This is the fifth post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our last post in this series will provide information on current events relating to Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically.
After Protestantism was formally established in Cuba, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Quaker missionaries preached and established schools there, primarily reaching out to middle-class students.
The schools were segregated and Afro-Cubans were not allowed to attend.
Soon other US churches sent missionaries. But, gradually, the leadership of Protestant churches shifted from US missionaries to Cuban Christians.
By the time of the revolution in 1959, most Protestant churches were pastored by Cubans, a large percentage of whom were being trained at Cuban seminaries.
The Cuban Council of Churches was established in 1941.
Protestantism, though, is only one of many religious currents in present day Cuba. It’s next to impossible to identify them all.
As the revered Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz noted:
. . . it would be impossible to define this people’s religion. . . There is no general, popular, or official creed. African religious practices are as widely followed as Christianity, and the two are sometimes practiced simultaneously. Spiritualism, theosophy, and all manner of superstitions are also widespread. All of these beliefs are combined in a confused mix from which theological concepts . . . cannot be separated or easily distinguished from each other.
What’s interesting is that even though multiple beliefs have become closely intertwined, groups tend to self-isolate, making ecumenical dialogue a rarity.
Many in the Catholic Church fear that the influence of Afro-Cuban religiosity could distort or contaminate their own message.
The Catholic Church also fears a loss of membership to other churches that evangelize aggressively. Some Pentecostal churches, for example, carried out aggressive campaigns in opposition to the visit of Pope John Paul II, even going so far as to describe him as the Antichrist.
The Afro-Cuban religions also tend toward self-isolation — and even “Yorubization.”
This tendency seems peculiar since, over the centuries, the Afro-Cuban religions have appropriated and been enriched by elements of Catholicism, acquiring a distinctly Cuban character in the process.
Currently, the trend toward Yorubization means a “de-Cubanization and re-Africanization” that lessens ties to other Cuban religions and to Cuban society as a whole.
Afro-Cuban religious communities tend to convey their message in an oral fashion and they are very protective of their beliefs.
Only initiates — a limited number of individuals consecrated in the rites of the religion — have access to supplementary written materials, which they guard jealously.
Santeria is the term that is widely used to refer to Afro-Cuban religious beliefs and practices that
originated when the Yoruba were brought from Africa to colonial Cuba as slaves and forced to adopt Catholicism. Those who believe in Santeria worship African gods [orishas], masked as Catholic saints, by observing their feast days, ‘feeding’ and caring for them, carefully following their commands, and faithfully obeying their mandates.
A lack of familiarity with the Afro-Cuban religions is common among Cuban Christians.
Many Christians are unaware that the Afro-Cuban religions are monotheistic, that they worship one Supreme God, and that other divinities mediate between God and humanity in much the same way that Mary and the saints do in Catholicism.
It is not unusual for members of Christian communities to organize workshops on Afro-Cuban religions without inviting any Afro-Cuban practitioners to participate.
It is impossible to over emphasize the degree to which dialogue between the Christian denominations and the Afro-Cuban religions is also influenced by the remnants of racism and racial inequality that continue to be prevalent in Cuban society.
Members of Christian congregations are disproportionately European in origin while members of Afro-Cuban religious groups are disproportionately of African ancestry.
In Cuban society as a whole, black and mestizo Cubans as a group remain socio-economically disadvantaged.
The Catholic Church has only a very small number of black and mestizo priests — six black and seven mestizos at last report (outdated perhaps.)
Some Christians have gone so far as to characterize Afro-Cuban religious practitioners as “demonic” and say that their religions are “fit only for blacks.”
Ironically some black pastors and lay leaders are among the most vocal in espousing such views.
Conversely, there is also a lack of familiarity with Christianity among practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions.
Many Afro-Cuban practitioners are unfamiliar with the doctrines, histories, and theological foundations of Christian churches.
The degree to which Cubans are unfamiliar with the two religious traditions is paradoxical, since elements of both often coexist in the home, the church, and other areas of daily life.
It is common for members of one family to practice several different religions, whether of Spanish, African, or Anglo-Saxon origin, and to change religions without fanfare.
Just as in other parts of the world, a reported trend in Cuba is a move toward individualistic spirituality whereby faith is viewed in supremely personal terms.
One frequently finds a lack of interest in social and humanitarian programs, and a lack of concern for the problems and needs of society as a whole. The result is that some religious groups are more a collection of individuals than a cohesive faith community.
Also affecting the religious scenario on the island is the Cuban revolutionary system’s past lack of understanding of religious phenomena and its uncritical acceptance of Eastern European socialist ideological models, including “scientific atheism.”
You won’t want to miss our next post in this series. It’s going to provide information on current events related to religion in Cuba today. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.