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CUBA: A Church Embraces Those Who Have Lost Their Way

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 30 2007 (IPS) - In the heart of Balcón Arimao, a poor barrio on the fringes of the Cuban capital, a small evangelical church combines spirituality and community work, combating alcoholism, prostitution, crime and family breakdown.

 Credit: IPS Cuba

Credit: IPS Cuba

The Primera Iglesia Principio y Fin was started in the home of Marisol Sánchez and Felipe Barbón, the present pastors of this Pentecostal congregation, in 1999. Married for 35 years, they overcame episodes of domestic violence within their own family when Barbón became a Christian.

"The specific vision of our church is restoration, reconciling human beings to God, the church to itself, and individuals to society" Sánchez told IPS. Now 52, she came to Havana from her native Pinar del Río years ago to study nursing, fell in love with Barbón, and never went back.

The personal and social rehabilitation promoted by this religious community can be seen in people like Barbón himself, a naval nurse who sailed the high seas for 25 years. He says he dredged the depths of the underworld of drugs, alcohol and illegal deals until the Christian faith changed his life.

"Because of our work, mothers who have a son or daughter who is alcoholic or addicted to drugs or gambling begin to hope that they too may be transformed as the pastor was transformed," Barbón told IPS. "Many young people who used to be criminals have reintegrated into society and have been lovingly taken in by this community."

According to statistics published by the Revista Cubana de Medicina Militar (Cuban Review of Military Medicine), 45 percent of Cubans over 15 consume alcohol, and the prevalence of alcoholism is between seven and 10 percent.


Ministry of Justice figures, meanwhile, indicate that only 0.17 percent of the population uses illegal drugs. However, the use of so-called "gateway drugs" such as tobacco and alcohol is over 70 percent in some areas, according to experts.

"Our vision has led us to work with people who have been in prison," said Barbón, who recognises the "high level of violence" among people in his barrio. "We come to the rescue of these men who come out of prison and are disoriented, not knowing how to go about relating to the community, which may spurn or harass them."

Balcón Arimao, an urban area of 1.7 square kilometres with a population of about 20,000, is in the municipality of La Lisa, on the west side of Havana. Since this informal settlement sprang up in the 1940s, it has absorbed rural and working class families.

The church’s outreach also covers the families of convicts, who receive legal counselling and material aid contributed by the congregation. "We try to restore the prisoners’ links with their relatives, and to encourage the families to believe that they can restore their relationships with the inmates," Sánchez said.

According to Foreign Ministry figures, over 58 percent of young people in Cuban jails first broke the law when they were aged between 16 and 24, and 64 percent of them were neither working nor studying when they committed their crimes.

"Our church is very much aware of the situation of families divided by the emigrant exodus," Sánchez said.

"There are many families that have been torn apart, and women whose lives have been turned upside down because their husbands left, with the promise that they would send for them so that they could be reunited in the United States," she said.

Around 1.5 million people born in Cuba now live abroad, according to the Foreign Ministry. Of these, 1.3 million are living in the United States, followed by Spain with 70,000 and Venezuela with 50,000.

The small evangelical congregation of about 200 are mostly students and workers from non-Christian homes. The country’s problems are always in their prayers, Sánchez said. "Our vision has centred on teaching not only Christian doctrine, but also the church’s duties to the nation."

After decades of tension with the authorities, Protestant denominations have entered into a more relaxed coexistence with the government, particularly since a meeting between evangelical leaders and President Fidel Castro on Apr. 2, 1990. One year later, the island’s Communist Party gave persons of religious faith access to membership.

Barbón stated that the local authorities have appreciated the social work done by the church. "One of our responsibilities is to pray for the nation, for its guiding institutions and for the health of (convalescing) Fidel Castro, because churches are responsible for the spiritual functioning of the country."

The Primera Iglesia Principio y Fin is particularly devoted to caring for the elderly. They are served lunch at the church building, and then have a time of prayer and sharing of their needs.

"Even though the state has programmes to meet the specific needs of elderly people, there are always some who are isolated, who need affection, the understanding of a family, and connections to the world around them," said Sánchez.

She and her husband work as volunteers at the Balcón Arimao Community House, which has a programme that supports homemakers, mothers raising their kids on their own, whose husbands are often in prison, and young women involved in prostitution. "Our vision is to work outside the church, from within the church," Barbón said.

Through the 120 years of their history on the island, Protestant churches have survived the country’s social changes, including nearly five decades of socialism. Although experts regard them as having a limited social base, their membership has grown in the last two decades, and there are now more than 900 Protestant churches.

"We try to reach out to extend God’s love, give the needy a hand, as the Bible says, and love people just as they are," Sánchez said.

"We don’t reject anyone because of their lifestyle, whether they are alcoholic, addicted to drugs or have some other problem, because we believe that, in the Lord and with the country’s resources, every problem has a solution," she said.

 
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