They asked for colostomy bags.”
“Colostomy bags. They have two cancer patients that need them, and she says there are none anywhere in Havana.” The “she” was Claudia, a young nurse, member of the Reformed Church in Cuba, and President of the Cuban Chapter of the Christian Nurses Association.
City Seminary Board Member Jose Fabila was getting the “must-have” list together of items we could take with us two days hence. Thousands of doses of antihistamines, ibuprofen, various surgical and wound treatment supplies, Imodium, etc. — even a few antibiotics. But it was the colostomy bags for two specific cancer patients that underscored and personalized the very real and urgent needs overwhelming her and her team’s diaconal efforts.
While Jose managed the diaconal needs, he and I were actually in Cuba for another purpose — to meet with the students, staff, and faculty of the Reformed seminary in Jagüey Grande. Jagüey Grande is about two hours drive from Havana into the interior, and the “Geneva” of the Cuban Reformation. As you will learn, this seminary, the state of the Reformed churches in Cuba, as well as the heartrending diaconal needs for food and medicine are inextricably intertwined. Understanding the situation, and deciding where and how to help, requires something of a theological and institutional road map.
The Reformed Church in Cuba began in 1944 when a Reformed woman named Jesse Vander Valk moved to work in Cuba with the Cuban Evangelical Association, but the organization dissolved that same year. Unwilling to abandon the field, she founded mission stations in Matanzas Province, home to Jaguey Grande, introducing the Reformed faith, and marrying Cuban pastor Rev. Vicente Izquierdo. The couple decided to continue this work and formed the Interior Gospel Mission.
In 1958, the Christian Reformed Church of North America sent two pastors to investigate this indigenous work, leading to its adoption as a mission field; however, the following year, that came to an abrupt halt with the 1959 Castro revolution. The CRC would never send missionaries, although the field continued to be supported with prayer and funding. That support would dwindle and all but disappear as the two churches grew further apart, theologically. The CRC drifted into liberalism, while the Cuban church clung stubbornly to its homegrown theological conservatism.
The Revolution, of course, proved no friend to Christianity. The government became a police state, banning the formation of any new denominations after 1959, a ban which exists to this day. Gender and racial quotas were required of church leadership structures. It is here where things became very interesting, indeed. Following the Revolution, the Reformed men began quietly getting out. For those who escaped, it would often take ten years or more of labor to scrape together enough money to bring their families out. By 1966, the pastors and elders were virtually all gone. In fact, only a single pastor remained – the synod president. It was then that the women of the churches stepped forward, quite reluctantly, and kept the consistories going — until the present day.
You can imagine the Christian Reformed Church of nearly sixty years ago being confronted with women serving, essentially, in the roles of deacons and elders. But with just a single Reformed pastor left in the entire country, the CRC faced the reality that either the women would stand in the gap, or the churches would close. They chose to support keeping the churches open. The drain of men leaving the country has never ended. The path of escape just got riskier.
One man who drove us back to our lodgings on Sunday after church had escaped by boat to the U.S. He worked here until he could acquire an old boat to go back for his family. On the fateful day of his return, with his family waiting on the beach, the boat’s engine died. Both he and his family were captured by the military. The government decided to let his family go, but this man spent the next fifteen years in prison. He was serving his last month of probation the day we met. He serves the Reformed church humbly and quietly, and is resigned to staying, but the exodus of other men continues. People are wistful and sad at the emigration, but not resentful. Everyone understands the desire to rescue their families from persecution, and hunger, to live and worship freely. We would do well to mirror their attitude in this regard. The Lord will call some, or even many, to stay for the sake of the gospel, but not all of them, or all of us, are cut out to be missionaries.
At the church service in Havana that morning, we saw the result of police state demographics, women filling roles the Bible says men should fill. We met with women serving on such consistories (9 of the 10 existing churches lack male elders), we were asked by these women to pray that the Lord would send men to serve — and stay.
So, how did the church grow from a single pastor in 1966 to every church having a male pastor today? The answer is in how the Lord used separation from the Christian Reformed Church, and a faithful seminary to stem, and reverse the tide. And how was it that the church survived without being co-opted by the government?
The Seminary in Jaguey Grande
In 2022, we had met with two men, the Rev. Jesus Rivero, the President of the Reformed synod, and a fellow faculty member of the seminary. They had broken away from their decades-old relationship with the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The liberal drift of the U.S. church had frustrated them, but ironically, the ordination of women to the ministry was the final straw. The Cubans were praying for God to restore in Cuba the very thing the U.S. church was abandoning! We spent that first visit vetting one another on our respective understanding of what it means to be Reformed. For us, it was like a breath of fresh air. There was complete agreement on infallibility, inerrancy, 6-day creationism, biblical marriage, etc. We did not, of course, represent the RCUS in any official capacity, but it was impossible to separate the discussion of the seminary from that of the church. After our initial meetings in 2022, City Seminary agreed to underwrite the costs of the Cuban seminary, but restrict our work with the Cuban Reformed Church to diaconal support. It will take wiser heads than ours to figure out the ecclesiastical issues. It is also not our role. The seminary should, indeed must, defer to the judicatories of the church in such matters.
The reason City Seminary had elected to embrace the work of the Jaguey Grande seminary was because it was the seminary that was providing sound and faithful pastors to the churches. The ecclesiology courses at the seminary teach an uncompromisingly biblical view of church government, and its graduates are committed to the restoration of biblical leadership roles. Today, every one of the ten congregations has a male pastor, but most depend upon “Las Madres” – the mothers of the church — to serve as surrogate consistory members.
The men who remain in the congregations often lack the education or theological training to serve as officers. When we suggested to the synod president that they needed to put a copy of R. B. Kuiper’s “Glorious Body of Christ” into the hands of every man in the church, he replied, “We would love to do that, only we have but a single copy, and it is in English.” Once again, we were expecting our brethren to make bricks without straw. Rev. Dennis Roe secured a digital copy of Kuiper’s book in Spanish, and it is now being circulated in Cuba. One of the pastors at our meeting in Jaguey Grande also asked for commentaries on the Belgic Confession. While the church is seeking to become more confessional with each passing day, the lack of resources in Spanish is a huge handicap, and one we need to keep on the front burner.
We asked how the church had kept from being compromised by government control, and they simply smiled and shrugged. As it turns out, without taking a single step to conform, they were well above “quota” for women in leadership. Based in Matanzas Province, the Reformed churches also have a very large percentage of non-white members. The same is true in the seminary. Thus, in the Lord’s providence, they have been spared the bitter fruits of forced compromise that have afflicted most of the denominations in Cuba.
Their independence was put to the test when the government sponsored a same-sex marriage referendum to attract more LGBT tourism. Unlike the compromised denominations which announced their support, the Reformed pastors took a bold, and public stand against it. The consequences of such actions can mean a loss of government employment (90% of all jobs are government), denial of access to university for family members, and other subtle forms of harassment. Thankfully, the sad state of the Cuban economy has actually led to more freedom, not less, since the state, like the people, is simply trying to survive.
Reluctantly, the government has now dropped its limitations on how much medicine visitors may bring in, and turned a blind eye to the widespread use of American dollars we witnessed. Only a few months ago, using dollars was forbidden. (We have also begun to find workarounds to the Cuban government banking system that would convert U.S. dollars into Cuban pesos at a tiny fraction of their “street value”).
As we sat looking at the city that lay just across Havana harbor, Synod President Jesus Rivero said to me, “I do not believe our churches will have formal relations with one another in your lifetime, or mine, as much as we may wish it. We understand that our lack of elders prevents this. All we can do is pray that the Lord gives us men to serve.” With ten faithful pastors, and seven students preparing for the gospel ministry at the seminary, I share both Pastor Rivero’s assessment, as well as his hope for that future neither of us may live to see.
“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
II Corinthians 10:4-5 NKJV