President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba this week inspired hope in the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the island. The church believes that a thaw in U.S. - Cuba relations could mean greater opportunities for evangelism and the growth of the church.
Aldo Perez, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cuba, was one of only 20 religious leaders selected by the Cuban government to attend President Obama's speech in Havana yesterday.
“This was a historic moment where the church was placed among personalities from both the government and the religious sector in our country,” said Perez. “We had the opportunity to witness a very eloquent speech with a call to reconciliation and very positive for the normalization of relations among both countries where we hope that can bring new opportunities for the Cuban people and for the church.”
Conditions in the country have been favorable for the church in recent months, said Pastor Perez. “We have been able to have a space [as a church] in the Cuban society and granted the freedom to hold our activities,” said Perez.
Earlier this month, scores of young people took to the streets as part of Global Youth Day activities. They wore ribbons on their shirts saying “Jesus Loves You,” while they held health expos in public parks, distributed food to those in the streets and cleaned up community parks.
Just last week, the Adventist Church was authorized to use the 3,000-seat Heredia de Santiago de Cuba Theater, the most prestigious theater in the city, for two days during the end an evangelistic series led by Dwight Nelson, pastor of the Andrews University Church, according to Dayami Rodriguez, communication director for the church in Cuba. Before that, Andrews University students held a week of evangelistic meetings in churches and small groups in the city of Santiago de Cuba, local church leaders said. As a result, about 250 people were baptized.
“The work of the medical missionaries continues to strengthen in communities where there is no Adventist presence across the island,” said Rodriguez.
Pastor Israel Leito, president of the church in Inter-America, has seen much change take place on the island recently. “I remember my first visit to Cuba in 1982,” said Pastor Leito, who was youth ministries director for the IAD at the time. “You couldn’t carry a Bible with you, you had to put it in a paper bag to hide it.” Now, 34 years later, things are much different, he said.
“The church has done its part all these years by respecting the government and its regulations,” said Pastor Leito, “and now it is in a position where it is enjoying opportunities to spread the gospel more freely.”
The Adventist Church in Cuba has a more than 32,500 members worshiping in 460 churches and congregations. The church also operates the Theological Seminary in Havana.
Dayami Rodriguez contributed to this article.