Movement prospering under government control

TimesDaily.com, Mar. 1, 2003
http://www.timesdaily.com/
By Emilio Sahurie

Eduardo Otero found salvation in the unlikeliest place in the army of a government that outlawed new churches and predicted religion would cease.

Like other young Cubans on a required tour of military service, Otero faced the possibility that his orders would be extended for another year. Following advice of a friend who told him to have faith, Otero recalled doing something almost taboo for a generation raised in a society with few freedoms.

“I said a prayer, ‘Lord take me out of the army and I will work for you,’ ” Otero recalled.

Otero’s pleas became reality, and he was soon released from his military duty. Otero called that life-changing event in 1987 the start of his Christian life.

Now a minister in Cuba, Otero shared his story earlier this week with members of Woodmont Baptist Church. Otero, who was attending a missionary convention in Georgia, was invited to visit Florence by Woodmont’s minister, the Rev. Danny Hedgepeth.

The 36-year-old tall, thin man with a family back in Cuba also was in the United States to share news of a religious movement sweeping the country for about a decade.

After the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, the government dictated no new church construction would be allowed on the island. Ninety miles from the southernmost tip of Florida, Cuba remains one of the few vestiges of communism in the world.

The prospects of some freedoms and more people seeking faith after hard times brought on by the collapse of the former Soviet Bloc sowed the beginnings of la Iglesia de las Casas or the Church of the Homes.

“We don’t have the possibility to build new churches,” Otero said. “It’s the only way churches can grow in Cuba.”

While there is tolerance from Castro’s regime, the church movement is part underground and part regulated. Government rules prohibit a limit of 25 people from worshipping at a home has helped the movement spread, said Hedgepeth, who visited the island in October.

“The government turns their head the other way,” Hedgepeth said. “The question will be what happens if this keeps happening.”

In Otero’s city of Alamar, limits at one house about 13 years ago ballooned into a network of home churches that now numbers 29. Reflecting growth across the island, two more are planned to meet demand in Alamar, Otero said.

Despite difficulties, members of the home church movement are helping not only each other survive life in Cuba, but helping the church prosper, Otero said.

“In Cuba we are surviving that’s the culture,” Otero said about his homeland where government rations of sugar, bread and milk help supplement salaries of people who make $30 a month.

Hedgepeth said Otero’s message has tugged at the hearts of his congregation.

“The appeal for us is the people,” he said. “They fell in love with them; they are warm people.”

And people in need of Bibles, adequate gathering places and other materials that help bring a congregation together. Hedgepeth said the situation is reminiscent of the days of Jesus Christ building a religious movement in times of prosecution.

Seeing people die without all the comforts and daily life conveniences churches in America offer should also remind congregations in this country about the basics, he said.

“Relationships are very important,” Hedgepeth said. “Christianity and a church are not about just programs but about relationships.”

There are other churches in America supporting the house church movement, but any missions must proceed cautiously. It’s not just a matter of loading up supplies and traveling to another country.

Government permissions are needed to travel to Cuba to avoid violations of the longstanding embargo with the communist country. Castro’s regime also doesn’t allow full-time missions from other countries to exist there.

Woodmont member Bill Rogers was among a group that gathered earlier this week to welcome Otero and practice a few Spanish words with him. Behind the politics, he said it’s easy to forget the people.

“There’s a great spiritual hunger in Cuba,” Rogers said.

Hedgepeth said his congregation is interested in a possible mission to Cuba later this year. Care must be taken not to disrupt the lives of people worshipping under the eyes of government.

“There’s more openness but you can’t circumvent the rules of government,” Hedgepeth said.

In Alamar, many of the church homes are apartments in a place modeled after Soviet Union cities where thousands of people live in neighborhoods packed with concrete apartment buildings.

Crowding into small apartments that take away privacy of their host family, congregation members gather for music and worship. Otero said the house church movement has become more organized where each house church has Bible study and children ministries.

To that testament, a year ago, Otero drove his 1954 Pontiac rigged with a Mitsubishi engine and Toyota brakes around Alamar organizing a children’s event to celebrate Jan. 6’s dia del nio, or Day of the Child.

That event drew about 125 children. This past January, the event involved more than 700 children and teenagers, Otero said.

Despite hardships, Otero said he expects the home church movement to prosper. As long as it’s not viewed as political threat, it could grow large enough where the government would have to accept it, he said. The church does have members of the communist party in its ranks, he added.

“We have enormous problems,” Otero said speaking English with a Cuban accent. “But just that we have people in faith, is a miracle of God.”

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