Columnists > Voices

Obadiah in Cuba

The angst of Presbyterian pastor Hector Mendez

Issue: "Iraq: What went wrong?," May 15, 2004

OBADIAH, RIGHT-HAND MAN OF THE MURDEROUS King Ahab, is an intriguing figure in chapter 18 of 1 Kings. Elijah and others apparently saw him as a sell-out, but all the time he was saving 100 prophets from the wrath of Jezebel, hiding them in a cave and feeding them. Obadiah was probably easing the pain of Ahab's subjects in other ways as well.

Modern Obadiahs are all around us. Some work on secular liberal newspapers, reducing the typical anti-Christian bias. Some work in pro-gay companies. And some may even work with one of the world's few remaining hardcore communist regimes.

Readers of our cover story on Cuba two weeks ago might ask: Can anything good come out of the Cuban Presbyterian Church? The cover story suggested that the Cuban Council of Churches is little more than a front group for the Castro regime, and one that hurts the efforts of the vast majority of Cuban churches. Sadly, the government-approved Presbyterian denomination has been a pro-Castro leader among the groups that make up the CCC. What then to make of Hector Mendez, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Havana (founded a century ago by an American missionary), who has served on the CCC's central committee?

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One reason to suspect Rev. Mendez: the immaculately restored church building that he shows off. Real churches in Havana have junky chairs and broken windows, not dark wooden pews that would fit in well on the Philadelphia main line. Another cause for concern is Rev. Mendez's boast that "we are the first church in the country to have a website." In Cuba it takes special governmental permission, as well as big bucks, even to have access to the internet.

But, when we spoke, Rev. Mendez suddenly looked at me hard with his sad, deep-set eyes and said, "Not all pastors are as they appear. Do you know what pleases me the most about the past 10 years? In 1994 very few people came to church for activities-transportation problems, blackouts. So I started going to different houses to set up Bible studies. We now have 50 Bible studies in homes, each with five to 15 people. In all we have more than 400 people studying the Bible every week in 23 different places."

Then he reviewed the history of the past 45 years: "The state took over all church schools in 1961. Only 14 out of 50 Presbyterian pastors stayed. People, especially young people who wanted to continue their studies, were fearful.... I was young then and studying to be a lawyer, but I saw churches that didn't have Bible studies and had no one to preach, so I entered seminary.... I didn't want to be political, I just wanted to help people spiritually."

He went on with a fixed stare: "We did what we needed to do to keep the churches alive. I went to a meeting in Peru in 1982 where people talked about victories, and all I could say is we teach the Bible and preach." He spoke of his ambiguous position and noted that, even though his Presbyterian church is well-connected, "We can't even give away clothing with a lot of publicity."

Rev. Mendez's final apologia was, "You have to understand that for over 30 years every aspect of social service has belonged to the government. When we distribute medicine or glasses, we have to be very careful.... We would like to do much more. We want to be known as the church with Bible studies in homes and the church that helps people materially as well. We'll take advantage of opportunities.... I dream, but I keep my feet on the ground, and now, perhaps, a better situation is possible. Do you understand?"

Maybe. It's so hard to know, since in a communist country so much talk is veiled, and even slogans and songs can take on an ironic sense. Another pastor has Don Quixote statuettes in an office: Do those signify a refusal to surrender to a dream-killing regime? Is a pianist in the lounge of Havana's Ambos Mundos hotel suggesting a mini-rebellion when he plays "To Dream the Impossible Dream"? Or is he offering tribute to Fidel Castro's favorite saying, Un mundo mejor es possible-"A better world is possible"?

And Hector Mendez's "A better situation is possible." Is he echoing the dictator? Or is he turning that saying on its head? Obadiah, where art thou?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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