"Cuban Mission: Church Growth in a Land of Forced Frugality"

Cuban Mission: Church Growth in a Land of Forced Frugality

by Father John Chakos

As is often done in the movies, we are offering a “prequel” with this blogpost.  On December 5 – 10, 2012, we, along with Fr. Andres Giron of Guatemala, were invited to join the combined pilgrimage of church Archons and Philoptochos members to Havana, Cuba.   This was an opportunity to celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas at the church that bears his name and to showcase the developments in the mission parishes of the Metropolis of Mexico, which encompasses 22 countries in Central America and the Carribbean.

The recent and dramatic growth of Orthodox Christianity in Cuba is a remarkable phenomenon on an island where Christianity did not always find official favor.  After the Cuban revolution of the 1950’s, the Greek Orthodox church of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Havana was confiscated by the government and eventually turned into a theater.  Through the diligent efforts of Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico and the surprising assistance of  Mr. Leal, the official historian of Havana, the Orthodox Church was restored to the city.   Prime property in a central Havana location, as well the construction of the sanctuary itself, were provided for by the Cuban government.   The church, named for St. Nicholas of Myra, was consecrated on January 24, 2004 by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  In a historic event,  Fidel Castro, himself, presented the key to the church to the Patriarch and officially recognized the Orthodox Church.  As a result of this state largesse the Greek Orthodox Church in Cuba under the direction of Metropolitan Athenagoras continues to enjoy a surge  in church membership.   Read more about this event at the Metropolis website:  www.goarchmexico.org/cuba.html.

As part of the Archon Orthodox Christian Pilgrimage in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Presbytera Alexandra and I traveled to Havana, Cuba, to experience and enjoy our fellowship with the estimated 2,500 Orthodox Christians, mostly of Cuban descent. Arriving from a land of personal freedom and luxury onto an island nation of forced frugality, we were immediately made aware of the stark differences. In this state controlled environment the opulence of great wealth was noticeably missing, but so was the ugliness of abject poverty. The people we met, while happy, friendly, and cultured had their vistas dimmed by the strictures of  an enforced regimentation. However, this seemed to allow more quality time for family, friends and yes, participation in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church.

A palpable joy was felt as we circled the font singing “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.”  There was an openness to the ceremony that reflected a surprising freedom of religious expression. This freedom manifested itself as well during the Vesper service  of St. Nicholas as the Archons in solemn procession carried the icon of the fabled saint around the block.

While our stay in Havana was of short duration, we enjoyed many memorable moments, both culturally and spiritually.  We have been asked to return again to train the priests in liturgics and teach the making of vestments. For the time being we have much to accomplish in Guatemala as we prepare for the coming of many mission teams and the start of the seminary in the highlands of Huehuetenango. Please keep us in your prayers.