The culmination of the Methodist missionaries’ trip to Cuba in February was a three-day celebration and series of services held at the recently restored church in Mayari. The celebration included a conference of officials from the Methodist Church in Cuba, a sermon from American Pastor Brian Brightly, a graduation ceremony for Cuban priests and a presentation for developmentally disabled kids.
The building, which was built in 1944, was renovated over the last three years, at least, with the help of aid from churches like the BGUMC.
We arrived in Mayari for the first time at night and there was still scaffolding standing in front of the stage and the banners proclaiming this generation’s dedication to heaven had not yet been hung.
Over the next three days, that church would be filled at all hours with people, performances, music and preachers. It would become apparent that Cubans worship differently than Americans – loud music and impassioned, almost violently delivered sermons mark the cultos, or services. The congregation itself may spill into the aisles or stage and dance during songs. Even during quieter moments the worshippers lift their hands, shut their eyes and turn their faces upward. Those faces are usually masks of supreme effort or emotion.
At the height of the three days of sermons, part of the congregation collapsed in a fervor and writhed on the floor of the church before regaining themselves.
This was a shock to some of the American observers.
Pastor Brightly suggested that the Cuban style of worship is a result of their having been oppressed during the period when the government took a harder stance on religious worship. During that time, according to some, that hostility bled out into the populace.
A government employee and member of the congregation who asked not to be named told me that there were times when churches hung curtains or other obstructions in the doorways during services because people passing by would throw rocks into the building.
If that’s true, it was a very different atmosphere that pervaded during the three days of the conference.
Brightly said that much of the change over the last 12 years can be attributed to work done not only by the Methodist church, but by the Roman Catholic church and the current pope. The message coming from the Vatican is now one of compassion and equality, he said, the same kind that Castro’s slogans promised but never delivered.
The Methodist church has a significant role to play in reshaping aspects of life in Cuba, he added, but not by adopting hard-line stances on controversial issues.
Brightly’s philosophy is built on mission work. He said that Cuba can become free because of its uniquely impassioned populace, which has been turning more rapidly to religion. The Methodist church in Cuba grew by 3.5 percent last year, he said, whereas in the United States it shrank by 1.5 percent.
The district hosting the conference, the Hoguin Norte district, has 37 churches. According to Dan Christopherson, a Methodist church lay-leader, there are more than 300 all over Cuba.
Other religions are seeing a revival of sorts, too. Just up the street a Catholic Church has just been renovated and the slavic priest tending the churchyard garden happily showed me around.
When I asked him why he came to preach in Cuba, he pointed upward.
Though it’s impossible to say just how religion will change in Cuba, there seems to be an integration of the communist ideology with religion.
During a sunny Saturday afternoon, away from the noise and intensity of the conference, a woman approaches me as I sit on a park bench and asks me if the book I’m holding is a Bible. I tell her it isn’t, but she asks me if we can speak freely and then tells me that we are all brothers and sisters under God and that everything in creation belongs to him.