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‘Vibrant’ church in Cuba celebrating Christmas

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As Christmas fast approaches, many in the United States will celebrate with a flurry of secular carols and shopping for expensive gifts for friends and family. But in the island nation of Cuba, where the Christmas holiday is being reinstated by the Communist government after an absence of three decades, two Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professors are finding that Cuban Baptists are concentrating on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Robert Garrett, director of Southwestern’s World Missions Center, and professor Steven Stookey spent the week of Dec. 7 teaching at the Baptist seminary in Havana and said despite the challenges it faces, the church in Cuba is growing and maintaining a positive witness. Part of that witness is celebrating Christmas, not with great physical wealth but in the hearts of the faithful in the church.
“It’s a very vibrant church,” said Garrett. “There’s a newness and freshness about the church.”
The growth that Baptists have experienced is reflected in the size of the Havana seminary’s student body. With 46 students, the seminary had to turn away approximately two-thirds of its applicants this fall simply because there was not enough room, Garrett said. The students who are accepted do more than just book studies. They travel every weekend to small villages to do “mission field work” in area churches.
Garrett noted that with the restoration of Christmas as an observed holiday, churches could apply for licenses to conduct special ceremonies, Christmas-related advertisements put out by stores as well as a day off from work, though he noted that people were still wondering how far the reinstatement went.
With curiosity in Cuba about the gospel and spiritual issues, there is great potential for a soul harvest, said Garrett. “People are looking for answers to ultimate questions in Cuba,” he said. “There’s a tremendous spiritual vitality in believers. If those two factors could unite, there could be a great spiritual revival.”
A Southwestern professor who has worked in Cuba as a missionary agrees that the church is growing despite the restrictions on religious activity. David Fite, who now oversees the Fort Worth seminary’s continuing education department, said the reinstatement of the holiday could indicate a more conciliatory stance by the Cuban government to religious activity.
The new celebration of Christmas marks a change from the late 1960s, when the government of Fidel Castro ended the recognition of the holiday. Although Christmas was canceled in 1969 to muster people for the harvesting of the sugar cane crop, religious activity had been controlled before then. Fite said churches were not closed despite other restrictions and religious activities were still allowed within the confines of the churches.
It was the efforts of missionaries such as Fite that struck a chord with Cuban Baptists, and Garrett said the faithful he and Stookey encountered there expressed gratitude for their presence.
“It was rather awesome to realize they identified us so closely with the missionaries whom they remember so fondly and with deep gratitude for their sacrifices in teaching them the gospel and Christian way of life,” Garrett said.
In addition to teaching at the seminary in Havana, Garrett and Stookey also traveled to the town of Pinar del Rio to attend regional meetings of the Western Cuba Baptist Convention where they heard several church choirs and musical groups as well as sermons and poetry.
What struck Garrett about how Cuban Baptists approach Christmas is that, for them, the celebration of Christ’s birth is not made greater or lesser by the presence of material things. Garrett remembered the seminary’s rector, Leoncio Veguillo, as saying, “We have always had Christmas and we always will whether we have a chicken to cook or not, because Christmas is Christ and we celebrate Him in our hearts.” Veguillo also noted that while, publicly, Christmas was just another day, its true meaning would not change even if they had a delicacy such as roast pig.
Stookey agreed with that assessment. He said he was impressed by the fact that despite their dearth of material possessions, the Cuban Christians “have an abundance of spiritual riches. They have a deep, deep faith in God, a deep faith in Christ.” He contrasted it with the celebration of Christmas in the United States, saying the expression of faith displayed by Cuban Christians “is unlike anything I’ve seen” in this country.
Despite the lack of material possessions, he said, the Cubans are “passionate about their faith in Christ.” That passion was expressed by individuals who shared their testimonies while Stookey was at the Havana seminary, he said. Stookey recalled listening to individuals telling how their celebration of Christmas had gone on before the official restoration and that it centered around the spiritual meaning, not the commercial overtones it has taken in the U.S.
“I came away terribly impressed with the spirit of the Cuban people,” he said. “It was a good reminder for me of the meaning of the season.”

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  • Cory J. Hailey