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Faith in Christ growing in Cuba

 

David Pena

Auora Pena, wife of David Pena, pastor of First Spanish Church in Lawrenceville, walks with her brother-in-law, Humberto Dominguez, in front of the Seminario Teologico Bautista de la Habana in February 2007. The seminary’s main campus currently has approximately 90 students, though more than 600 are enrolled throughout Cuba via online or extension centers.

ATLANTA — David and Margaret Fite are well-aware of the conflict Cuban Christians must feel whenever rumors of Fidel Castro’s failing health begin to circulate. They also are no less surprised at the majority of those believers not praying for death of the small country’s leader.

“Our focus is to be very Pauline in regards to the government,” said Fite, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain. “Paul prayed for the emperor Nero in Rome. You pray for the government. You pray for God to forgive the sins of the country and to develop the Christian work there.”

These comments don’t come from someone who simply researched the island country. David’s wife, Margaret, grew up in Cuba as the daughter of Herbert and Marjorie Caudill, Southern Baptist missionaries in the area for forty years. Margaret lived there until attending Mercer in 1950, where she met David. The couple joined the Caudills’ work at the Baptist Seminary in Havana in 1960, the year after Castro came to power.

“It was after we got there that food began to be rationed and the religious persecution began,” said Margaret. “The first to be persecuted were the Catholics. Most of them were Spanish, so three-quarters of the priests and nuns were shipped back to Spain. This meant that one priest was left to attend to five or six Catholic churches.

“The Baptists were the strongest evangelical group,” she added. “In 1965, 53 Baptist pastors were arrested, including my daddy and David. They were the only Americans.

“At some point they forced the rest of the men to serve in the military. This cleaned out the seminary.”

Caudill, sentenced to ten years, would be released to house arrest after two years because of the loss of his eyesight. The Atlanta Constitution reported in its Oct. 1, 1987 edition how Caudill’s case received national attention when this happened. A doctor from Emory University was allowed to go to Cuba to operate on the minister’s eyes, restoring sight to one of them. Two years later Fite, who was sentenced to four years, was released as a special case and the ministers and their families were permitted to leave the country.

David Fite maintains that the backing of the Soviet Union, a strongly atheistic state, led Cuba to crack down on religion. After the U.S.S.R. toppled in 1991, Castro relaxed sanctions on churches.

Now, Fite travels to the country through a religious visa. While there he teaches a master’s level program at the Baptist Seminary in Havana. Since 1999, when he taught on a trip through Southwestern Seminary, there were 54 students enrolled. Today he said that number has grown to 610.

“There is an expansion of the Christian faith there,” he said. I’m bowled over by it. New programs have provided for more organized study.”