No. 3 September 1999

Dear friends,

Before I ever had the chance to visit Cuba - which I did for the first time in January, 1980, as a budding Vice-President of the Latin American Council of Churches in-Formation - I was already acquainted with the Spanish version of a song that had been launched in the Caribbean, in English, with the title of The Right Hand of God. Its syncopated rhythm and catchy melody had made it easy for the song to be translated into Spanish, and the musician-composer Lois Kroehler, a fraternal worker in Cuba, had undertaken to do just that (even adding a stanza of her own in the process).

La Mano de Dios, as the Spanish version was called, gained tremendous popularity in the faith communities in Latin America because it gave expression to the confidence and hope of Christians in God’s purposes of love for the human community. It spoke of God’s hand moving in the world to destroy age-old oppression, and bringing about new conditions of justice and human dignity. It was easy to guess that many Cuban Christians connected the words to the mysterious work that God was doing in and through the transformations that were taking place in their society as a result of the socialist revolution of 1959. Believe me, it was a song they and we sang with gusto in the Latin American situation.

But when I actually visited the churches and ecumenical organizations across that island during the first days of 1980, I was amazed to discover the particular circumstances in which my Cuban sisters and brothers were actually singing that song. The churches were practically empty. For the most part, their members had migrated to other spaces in the society, or gone north, in droves, to the United States. Those who were actually engaged in regular worship life, Christian witness, and theological reflection in the country were very, very few. The Cold War, anti-Cuban hostility, and the effects of an imposed blockade had everything to do with that, but so did the obstinacy of an atheist system, and the resulting notion that the churches were irrelevant. In addition, there was the simple fact that Christians face

What did it mean to sing about God’s hand in such circumstances? Was God acting in society and bypassing the church? How was one to see the relationship between the evident signs of God’s Reign in the concrete conditions of life of the Cuban people, and the dwindling prestige and influence of the churches? Was God working at the expense of the church? And what did "numbers" mean? How serious were we when we talked about "Christian presence" in societies undergoing rapid socio-political change, when in fact Christians were but an insignificant bunch of people? And what about evangelistic witness? How could sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and calling people to faith and discipleship, be done authentically in a situation in which it seemed possible for people to attain some of their fundamental hopes and aspirations?

The reason I raise all this is because of what follows, which is a vibrant first-hand account of the current evangelizing moment, a real kairos, in Cuba. In the wake of a series of unprecedented public celebrations by the Protestant churches there, I asked Suecia Méndez, a young, bright journalist who is an active member of Cuba’s Presbyterian Reformed Church, if she would report on it for our benefit. I’m sure that her article will make your spirits soar in praise to the triune God for these bountiful manifestations of God’s faithful and unfailing love. But allow me to make a suggestion at this point. After you read Suecia’s report, return to some of the issues of the preceding paragraphs, and grapple with them in the light of what she narrates. And then, I propose that you also give thanks to God for the non-sensational witness of that "insignificant bunch" of Christians who, in earlier decades in Cuba, maintained worship life, faithfully told the story of Jesus, and prayed with their children and grand children. In those difficult years, this "unnoteworthy" group of people not only gave generously of their meagre material possessions to friends and strangers alike, but they shared their professional skills and buoyant spirituality with people facing hardship in far-way lands. Over the decades, these same small people courageously embraced social and political changes whenever they saw in them an embodiment of the Gospel, and addressed deficiencies and errors that appeared in the changing Cuban processes. Their testimony relates integrally to Suecia’s report, and it seems to me that both speak powerfully of some of the actions of "the right hand of God" in Cuban society.

Following upon Suecia’s article, you will find another story "from the field". This time it is Noel Villalba, an educator and pastor from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, who prods our thinking on evangelism further with a very telling text.

Finally, you will come to a brand new section called, "from the Mailbox" which I hope will become a regular feature. It carries a selection of comments and reactions from letters that readers have sent in, thus offering you the opportunity to be part of a wider conversation on some of the concerns raised. Let me encourage you to write in response to this edition. Was it of interest? Would it be helpful to occasionally carry situational reports, such as the one here on Cuba?

Now read on. I will close for now with my best wishes to you for God’s blessings on your life and work.

Paz y bien,

Rev. Ana Langerak
Executive Secretary for
Mission and Evangelism

Celebration and Witness:
Cuban Churches Demonstrate New Vitality in a Changing Context

Suecia Méndez

Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, has been a focus of international attention for several decades, whether because of its social and political system, its economy, its natural beauty or the question of religion. The island has a surface area of 110.922 square kilometers and a population of 11 million. It possesses great natural riches and environmental resources and its people are hospitable and cheerful.

Looking at the island’s history, Cuba, just as other lands in the continent of Latin America and the Caribbean, was a Spanish colony for several centuries and remained one of Spain’s most valued places until the end of the 19th century. The start of the 20th century saw the end of Spanish colonial rule, and with it, the incursion into the island of the United States, which was achieved through legislation and new amendments to the Cuban constitution.

In 1959 a massive political, economic and social upheaval took place in Cuba and a new political system was established in the wake of the socialist revolution. This had major repercussions on Cuban society and the course of its development and internal dynamics, and left a strong impact on the country’s religious life.

On the religious front, the last four decades have been a rather difficult time in Cuba. Although no laws were passed prohibiting individuals from taking part in activities of a religious nature, people who went to church, or publicly professed their faith, somehow felt discriminated against or marginalized for being Christians. This situation - which was painful for many of those affected - fortunately, has changed in the last few years, for in 1990 church-state relations took a new turn and the government began to show greater openness towards the country’s religious life. The Council of Churches of Cuba played an influential role in this recent phase and it is recognized that its efforts helped to bring about the changed climate in relationships.

Against this background, from 1990 onwards, the churches in Cuba started to experience a strong surge of growth. The era of few children and young people became a thing of the past, as there was a rush of people looking for a place to express their faith publicly and share it with a community. People who had never heard anything about the gospel began to turn to the churches. Others who had abandoned the church in the 1960s and 1970s returned, anxious to make up for the lost years. Thus the church in Cuba became enormously vibrant at the beginning of this decade and people are still coming in because the process is continuing.

The last few years have also presented a huge task to the churches as they face the great challenge of growth, with the need to prepare materials for Christian education, provide information and guidance, and prepare people for membership in the church. The work of the laity has increased considerably and pastoral work has developed new profiles since the beginning of this decade. Furthermore, the churches in Cuba have been strongly engaged in action to address some of the social needs of the people. It should not be forgotten that at the same time that the churches were starting to grow the collapse of socialism in the countries of Eastern Europe plunged Cuba into a deep economic crisis. Owing to a strong international movement that developed to alleviate the harsh shortages of the Cuban people, the churches became important channels for humanitarian aid.

So we come to the historic Cuban Protestant Festival of May and June 1999, which is the main focus of this report. "Let us join hands in a circle from El Turquino to Havana, from the mountain to the sea." Anyone familiar with the geography of the island will realize that making a circle from El Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain in the extreme east of the country, to Havana - the capital city - in the west, means that the whole of Cuba joins in a beautiful Cuban dance. This image of unity, joyfulness, celebration, and the Spirit of God moving over a whole people rejoicing and praising God, comes from the hymn entitled "La Ronda", which became the theme of the Cuban Protestant Festival. It had been composed by a young Cuban.

The Festival itself was an event of major importance in Protestant history in Cuba, and in the history of ecumenism in Latin America and the Caribbean because, for the first time, forty-nine denominations joined efforts to take the gospel message to the people of the nation. One could say that while last year was a high point for Catholics in Cuba, with the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II and the impact it has had on every level of the country’s life, this year has been an outstanding one for the Protestants who have used all kinds of public squares, stadiums and open-air venues to proclaim God’s Word and offer a message of hope to the Cuban people.

The idea of holding a common celebration was first brought up in 1995 when the Council of Churches of Cuba thought of organizing a large congress, but the idea had to be dropped for lack of funds. Thereafter, it was decided to postpone the gathering until 1999, so as not to clash with the Pope’s visit to Cuba last year. It was also given a different focus. It would not be a congress, but a festival that would involve all the Cuban Protestant churches, and not just those who belong to the Council. In October 1998 a National Committee of fifteen members was formed to organize the event. Then, on 17 December, the first press release was sent to Cuban and foreign journalists, announcing publicly that the purpose of this Festival would be "to proclaim the hope of a new world and to contribute to building a better world, closer to the Christian ideal of love, peace and unity". The theme of the Festival was "Jesus Christ for all - Love, Peace and Unity", and its realization proved to be a great challenge not only for the Protestant people of Cuba, but for believers and non-believers, and men and women of good will, who began to prepare months ahead for the public events that would follow.

The Festival consisted of two distinct parts. The first was in May 1999, which was a time of study and preparation on the themes of Love, Peace and Unity, and of public concerts for Holy Week, and exchange visits among different denominations. During this period people familiarized themselves with the music composed for the events, the choirs started to rehearse, and a series of brochures, biblical material, folders, and Festival posters were distributed. A special effort was made to visit local congregations to explain what the event was about.

June 1999 was the month of rallies throughout the country. Some of these were held at a district level, others at a provincial level, and four at a national level. The nation-wide rallies, which took place in Baracoa, Holguin, Camaguey and Havana, had the privilege of being shown on national television. Each rally was different in style - reflecting the different characteristics of the regions - but all gave the population the chance to come together to praise God, sing choruses and traditional hymns, join hands, applaud, read the Word and share the message. Thousands and thousands of Christians who bore placards with slogans like "Jesus Lives", and "God loves you", as well as the words of the Festival theme, took part. Many carried Christian and Cuban banners to add colour.

It was not always easy to combine the features of so many different denominations in just a few services, nor was it easy to find the right balance. An effort was made in each service to have a combination of the traditional hymns of the historical denominations and the songs of praise typical of the Pentecostal denominations. But more important than the results achieved in these respects, was knowing that somehow, whether through our successes or our mistakes, the Spirit of God was at work, filling us and bearing fruit.

The Festival concluded on 20 June with a massive rally that was held in the "Plaza de la Revolución" (Revolution Square), where hundreds of thousands of Cubans gathered together from early morning to join in the act of praise. The festive service, which lasted about three hours, was greatly honoured by the presence of Dr Fidel Castro, President of this Caribbean nation, who had confirmed his intention to attend during an earlier meeting with a group of Protestant leaders. He was joined by other government officials and representatives of the diplomatic corps in Cuba. Another noteworthy presence was that of a delegation from the National Council of Churches of the USA, headed by its general secretary, Rev Joan Brown Campbell, and Rev Lucius Walker, who led the Ninth Solidarity Caravan of Pastors for Peace.

The rally in Havana was a beautiful expression of Cuban culture, whose richness was conveyed in music by a four-hundred-sixty-strong choir of Christians of different denominations, and an orchestra of thirty-five Christian musicians. A children’s choir of one hundred voices was also outstanding, as was the group of young people who gracefully danced to Cuban rhythms and Christian songs. The message for the occasion was given by Rev Pablo Oden Marichal, president of the Council of Churches of Cuba, who spoke eloquently on the theme of unity.

Throughout the service, the voices of participants could be heard calling out "Jesus lives!" Many of them were carrying placards with the theme of the festival "Jesus Christ for all", "Love, Peace, Unity", or "God is Love", "Jesus Christ is Lord".

The Cuban Protestant Festival tried to carry out evangelism without seeking to proselytize. It intended instead to present the liberating message of Jesus Christ in whom there is hope despite all the difficulties, problems and hard situations we face. It is Christ who accompanies us and never lets us go, even in the most difficult times and uncertain moments.

For someone like myself, who was born into an atheistic, socialist society where it was not easy to be a Christian, and who sees how the situation has changed over the years, how doors have been opened, barriers have fallen and walls have come down, this can only be the work of God. This Festival was a dream for forty years. Who could have imagined such a celebration even fifteen years ago? I wonder how many people have prayed for this opportunity, and how many devoted their whole lives to preaching the gospel and putting it into practice in a society with such a complex dynamic as Cuba.

Since the rallies came to a close, I have heard a great many opinions. Some of my friends who are not Christians commented, saying, "I sat and watched the service on television every Sunday morning, and I liked the message and the things they were talking about. It seemed very sincere." Others began to ask who Protestants are and why they held this Festival, so it was clearly a way of reaching the people and dialoguing with them. I remember an elated young Christian who came up to me after a service to share her joy, "This was beyond all my expectations!" An elder in my church, deeply moved, gave thanks to God, saying, "We have prayed for this celebration for forty years".

The concerns and questions that an event of this kind raises are numerous and this is precisely the challenge that our churches face today. We must reflect on our mission in the present and in the future. At this moment, we believe the Festival should not remain at the level of street preaching, for the seed has now been sown in many hearts and is beginning to bear new and fresh fruits. We see the work of the church as that of continuing to sow and nourish this seed of the Word of God.

What will happen after the Protestant Festival?

The Festival, with its host of activities and celebrations, cannot be regarded as something that is over and done with. There will obviously have to be an analysis and evaluation of this historic happening to identify new avenues for the future work of the Cuban Protestant churches. For example, thanks to the Festival many denominations which previously had no ecumenical involvement joined together to share and participate. So, an analysis of ecumenism in Cuba, with its basic aim of promoting unity among Protestant groups, will be very necessary for the future.

As Cuban Protestant churches, we will have to keep up our efforts to fulfil our role in society. One of the successes of the Festival is the fact that the church had access to spaces that were previously closed to it, like television, public arenas, and international radio. We have to try to hold on to these spaces and make of them a normal part of the life of society, and not something occasional and out of the ordinary.

It is clear that much remains to be done by the Cuban church. Its work is essential because our people stand in great need of the values of the gospel for their lives. May God guide us, therefore, and give us the wisdom and vision we need for the new times that await us.

Proclaiming Christ is not Easy
Noel Villalba

As I sat perspiring inside a hot and dusty bus in my hometown of Butuan, in Mindanao, the Philippines, and hoped for the bus to depart quickly so that its motion could give us some refreshing wind, a young man strode purposefully up the crowded bus alley. He opened his King James Version of the Bible to the Epistle to the Romans and began to read it in the vernacular. Without any preliminaries or self-introduction, he started to proclaim to the passengers in Cebuano, saying, "All have sinned and are condemned to die." I became uneasy in my seat and looked over my shoulder towards a dignified-looking Muslim couple in the back. The bus we were on was destined to go to Davao City, some 200 km. (or 7 hours) away.

Traveling on these buses over rough terrain, where terrorist bombs are known to explode halfway through the journey, is always risky. Even the Bachelor Express bus drivers are well-known devils-in-disguise, never stopping to bring their victims to the hospital when they run-over, smash or bump them on the road. I did not want to be reminded about the proximity of death inside this bus. I was here only because I was invited to give a sermon in the big church in Davao City about the ministry of the church to society and I had not yet written my sermon. I was hoping to have a peaceful journey and in any case bus rides often made me reflect hard on life.

The young man continued to threaten everyone about the consequences of sin, his saliva occasionally raining on the people around him. Unable to stand him any longer, a pot bellied, half-drunk tourist - probably an Australian - stood up and hollered, "Stop shouting. You are a very rude man!" The young preacher, who wasn’t familiar with English, couldn’t understand why the Australian was so sore. He preached even louder, and the Australian got even madder. I looked back and saw the Muslim couple share a private joke. When suddenly the evangelist smelled liquor on the breath of his tourist counterpart, he became even more virulent. He thrust his fist over the head of the Australian to drive home the theological point that demons indeed roam the earth.

Brusquely, the Australian got up and went out to look for a policeman, but he could only find a security guard to whom to complain about the rude man inside the bus. The guard, who was carrying a murderous-looking shotgun, inspected the bus, saw that no one was disturbing the peace, shrugged his shoulders, and alighted. This infuriated the Australian. "Is there no law in this land, against public disturbance?" As far as I could see, he was making a bigger disturbance outside the bus than the young man was making inside.

Our preacher had finished his proclamation. He was now praying, saying, "May God be with those who have peace in Christ. May God watch over them on this dangerous trip." Shivers ran up my spine. He then passed around small envelopes and blessed those who nervously inserted 1 peso, or 5 peso coins in them. After a while, he left. The Australian went back to his seat, and rambled on, "The hell with that fellow! I would never give a single cent to rude people. Hasn't he heard about churches, where preaching is listened to by those who want to listen?"

Proclaiming Christ is not easy, as even the young man in the bus knows. It is not simply a matter of proclaiming Jesus Christ (or in our predominantly Christian country, re-proclaiming redemption through him) in words. I work as a principal of a small church secondary school with fewer than four hundred students. The school is about 30 km. from my hometown, and I live on the campus. I also pastor a small peasant church about 7 km. from the school on Saturdays and Sundays. My school day begins about 5 a.m. when our Muslim neighbours call everyone to prayer through their chanting of "Allahu Akbar", and it ends when it gets dark.

The school was established in 1946 to give poor and deserving students an opportunity to be educated and to be evangelized. Evangelism has meant studying the Bible in classes, listening to exhortations in weekly chapel periods, learning Christian values, as well as studying English, Filipino, mathematics, biology, and learning about Jesus and his love for humanity.

Are we successful evangelizers? I do not know for sure. Yes there are those who accept Christ during the school year. There are those whose lives are changed for the better. There are those who turn from irresponsibility to become model students. They are a heartwarming sight. But for me, evangelism in this case is incomplete. Evangelism requires being transformed to the core of one's being, and through that transformation, becoming willing to be vulnerable in society. It is in being vulnerable that we become vessels of God's love, and it is in wrestling with poverty that we address basic questions about the Word of God. This is not as easy as it sounds. When poor students visit my office at the end of the month to make promises that they will pay their fees after the exams, I say they cannot take the exams. They must pay right then. I cannot allow myself to be vulnerable. I must protect the teacher's right to a wage, even if it is only less than US$100 per month wage. Teachers have to eat too.

There is no certainty that what we do contributes to the transformation of people. What we do have are hopes and prayers that through God's mercy, the love that we show in all our actions will bear fruit. What we know is that our lives are the instruments for the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Redeemer. No matter how imperfect we are as instruments, God can make use of us. In God's time.

From the Mailbox
You touched two topics near and dear to my heart: evangelism and women. I appreciated the honest tension you named in your letter: the well-earned suspicion about evangelization on the part of groups concerned for the rights and well-being of women, and the need for Christ to be proclaimed to all people "in all the nations". It is possible to evangelize while not transposing male-dominating or subordinating theologies on the backs of women. It takes willingness to examine the overlaps of cultural and political ideology, which have often been packaged with the sharing of the Gospel. The enclosed evangelism tool, "Women Healing and Empowering*", was developed to assist congregations in providing help and hope to women in past and present abusive relationships. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on both topics.

Rev. Marta Poling-Goldennse
Chicago, USA

* available to readers on payment from Augsburg Fortress Publisher, P.O. Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209. Tel: +800-328-4648; Fax: +612-330-3455; Web site:

I just re-read your letter on evangelism and I want to THANK YOU! It gave me back my confidence and came at the right moment. I would be very glad to receive you here in Lausanne. Your (already) friend (and a woman),

Mme. Ragnhild Lundesgaard
Lausanne, Switzerland

It is certainly right to raise women’s concerns along with evangelism, but I think that for any true believer evangelism is the priority number one. When we preach the Good News to both men and women, and when they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, they will also realize that men and women have equal rights before God. Before accepting Jesus many societies will not be able to recognize women’s rights. I think that in other religions they must raise this issue in the light of their own scriptures.

Rev. Kelhizulo Lasuh
Nagaland, N.E.India

I am writing to say how much I have appreciated your first two ecumenical newsletters on evangelism. I was particularly struck by your first letter, as issues relating to women are of particular concern to me. I was a member of the Church of England's Steering Group for the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. We had to confront many issues in the erroneous division between women's issues and evangelism very acutely. I am not sure that we got very far! I hope you will enjoy, "Telling our Faith Story*", a method we developed for training women in evangelism that focuses on story rather than on doctrine, something women relate to easily.

Ms Janice Price
London, U.K.

* Telling Our Faith Story can be obtained through the Church House Publishing Website: It is priced £2.95 plus postage and packing. Otherwise it can be obtained from Church House Bookshop, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3NZ, England.

God bless you in your ministry. Evangelism is the life-blood of the Church and we need to make the Gospel known in the best possible way to all our non-Christian friends. As one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we believe we have a burden. Your Letter should be able to capture the dreams of people in various cultures as to how they are conveying the gospel in their own situation.

Archdeacon Dr. S Batumalai
Ipoh, Malaysia

Thank you very much for the contents of the Ecumenical Letter on Evangelism No.2-July 1999. I think that you are striking a very important note, which we in the mission community need to go into more deeply. The shape of evangelism is changing dramatically. We in the West especially do not know how to react and respond to these changes. We have difficulties in relating to the emerging paradigms because we are part of paradigms that are so different. We need a global forum where we can discuss these developments with the help of our brothers and sisters from the South and East. Can the WCC Mission and Evangelism Team set up such a round table?

Mr Byrger Nygaard
Kopenhagen, Denmark

I liked the "Signs of Life" relating to contemporary evangelistic approaches, but I think the "interest in religious experience, mysticism and spirituality" belongs more to inter-religious dialogue than to evangelism. In most cases, we are observing the attraction either of a different religion altogether or of an alternative Christianity. It should cause the churches to be self-critical and aware of their context, but not fall under the illusion that they are on the verge of resurgence. This leaves us with three imperatives: to rediscover the contemplative dimensions of Christian faith, to clarify the nature of faith in the God of Israel through Jesus Christ, and to rid our minds of the idea of heresy and acknowledge other religious expressions rooted in Christianity as the only truth some people will ever understand.

Dr William Nottingham
Indianapolis, USA

I greatly welcome your use of Robert Warren’s "striking changes". More important, I feel that your striking and important hypothesis that "Christians an other seekers after meaningful idea(l)s and values are now on a level playing field" needs a bit further teasing out. Certainly in terms of the contemporary media in the Western world, it would usually seem more or less level. But we are struck in the UK how seldom Christians get a straightforward hearing; there is almost always a critical, even cynical, undertone. The picture is still very different in Africa. While the African Initiated Churches are growing by leaps and bounds you don’t see much about them in the newspapers unless (they are) causing some major social trouble.

Dr Martin Conway
Oxford, England

It was a joy to start receiving the Letter again. I particularly benefited from reading the summary of the report of the Church of England’s Decade. I am reflecting on the implications of the changes in contemporary evangelistic approaches for my own ministry.

Rev. Kuruvilla Chandy
Luckow, India

After reading the "Contributions from the Field", I find that the Letter on Evangelism can be a great paper to share with those actively engaged in evangelizing. I am therefore sending the addresses of two priests.

Ms Elizabeth Padillo-Olesen
Cebu City, Philippines

Note to our readers:

Your correspondence is gratefully received and may be considered for the Mailbox section. If you are open to having readers write to you directly, you should indicate your willingness to have your address given in the Letter.

Please help us to increase the efficiency and usefulness of this small publication by recommending it to potentially interested persons, organizations, and institutions in your church or country. Also, notify us of address changes in order to keep our list up-to-date.

Do you have a story for possible publication, or do you have articles, reports or other helpful materials on the ministry of evangelism? We encourage you to send them in for our consideration and/or information.

The Letter on Evangelism may be reproduced or quoted as long as the source is acknowledged.

Back to list of Mission and Evangelism publications
Back to Mission and Evangelism homepage