By Bob Allen
A dozen U.S. Baptists recently traveled to Cuba to learn about Baptists there and bridge religious, political and cultural differences dividing the two countries.
A delegation from Churchnet, also known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, and two congregations engaged in ongoing partnership with sister churches in Cuba, spent a week in the island nation in October.
They were participants in the 40th anniversary celebration of the Coordination of Baptist Workers and Students in Cuba, a group formed in 1974 by young Baptists responding to social change in the 1960s and forces like liberation theology arising in Latin America.
“Although separated by a physical distance of only 90 miles, the U.S. and Cuba remain worlds apart politically and culturally,” Brian Kaylor, Churchnet communications and engagement team leader, told the News-Tribune in Jefferson City, Mo. “We traveled to Cuba to demonstrate we will not allow national borders or politics to divide us from our Cuban brothers and sisters.”
Gary Snowden, leader of Churchnet’s missions mobilization team, led a breakout session on religious liberty.
“One of the lasting impressions I took away from the trip was the strong commitment of Cuban Baptists to reach their island nation for Christ with the gospel, while at the same time striving to improve the overall living conditions of their people,” Snowden said in a story written by Kaylor for Word and Way.
“We heard a lot of concern for justice and economic issues as well as a healthy interest in caring for the world that God has given us as good stewards of it,” said Snowden, also associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “These same Baptists also expressed a pronounced pride in their country and displayed patriotic fervor.”
Other members of the delegation came from Kirkwood Baptist Church in St. Louis and Northminster Church in Monroe, La. Both congregations have ongoing partnerships with a church in Cuba as part of a decades-old exchange between the Alliance of Baptists in the United States and the Fraternity of Cuban Baptist Churches.
Baptists in Cuba have a complex history shaped largely by influence from the United States.
Protestants first emerged in Cuba in the 1880s. After the Spanish-American War liberated Cuba from Spanish rule in 1898, the Southern Baptist Convention and what is today known as the American Baptist Churches USA agreed for purposes of missionary work to divide the island between east and west.
The Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, constituted in Havana in 1905 with support of the SBC Home Mission Board, emphasized evangelism and church planting. The Eastern Baptist Convention, developed under leadership of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, tended to be more indigenous and ecumenical when compared to the stronger missionary presence in the west.
The divide grew more pronounced with the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. Some Baptists in Cuba supported the revolution, while others were loyal to deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista, who protected U.S. business interests in Cuba and left behind economic inequality, massive unemployment and an illiteracy rate of 50 percent.
When the Marxist leaders of the revolution clashed with the U.S. government, more than 70 percent of Baptist pastors in the western convention opted for exile in Florida. The majority of Baptists in the east, meanwhile, remained in Cuba.
Some of the U.S. missionaries left Cuba, while others stayed behind. In 1965 two Southern Baptist missionaries were accused of spying and imprisoned. One served 20 months of a 10-year sentence before his release to be treated for failing eyesight, while the other served four years of hard labor before finally winning his freedom.
Cuba relaxed restrictions on religious freedom in 1992, allowing for limited travel opportunities for both U.S. Baptists to visit Cuba and Cuban Baptists to attend Alliance of Baptists meetings in the United States.
The Fraternity of Cuban Baptist Churches was formed in 1989 by three churches kicked out of the western convention for more liberal views on issues like politics, baptism and women’s ordination.
In 2013 the Florida Baptist Convention entered a partnership with the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention modeled after one with the Western Cuba Baptist Convention established in 1997. American Baptists began curtailing their involvement in eastern Cuba in 1999.
Kaylor said one purpose of the gathering was to revive the Coordination of Baptist Workers and Students in Cuba after years of inactivity.
Snowden said hard feelings between the groups apparently haven’t totally subsided. He said in a blog that some members of the western convention were reportedly planning to come, until they learned that some of the program participants were from the eastern convention and the Fraternity and then withdrew.