comeback
But there is one area where there have been some changes recently: religious freedom -- kind of surprising for a socialist country.
"What we had in Cuba was a very hard time for the Church, almost 30 years that we suffered discrimination for the gospel of Jesus Christ," Pastor Victor Gonzales, director of the Cuban Baptist Convention, told CBN News.
But things have changed dramatically in the last few years, and the Church is staging a comeback.
"I think that the Cuban government believes that the Gospel is good for the nation of Cuba," Victor Gonzales said.
"And for that reason they are asking the Church in Cuba to help the Cuban government to bring back again the great value of the Cuban family," he said.
In the past, being a Christian here all but guaranteed a very hard life. Persecution was the rule, with church leaders routinely imprisoned or driven out of the country.
Those attitudes started to change when Raul Castro, the former dictator's brother, was elected in 2009. He promised to move the country away from some of the old communist policies, especially toward religion.
"In three years, we went from 12 prayer groups and now we have 103 prayer groups in this area," Annette Gonzales, with the Open Bible Church of Havana, said.
"We saw in times past many rigid things that we thought would never be broken," Julio Gonzales, pastor of the Open Bible Church of Havana, told CBN News. "But now we are seeing a great harvest of souls in Cuba."
Religion in School
The Church is also making inroads in the public schools, where they have been given permission to teach children the basics of moral principle -- something unheard of even in America today.
Some locals attribute this to economic reasons. The government sees the Church as a cheaper way to carry out social programs.
But one group of Christians told CBN News they believe there are deeper reasons.
"The people love us because we are bringing a message of love, of peace, of healing," one Christian said.
"We've gone around to various places bringing food and clothing to those in need," another Christian said. "The authorities are very happy with what we're doing here, and over 100 children have received Christ through what we've done so far."
These developments have led to a new challenge.
"We need Bibles," one Cuban believer said. "And we need help with our budget to complete the work that is being done here."
"I think that the main thing is pray for us," Annette Gonzales told CBN News. "And you can help with Bibles because sometimes the Church grows up very fast and we have not enough material, enough tools."
Meanwhile, the Christians in Cuba are doing their best to take advantage of their newfound freedoms and spread the Gospel to the entire country.
*Original broadcast March 24, 2012.