As Cuba transitions to a new relationship with the United States, Americans have a renewed interest in learning how the church there has fared for the last 50 plus years. The short answer is: amazingly well. In fact, many believe the hardships and suffering have paved the way for an explosion of church planting. On a typical Sunday morning in Cuba, you can find churches across the island overflowing with worshippers. Many meet in homes and others meet in churches that look more North American but operate in a political climate that is very different. Space is the biggest challenge for many churches. Under current government rules they typically cannot buy land or expand. One church responded to the rules by building several stories up. Others cram into homes and multiply when they become too big.
Pastor “Miguel” leads a church that used to meet in an apartment but now meets in the yard next to it. “When you have 80 to 100 people meeting in an apartment it’s hard, very hard,” he said. “And neighbours get upset.” It’s a common theme in Cuban churches, but it seems to have also helped to encourage church growth. In the past 20 years, more than 16,000 evangelical churches have opened their doors. Pastor “Nestor” and his wife “Rosa” live in one room above their tiny house church. He said, “One of the things that has made us grow in faith has been the limitations and the difficulties.” On Sunday mornings and during weeknight services, only a few will have a real seat. “People here don’t care how comfortable they are,” Rosa explained. “They could be exhausted from working all day and they will sit on a bag of rocks, a stitched up chair, or stand the whole service, and they’re okay with that.”
Cuban church leaders say events led by the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s sparked the current church planting explosion. “When the Russian government collapsed Cuba went through a lot, and people started looking to churches for hope,” Pastor “Julio” said. At the same time, the government ended its atheistic philosophy that denied the existence of God and instead declared itself a secular state, prompting an entire generation to question what it believed. During that period a government official told Cuban Baptists that the government could not authorize the construction of new buildings but suggested that the believers meet in homes. The casual suggestion sparked a house church movement that many have compared to church history recorded in the book of Acts.
Pastor “Francisco” is one of thousands of Cuban house church pastors who have tremendous passion. He came to the Lord after having dreams about Jesus for three years. Now he leads a small neighbourhood church that meets three times a week. “We have evangelized everyone who lives in this area, a New Testament Bible to each home,” he said. “We can’t stop — we won’t stop — because even if they won’t accept the Lord the first, second, third or fourth time, even so — we can’t stop until they come to the Lord.” The growth of the church in Cuba is even more miraculous given the country’s poverty. The average monthly government salary is $20 and professionals typically make less than $50. Still, Cuban churches are known for their generosity and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel. “What we have we want to share with others,” Francisco said. “What we have, not what we have left over.”
Another obstacle facing Cuban churches is spiritual warfare in the form of Santeria. It’s a system of beliefs influenced by West African religions and Catholicism. Santeria is known for its rituals and ceremonies. Pastor Nestor has faced resistance right in the neighbourhood. During one Sunday morning worship service, a group of Santeria followers stood just outside the church and began beating their drums. “It was kind of like a spiritual face-off,” Nestor recalled. “The church just started praying and then we prayed for rain and all of a sudden there was thunder so they had to leave.” Church leaders in Cuba say they’re enjoying a new season of relaxed restrictions. It’s easier to evangelize outside the church and they receive more permits to hold special events. Still, most churches cannot expand or buy land. They cannot produce Christian radio or television shows. They must also work around a dysfunctional economy.
US DIPLOMAT HORRIFIED BY EXTERMINATION OF CHRISTIANS
China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the dozens of countries the State Department is calling out for serious religious freedom abuses. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein explained how the United States is working to help religious minorities around the world. Christians worldwide are watching in horror as their brothers and sisters across the globe are beheaded, raped, and crucified by Islamic State for refusing to convert to Islam. “Yazidis and Christians have borne the worst brunt of the persecution by ISIL and other violent religious extremists. Attacks on these communities are part of a systematic effort to erase their presence from the Middle East. “We’re horrified when we see these acts of violence,” Ambassador Saperstein said.
“There is a growing mood of intolerance by more extremist expressions of religion often in countries where different religions had lived together for centuries with some degree of cooperation and respect,” Saperstein said. Where Christian and other minorities are fleeing for their lives, Saperstein says his office is spending billions of dollars to maintain the displaced. He’s also dealing with other problems many may not have considered, like “transitional justice” for Iraqi Christians who fled from the Nineveh Plain, Mosul and other regions. “If you think about it, scores of thousands of Christians fled those areas in order to save the lives of their families,” Saperstein noted. “Some of their neighbours took over their homes, took over their businesses. “They’re gonna go back; that has to be sorted out,” he said. “There has to be a transitional justice system set up and the international community is working on that.”
Some critics say the Obama administration could be doing more to protect religious minorities, especially in places like the Middle East. But Saperstein disagreed with that assessment. “The argument that you can do more is always a difficult one to assess. Look at what our intervention has already done. We had the Yazidi community facing a literal genocide. That was the explicit intention, the express intention of ISIL,” Saperstein said. “There are certainly scores of Yazidis alive today and perhaps hundreds of thousands because the United States-led intervention,” he added. Meanwhile, some Iraqi Christians are now taking up arms to defend themselves. “None of those local defence forces will be large enough to defend themselves against a powerful entity like ISIL, so we’re urging that they be integrated with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces through some sort of National Guard structure,” Saperstein said.
“No matter where you see religious oppression and deprivation of freedom and people being punished, imprisoned, tortured, harassed because they simply want to live out their faith in accordance with their conscience and worship God as they truly believe, it breaks our hearts,” Saperstein said. “I come from a community that’s been amongst the quintessential victims of religious oppression and discrimination and persecution over the centuries,” said Saperstein, who is a Jewish rabbi. “I know what happens when good people stand by idly and silently while another group is being oppressed simply because of their religious identity, and for me that animates part of my response to protect Christians, protect minorities all across the globe, to protect any people who are being oppressed,” he said.
THE DAY JESUS INVADED A BUDDHIST MONASTERY IN THE HIMALAYAS
Tyler Connell, is currently in the Himalayan Mountains distributing Bibles, praying for the sick, and preaching the Good News. “We hope to get a bible in every home in the next two years,” Tyler said. “It’s exciting to be a small part in changing history in Nepal with God!” A month ago, Tyler and his team trekked to a village called Jhong, one of the highest villages in Nepal. “We wanted desperately to know where the Spirit was wanting us to go,” he recounted. They split into groups of four and prayed for the Holy Spirit to direct their paths. Tyler’s group felt led to walk to the highest point of the village where they observed ancient ruins. At the moment they reached the peak, a monk appeared, smiling as he approached them. “Hi, I’m Jems,” he said in perfect English. “We’ve been watching you guys; it is rare for anyone foreign to come to our village. Would you like to come inside our monastery?”
Tyler sensed it was a God-moment. They entered the monastery and were met by men and boys of all ages, studying under “the llama of the Monastery mountain.” They met the llama and continued to converse with their new friend, Jems, who studied under the Dalai Llama in India and learned English there. “We are followers of Jesus” Tyler told the monk. “I once heard of Jesus in India, but wasn’t able to do any reading on who He was,” the man replied. “Can we introduce you to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus?” one asked. “He said yes and put out his hands,” Tyler recounts. “Suddenly the power and peace of God descended, his eyes got big, he began to take steps back, and began to laugh and shake his head in disbelief. “He said he’d never felt a peace or power like this. We gave him a bible, and he insisted we come back in the morning to meet the other monks.”
Twelve hours later Tyler and his team returned. Jems said he wasn’t able to spend time with them because he had errands to run, but he invited them to meet with the other monks. They entered the monastery and were met by a monk in his late 20s. “He invited us into the idol room, the ‘holy of holies’ for the monastery. “It was dark and heavy, perfect ingredients for the Gospel to break into!” Tyler recounts. As they sat down, one of the team received a word that someone in the monastery was injured. The man’s eyes widened. “Yes, I am injured and my back is in pain!” he replied. They asked if they could pray for him in the name of Jesus for healing and the monk agreed. As they began to pray, a “sweet, heavy glory filled the idol room.” The man had the same experience as Jems. “I feel a peace and a power like never before!” the monk exclaimed. “It feels as though this major blessing has entered into me.”
He tested his back and discovered he was completely healed, saying it felt like a “hot and icy sensation” covered his body. The monk said he had heard of Jesus 15 years ago, when a man came to his village and told stories about Jesus, but he couldn’t read, so he didn’t fully understand who Jesus was. “Thankfully, we had a translator and she explained the entire Gospel to him and gave him a bible. He was grinning from ear to ear, and was so thankful, and told us he wanted to read more and was going to pray and ask Jesus to reveal Himself to him. We were overjoyed at the kindness of Jesus. We handed out more bibles to monks and joyfully skipped down the mountain remembering with gratitude the day Jesus invaded a Buddhist monastery!”
VATICAN SAYS TRANSGENDER MAN CANNOT BE A GODPARENT
The Vatican has rejected a request by a transgender man in Spain to become a godparent, ruling that his sexual identity made him incapable of carrying out the task. Alex Salinas was asked to be godfather to his nephew, but the bishop of his local diocese questioned his gender identity. Salinas was born a woman but has since undergone hormone therapy and has a male ID. He is currently waiting for gender surgery. Bishop Zornoza rejected the family’s request to name Salinas as a godfather. After a media storm, he wrote to the Vatican for advice. In a statement the bishop said he turned to the Vatican due to “confusion among some of the faithful” and “the complexity and media attention garnered by this issue.” Zornoza published the Vatican’s reasoning for rejecting Salinas’ wish.
The statement from the Vatican concluded: “It is clear that this person does not meet the requirement of carrying out a life conforming to the faith and the position of godfather.” Zornoza noted that Pope Francis had addressed gender issues before. While not referring to transgender people specifically, the pope wrote: “The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home.” Still, the pope has welcomed transgender people with symbolic gestures. In January, he met with a transgender Spaniard at the Vatican. In March, transgender prisoners near Napes, Italy, were invited to lunch with Francis. And recently Francis met privately with renegade French Bishop Jacques Gaillot at the Vatican. Gaillot, has welcomed and blessed LGBT people. His visit with Francis was a sign the pope wants to reach out to people on the margins.
CATHEDRALS BOOMING THANKS TO LATE NIGHT SHOPPING TACTICS
It has been blamed for helping empty the pews on Sunday mornings and even described as Britain’s true national religion. But the national passion for shopping could hold the key to a revival in flagging church attendance. New figures from the Church of England show that some of the country’s oldest cathedrals are seeing congregations grow after learning the lessons of the world of retail, including introducing their own version of late night shopping. More than 10 million people visited cathedrals in England last year and almost 37,000 attended Sunday or midweek services – up almost a quarter in a decade. The boom in cathedral attendances is despite an overall slump in attendance at local parish Sunday services. Cathedral clerics say people are often drawn by the traditional music, the contemplative atmosphere and the fact that large city churches offer services at different times of the day and throughout the week.
But several cathedrals have benefited from moves to attract late-night shoppers by opening late themselves. St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle upon Tyne, has introduced a “night church” idea, opening late on Fridays and inviting people to experience stillness and contemplation. It regularly attracts around 300 people for late night services. Salisbury Cathedral has been offering late night classical concerts by candle-light during the summer and Liverpool Cathedral opens its tower late on Thursday evenings. The Very Reverend Christopher Dalliston, Dean of Newcastle, said: “One of the things we’ve done is to try to respond to the number of tourists and visitors. “We’ve developed a chaplaincy scheme so as well as having welcomers to help people who want to come and explore we can articulate clearly the spiritual dimension of the cathedral and we have found that’s been enormously appreciated.”
TEXAS REPORTS 4,500 FEWER ABORTIONS AFTER PASSING MAJOR PRO-LIFE LAWS
The Texas Department of State Health Services has reported that 63,849 abortions were done in Texas in 2013. This was 4,449 fewer abortions than in 2012, and down from more than 77,000 in 2010. 2013 is the latest year for which the state has released abortion statistics, and the first year that several pro-life laws were in full effect. Both pro-life and pro-abortion advocates have said the downward trend in abortions is because of pro-life laws in Texas. Texas Right to Life Communications Director Melissa Conway said that “we’re now seeing the full impact of pro-life laws in Texas. The number of abortions has declined as life-saving legislation goes into effect.” There is now a 24-hour waiting period and mandatory ultrasounds. The state passed a law requiring all abortionists to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Abortion clinics were also required to upgrade their facilities or close, which many did.
SMUGGLED BIBLES RESULTING IN LOTS OF NEW BELIEVERS IN CLOSED COUNTRIES
There are now 700,000 believers among a tribal group that Vision Beyond Borders (VBB) has focused on getting Bibles to for the past twenty years! In another country nearby, there are over 25,000 believers from the same tribe. God is definitely on the move. Five years ago, many had no Gospel witness; today, there are now churches in many of these villages! God has watered the seed of His Word and is bringing in His end-time harvest. This same multiplication is taking place throughout the closed countries in which VBB work. However times are changing, and there may only be a short window of time to get God’s Word into many closed nations. Please pray that God would continue to keep open the borders so that organisations such as VBB can deliver His Word to those in need.
TV SHOWS FOR CHILDREN SHOW RECORD NUMBER OF HOMOSEXUAL CHARACTERS
Awareness and acceptance of homosexuality has been gaining widespread support across the world and it is even affecting children’s TV. Jeff Johnston, Christian media watcher, reports that “There are definitely more gay and transgender characters and stories in children’s television.” Parents who are concerned about the morals and values to which their children are being exposed ought to be aware that homosexual, transgender, and sexually ambiguous characters are becoming more prevalent not only in television shows, but in books and games as well. One example of this trend from current children’s television includes the boy from the Australian cartoon series “SheZow” who finds a “power ring” that changes him into a girl. Johnston warned that “Children are not equipped to handle these adult themes” and these shows may leave them questioning the “sexually-confusing messages.”
CHURCHES PROTESTING AS CHINA CONTINUES ITS CROSS CRACKDOWN
Chinese officials in Zhejiang province are continuing their campaign of tearing down crosses from churches. Recently, a group of Catholics wept and prayed outside their church as authorities used a blow torch to cut down their cross. “They say we have religious freedom. Is this freedom?” one congregation member said. “Have we violated any national laws? We are good Chinese citizens.” Officials are believed to have a 20-month deadline to remove every cross from the province’s 4,000 churches. Demolition crews have met resistance as parishioners hold prayer vigils and block the entrances to church grounds. Even state-approved Christian churches are protesting the campaign. In a strongly worded letter, Zhu Weifang, an officially appointed bishop, urged parishioners to “fight by law of reason to defend our very basic right to our religion.”