It’s 5 a.m. Saturday and while most of the town of Vueltas is still asleep, pastor José Enrique Pérez is prepping for what promises to be a long day. Fourteen hours to be exact. Just like every Saturday. That’s the reality of church planting in Cuba.
Pérez is joined by a dedicated team of self-described missionaries from his congregation, Bethel Baptist Church. More than 50 Christians pour their lives into the dozens of small towns and villages surrounding Vueltas where there is little or no gospel witness. The missionaries’ goal is straightforward: make disciples and gather them into house churches.
Daylight is breaking as the engine rumbles to life on the “Roads to Victory,” Bethel Baptist’s ramshackle bus fused together from makes and models dating back to 1932. It will make more than a dozen stops during its nearly five-hour drive through the Cuban countryside, dropping off Bethel members at their target communities. After an eight-hour day of ministry, the bus returns to Vueltas, picking up Bethel’s missionaries along the way.
José Enrique Pérez, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Cuba.
“During the first stage of the project, the trips were shorter,” Pérez says. “But we’ve been filling the places that are closer with [new] churches,” driving Bethel’s teams farther out to reach unchurched areas.
“[If we want] to rest and be comfortable, there’s heaven,” Pérez says with a laugh. “The time that God gives us here is to be involved in the work of His Kingdom.”
Pérez admits the bus may not be the most efficient method for starting churches, but it’s working. Today, Bethel’s missionaries are nurturing nine new traditional churches and multiple house churches. That’s in addition to the 32 traditional churches born since 1999. Some are direct offspring of Bethel Baptist. Others are second- and third-generation churches started by Bethel’s church plants. Pérez says his dream is that by 2020, Bethel’s network will top 100 traditional churches and hundreds of house churches.
“We want every town in our country to have a living, healthy church,” Pérez says. “A church where God’s Word is alive, where the brothers [and sisters] love and support each other … a church that is the salt and light of the community where it is planted. This is our cry to God.”
Pérez remembers when starting even a single new church seemed impossible. He was a boy when revolution swept the country in 1959. By 1963, Bethel Baptist was shuttered and gutted by the government. Bethel’s pastor was eventually arrested – along with dozens of other pastors – and sent to prison.
“They began to teach that God didn’t exist, that everything I had been taught by my parents was a lie,” Pérez says.
When Pérez was in middle school, a teacher mocked him and three other boys from Bethel in front of his classmates.
“These fools you see here, they still believe in God,” the teacher sneered. “They are dazed by that opium that puts people to sleep – by religion.”
But what man meant for evil, God used for good. Though churches were closed, many Christians worshipped anyway – in their homes. Otherwise, Cuba’s house church movement may never have been born.
“It is a time of harvest like never before,” Pérez says. “We don’t want to waste a second.”
The teacher who had humiliated Pérez and his friends eventually gave his life to Jesus. Pérez baptized him. Today, he leads a church in Bethel Baptist’s network. He’s also a faithful missionary on the “Roads to Victory” bus.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Don Graham writes for the International Mission Board.)