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U.S.-Cuba diplomacy sparks hope & wariness

NASHVILLE (BP) — President Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba may fuel an already-vibrant evangelistic movement there, or it may fuel a repressive regime, Southern Baptist leaders and pastors said in voicing divergent opinions to Baptist Press.

“Our prayer is that the Cuban church planting movement continue to expand. The Cuban people are very receptive to the Gospel,” Kurt Urbanek, IMB strategist for Cuba, said in a statement to BP.

“We praise the Lord Jesus Christ for the spiritual awakening in Cuba which has seen over 500,000 Cubans come to saving faith in Baptist churches during the past 13 years,” Urbanek noted. “Our focus as missionaries is evangelism, discipleship, church planting and leadership development. We look to political developments only as they impact the growth of the Kingdom of God.”

Baptist congregations in Cuba included more than 977 traditional churches and more than 6,454 house churches in 2013, according to International Mission Board statistics, an increase from only 210 traditional churches and an unknown number of house churches in the country’s early days of communism in 1960.

President Obama said from the White House Dec. 17 the United States will end “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.”

The U.S. intends “to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” Obama said, pledging to reverse 50 years of U.S. policies that have isolated the country that is only 90 miles from Florida.

“Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else,” the president said. “And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.”

Obama said the U.S. will re-establish an embassy in Havana; cooperatively work with Cuba to advance mutual interests on many issues including migration; take steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba; and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Terry Lassiter, who oversees Southern Baptist missionaries to Cuba as strategy leader for the International Mission Board’s American peoples affinity group, joined Urbanek in expressing optimism after Obama’s announcement.

“We are very hopeful and happy to hear of this new era of relations between Cuba and the USA. We pray that this will further strengthen the partnership between Cuban Baptists and Southern Baptists in the U.S.,” Lassiter said. “We have much to learn from each other to see the advance of the Gospel and this new relationship makes this more possible.”

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, recounted in a statement to Baptist Press, “Having recently traveled to Cuba, I can speak to the deep commitment of our Baptist brothers and sisters there. I was sad to see the deprivation among the people of Cuba and I’m deeply concerned for them. However, the government there must take responsibility for its policies” that have led to its isolation.

Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, from a religious freedom perspective, said, “I disagree with President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. I tend to think engagement and trade is better than disengagement, but Cuba is a special case, a terrorist-sponsoring, human rights-violating dictatorship located just miles away from our border. I don’t trust the Castro regime to keep the promises they are making.”

Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, added, however, “I can only hope now that God will use the open markets in Cuba toward a more open door to the Gospel. Regardless of where we stand on the politics of this, we should all pray for a free Cuba, including complete freedom of religion, to come about in 2015.”

Óscar J. Fernández, who holds political asylum from Cuba, expressed pessimism that the changes will help Cubans. Fernández directs Ministerio Hispano, a ministry of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., and formerly was a Hispanic editor for LifeWay Christian Resources for nearly 20 years.

“This is a real tragedy for the people in Cuba, and for the families of the thousands of martyrs and political prisoners in the island,” Fernandez, a columnist for BP en Español, said. “This change is not going to help the Cuban people [under] a communist government in power for more than 50 years. I will applaud if Cuba makes any concessions, but they are not [likely to do so].”

David R. Lema Jr., meanwhile, then a 7-year-old son of a Cuban Baptist pastor who left Cuba with his family for Spain, said he believes “any normalization of political ties between Cuba and the U.S., regardless of political implications or results, should prove beneficial for Christian work.”

“Travel for Americans going to Cuba would flow smoother and with less inconvenience — anyone that has gone to Cuba knows what I am talking about here,” said Lema, director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami. “Churches and individuals will have more freedom to help the churches directly without having to worry about U.S. embargo violations.”

Other Cuban Baptists ministering in the U.S. who commented on Obama’s move expressed a mix of guarded optimism and caution.

Felipe Rodríguez, pastor of historic Iglesia Bautista Getsemaní in Miami, told the Florida Baptist Witness, “My hope is that this will be of benefit to the churches in Cuba. … If this allows us to bring resources and help the churches in Cuba then it’s a good thing.” Otherwise, he said, it is “just purely political.

Rodríguez recounted that Getsemaní has experienced diplomatic restrictions in helping a church in the small town of Congoja rebuild its building after it was destroyed by a storm. Rodríguez, who pastored the Congoja church in the 1980s, has been in the U.S. for 16 years.

Natanael Vicens, director of Hispanic ministries in the Miami Baptist Association, said his church has wanted to engage in missions trips to Cuba but the prices and the restrictions on travel had made it difficult.

“Having embassies will make missionary trips to Cuba much easier because, as of now, the process to travel there is long and costly.” Vicens told the Florida Baptist Witness. “If it’s true that the Cuban government will do what it says it will do, glory to God, hallelujah. But under the current government everything remains to be seen.”

“We have to wait and see what happens,” Alberto Ocaña, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Northside in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, told the Witness. “If there is no genuine change [by the Cuban regime], it will be like a person that claims to be a Christian but there has been no real change in his heart; it is purely cosmetic.”

To access an International Mission Board multimedia report on Cuba’s Baptists, posted in mid-September, click here. To watch related videos, click here, here and here. To read former IMB President Tom Elliff’s reflections on a December 2013 trip to Cuba, click here. To read about two Cuban pastors’ comments at the SBC annual meeting in Baltimore, click here. And to access an IMB prayer guide for Cuba, click here.