Are We Ready to Send Missionaries to Cuba?

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

President Obama recently announced that the United States will once again establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Official relations with the island nation were suspended in 1961 when Fidel Castro declared the country to be a communist state in cooperation with the, now defunct, Soviet Union. Although the U.S. change in diplomacy towards Havana does not automatically include the end of the decades long economic embargo imposed against it by the Treasury Department, it opens the door for dramatic change overall in the relationship between our two countries.

My interest in Cuba is profound. My wife, Caridad, was born in Cuba. Her family immigrated in 1968 near the end of the period of open departure permitted by the Castro regime. Although she has since become an American citizen, because my wife was born there I am granted a license by the U.S. government to visit Cuba freely and have traveled to the island six times. My first ministry following university was to found and shepherd a Spanish language church in Tampa, Florida which was comprised primarily of Cuban exiles. In 1994, when the Soviet bloc had crumbled and it seemed that Castro’s downfall was inevitable, we raised funds to become resident missionaries in Havana. Following a series of interactions with both Cuban and American officials in Washington, D.C., we were promised permission to reside in Havana. Eight days before our family was scheduled to travel there for the final authorization of our resident visas, our aspirations to become the first American missionaries in Cuba since the revolution were demolished. The Cubans shot down two civilian aircraft which they accused of having violated their airspace. The diplomatic fallout left us in limbo for nearly a year while we tried, without success, to move forward with our goals. Eventually, I acquiesced to reality and accepted a position working with our mission agency and later became the director of missions at Bob Jones University.

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

When I was a young, aspiring missionary to Cuba, I presumed that I would go to the island and start a church and do Christianity “right.” By right, of course, I meant importing American church life and theological perspective into the religious environment of Havana. While I was aware at that time that there were fully functioning churches in Cuba, I simply assumed with typical youthful arrogance that I would “do church” better. Under communism in Cuba the church was never eliminated or forced “underground.” Rather, it was subverted and, like everything else in Cuba, dominated by “Fidelismo.” Churches had many regulations and parameters which they were forced to accept, but by and large the church was functioning well. My various visits to the island had brought me into contact with numbers of pastors and believers who were fervent in their devotion to Christ and who, in many cases, had paid dearly for that devotion. Though I visited few actual church services due to the repercussions that such visits brought to church leaders, the times I did visit featured packed congregations with people even listening through the windows. To be sure, the church has waxed and waned in Cuba through cycles of relative openness and persecution, but it never went away and continues to boldly proclaim the Gospel.

Over the years since my hopes of living and ministering in Cuba were disappointed, I have often wondered what would take place when the inevitable time of openness between our two countries would be restored. As I gradually relinquished the angst regarding God’s sovereign redirection of my life plans I began to embrace His wisdom in keeping me out of Cuba. If I had gone as a missionary when I planned, I fear that I would not have been very effective in ministry. I would have brought a colonialist, ethnocentric attitude and methodology. I would have attempted to shape converts to Christ to follow Him in ways that matched my American Christian experience. To be sure, my experience in working with Cuban exiles in Florida for nearly a decade would have helped prevent the worst of anti-contextual missionary behavior, but I am sure that I would have viewed myself as some sort of American hero, newly arrived to set things right. That kind of thing happened a lot in the former Soviet countries when missionaries flooded into the newly opened territory. Many entered without any regard for the faithful Christ followers there who had borne their crosses into prison, exile or death. They brought a better way to follow Jesus, one filled with American methodology and triumphalist philosophy. Will that happen in Cuba? I pray not. In some ways, I believe that Christianity in Cuba may be stronger under oppression than it might be in freedom. And I believe that not having American missionaries there for more than fifty years may have been a blessing. The situation has forced Cuban believers to rely on the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone for direction and help, and that has made them strong.

So what should be our response if the day arrives that we can freely send missionaries to Cuba? First, we should remember that Cuba is not a pioneer mission field with only a few believers. New to America does not equate new to the Gospel. Much of the current evangelical ministry in Cuba has missionary roots dating back to the early 20th century or earlier and much of what continues there has become more truly indigenous during the years of Cuba’s cultural isolation. Additionally, while Americans have been restricted from ministering in Cuba, many Latin Americans from various countries have continued to faithfully enter the country and encourage the believers there. Second, the best thing we can do for the church of Cuba is come alongside of it and strengthen what God is already doing through it. Rather than assume that American missionaries should go in to do the evangelism, discipleship and church planting that can be accomplished, we must seek to understand the priorities and Gospel oriented ambitions of our Brothers and Sisters already in the country and find ways to serve them. This may take the form of educational assistance, leadership training, organizational support or financial aid. That doesn’t mean that American missionaries should not be engaged, it simply means that we should be sure that whatever we do does not disregard the Cuban church by ignoring it or competing with it. We must take the time to build relationships rather than promote an agenda that presumes that we have all of the answers before we take the time to ask any questions.

After all these years, my heart still yearns for Cubans to know Christ. So I pray that we will learn from our missiological mistakes of the past and cooperate with those courageous men and women who have shouldered the responsibility to make Him known through troubled times and enter with humble hearts, ready to learn from them and serve their aspirations to make Him known to their compañeros.

Mark Vowels

Mark Vowels

Mark Vowels is the Director of Missions for Bob Jones University. He and his wife Cary are passionate about all aspects of missions. They have traveled the world to visit missionaries, taught in many countries, taken mission teams far and wide and invested themselves in the spread of the Gospel. In addition to his service to BJU, Mark is an elder and chairman of the missions committee of Heritage Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina. He is a member of the board of directors of Biblical Ministries Worldwide as well as the advisory board for IBM Global Missions.

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