Contemplating Missionary Work in Cuba

April 14, 2009 | 47 comments
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The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is easing a handful of restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Among other things, Cuban-Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba as much as they like and will be free to send money and gifts to friends and relatives without securing travel or export licenses from the Treasury or the Commerce Department.

While this action was limited, it is nevertheless symbolic and represents a marked change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, on which the U.S. has imposed heavy sanctions for over forty years. It is very likely that, with Fidel Castro now sidelined, this could mark an historic thaw in relations between the two countries, as there is bipartisan support for the further lifting of sanctions (spearheaded on the GOP side of the aisle by Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Jeff Flake (a Latter-day Saint from Arizona)).

All this has made me wonder whether we could possibly see LDS missionaries in Cuba within a few years. I should first stress that there are still a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of such a prospect. Beyond the existing embargo still being imposed by the United States, Cuba’s own domestic policies toward religion pose a significant challenge. Mass proselytizing in Cuba is prohibited, and the government exercises a great deal of control over everything from the number of congregations that are allowed to meet to the construction of chapels (which it rarely allows). But, while heavily restricted, the practice of religion isn’t barred by law in Cuba, and there have actually been some positive developments in recent years, including the removal of references to atheism from the country’s constitution more than a decade ago and a landmark visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

The easing of U.S. restrictions on Cuba now inches us slightly closer to the possibility of one day engaging in missionary work there. So, were U.S. foreign and Cuban domestic policies to allow missionaries to proselytize in Cuba in the coming years, how exactly would the Church be received? Despite decades of religious suppression, Eastern Europeans and Russians openly embraced religion, yet the Church continues to face significant challenges in securing legal recognition in many of these areas as well as in making inroads among adherents to the Orthodox faith (which people in many of these countries hold up as a symbol of long-suppressed freedoms). No doubt we would be starting essentially from scratch in an already heavily Catholic population and competing with Evangelical Protestants for the ears of those Cubans open to religious change. That said, if the Cuban people are at all like other Latin Americans, the missionaries might well find a lot of fertile soil for their message.

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47 Responses to Contemplating Missionary Work in Cuba

  1. Dan on April 14, 2009 at 11:22 am

    See, Obama is good for the church. :) The more peace we make, the more we can spread the gospel around the world. The more violent we make the world around us, the less we can spread the gospel around the world.

    I think the gospel will spread in Cuba like most other Latin American countries. I don’t think we’ll see a European model. Europeans are far more stubborn (particularly eastern Europeans).

  2. Marc on April 14, 2009 at 11:29 am

    That might be oversimplifying things just a pinch Dan. I do, however, think easing restrictions on Cuba is the right move and have high hopes that the Gospel will flourish in Cuba, if given the chance.

  3. Dan on April 14, 2009 at 11:37 am

    It is oversimplistic. I wasn’t intending that short comment to be much more than that, just a general view that opening relations with as much of the world as we can will have much better long term results for us.

  4. Guy Murray on April 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Certainly a step in the right direction. One of the good things in life is that Old dictators die–Old ideas die, particularly when they don’t work. It’s a matter of time.

  5. Matt on April 14, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I heard about the easing of restrictions, but I never thought about how that related to missionary work…very interesting.

  6. Ian M. Cook on April 14, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    I hadn’t thought about the implications on missionary work, but I suppose it could be a step in the right direction.

    Peace opens way more doors than war.

  7. bbell on April 14, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    One of 2 things will happen with a lift on some US restrictions. I see the fall of the communist government to be the key to allowing LDS missionary efforts. One way that Cuba has remained communist has been by restricting the religious practice of its citizens.

    1. The old regime will be undercut by all the American $$ and influence on Cuban society and fall.

    2. The old regime will be strengthened and its hold on power tightened by the influx of money.

    The Europeans have been trading with and traveling to Cuba for some time now. I personally believe that this trade has actually propped up the old Cuban regime and allowed it to hang on after the USSR quit subsidizing Castro.

    I think I lean towards #2 above. At least for a few more years.

  8. Steve on April 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    On my mission in Italy I had the privilege to teach, and witness the baptism of, the first mission president of La Mission Cubana de Havana (although being from Santiago, he insisted that it would be La Missione Cubana de Santiago).

    This guy was a spiritual giant, and everybody (all us missionaries, the local branch president, and several members) had the overwhelming feeling that he would be eventually be instrumental in bringing the Gospel to Cuba–a feeling which he acknowledged as well.

    I’m not sure it will be in the capacity of mission president, but I’m confident that he’ll be in the vanguard in some capacity.

  9. AHLDuke on April 14, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Its funny, but when I was a missionary in Mexico, many of my Mexican companions were passing along rumors of “special” secret missionaries from Mexico being called to preach the Gospel in Cuba. I have zero verification of those rumors. I think it is humorous simply because American Mormons have their own rumors and urban legends regarding special secret missionaries being called to China. Mexicans have other dreams.

  10. DH on April 14, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Intersting post and thread. How wonderful would it be for Cuba and other countries to finally open to the Gospel. Awhile back I was going to write a post about the LDS Church in Cuba but then got too busy and never actually got around to it. I make that point becuase I remember reading articles about Cuban members of the Church that were visited by Mexican members because of the travel restrictions. (This is all from memory so I may be wrong on a few points.) I would thus presume that like Africa there are many of God’s children in Cuba that simply await the day the gospel arrives-some to accept it then and fewer who may have already accepted it and been baptized. It will be exciting to see what happens!
    DH
    fromthedust.org

  11. Mark B. on April 14, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Peace opens way more doors than war.

    I’m not sure that the data support this assertion.

    World War 2 opened doors all over, both within the U.S. population and in Europe and Asia.

  12. queuno on April 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    The Church will start by sending humanitarian missionaries to work on humanitarian projects approved by the Cuban government. They will NOT proselyte. Eventually, the Church will get approval to hold meetings only, but not proselyte (i.e., for LDS members who happen to be visiting Cuba). Eventually, they will get permission to proselyte.

    That’s the basic gameplan we’ve followed in every other country like this…

  13. Ardis E. Parshall on April 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Even absent an immediate opening for missionaries, the fact that family members in the U.S. (who may also have become members of the Church in the past 50 years) are allowed to visit freely may be enough to start. Brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend transmission is usually the first way the gospel spreads into a new area.

  14. queuno on April 14, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    (The Cuban government will never say no to American missionaries who want to spend their money and their Church’s money building roads, schools, and other infrastructure.)

  15. DavidH on April 14, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    “World War 2 opened doors all over, both within the U.S. population and in Europe and Asia.”

    I have heard this many times. I think it is a common belief within the Church.

    When I was at BYU, Hartman Rector Jr. gave a famous (infamous) talk on the subject, including the following paragraphs:

    “Wherever Old Glory flies, there the kingdom of God is established. It’s that way all over the world. It makes no difference where she flies; you’ll find the kingdom of God there. I’m convinced that the stars and stripes is God’s flag because of what happens when it flies. It works the same way wherever you look. The same thing is happening in Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Southeast Asia, and Taiwan. Mormon servicemen have established the kingdom, so when the military goes out, the mission president and the missionaries go in. And the Lord’s kingdom rolls forth.

    “Notice the same pattern: these lands have been redeemed by the shedding of blood–the best blood of this generation. Many choice young servants of the Lord have died in those conflicts. I presume it has ever been so. It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether it be in the Church or outside; thus the kingdom of God rolls forth in the earth.”

    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6089

    Just a few years ago, I heard this sort of reasoning offered as a justification for the invasion of Ira–that this could (or would) be God’s way of spreading the gospel to the Islamic world (or at least Iraq).

    There is, of course, precedent for spreading other religious traditions through the sword.

  16. Hans on April 14, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I can only speak by way of comparison to Bulgaria where I served a few years ago. While Eastern Europeans opened their arms to religion, after the novelty wore away, they went back to their old life. After 50 years or so of atheism, most people just didn’t really care about religion, even if they are nominally Orthodox Christians.

    Cuba may be different because of its historical connections to Spanish Catholicism, but years of religious suppression seems to cause future generations to forget. My wife, a Bulgarian herself, turned 18 when the Berlin Wall fell. Up until that time, she had never heard of Christmas. If we were to face that type of obstacle in Cuba, it would be an uphill battle.

  17. Blain on April 14, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Folks, when are we going to begin to remember that the Church is not just American? US policy regarding Cuba does not restrict the Church functioning in other countries. Missionaries (service or otherwise) could have come from Europe, or South American, if all there was to it was the internal policies of the country the missionaries were coming from.

    Now, the countries may see the Church as being strictly American, and so they may set their policy toward the Church based on US foreign policy — I really don’t know. But would they be as quick to turn away service missionaries from Nigeria or Colombia or Russia? We have missionaries from Russia. Not a few — I’ve known some. I’m sure the Church has taken this into account.

    Is anybody working to give us per-thread rss feeds on comments again?

  18. Hans on April 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Blain,

    I was under the impression that the church is still considered a US entity and therefore is not allowed to have a presence in Cuba without some waiver or exemption. I could be wrong but US businesses are forbidden to work there, I would assume that there would be some similar restrictions for US non-profits.

  19. Marc Bohn on April 14, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Actually, Blain, in the case of Cuba that’s not correct. The sanctions on Cuba are pretty onerous. If any U.S. person (i.e., U.S. citizen, resident, entity, etc.) had any hand in sending missionaries from abroad to Cuba or if Church funds had gone to support foreign missionaries there, even indirectly, it almost certainly would violate the Treasury Department’s OFAC regulations. The folks in Salt Lake City and Church resources can essentially play no role in supporting such activities, period.

  20. Dan on April 14, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Mark B.,

    #11,

    In 1899, Misha Markow went on missions all across Eastern Europe. The closing of missions in Eastern Europe varied. In Romania, if I recall correctly, it was in the early 1930s and due to the nationalistic Iron Guard coming to power and influence. They tied nationalism to Orthodoxism, and so many non-Orthodox religions suffered during that time.

    I don’t recall, though, missions in Germany being closed under Nazism, though I really don’t know that much about church history under Nazism. So to make an argument that our warring opened doors doesn’t make sense in Germany. It may in Japan.

    Interestingly, the LDS.org site offers barely anything about the history of the LDS Church in Cuba. That doesn’t make much sense to me. Surely back in the 1800s and early 1900s the church sent missionaries there.

  21. Steve on April 14, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    DavidH (#15)

    “There is, of course, precedent for spreading other religious traditions through the sword.”

    That is a hideously unfair comparison. Mormons view “forced conversions” with abhorrence, as free choice is absolutely essential to our concept of conversion. No Mormons (at least none with any grasp on Church doctrine and positions) want to wage a military crusade to conquer the Gentile Nations and present them with the choice of baptism or death.

    Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive here, but I can’t tell you how many ignorant friends and acquaintinces have referred to my missionary service as my attempt to “force my religion on others.”

    Rector’s talk can easily be seen as a way of “looking on the bright side” of the horror that is war. Nobody denies that good things can come out of war (hey, WWII brought us frozen concentrated orange juice and silly putty!) I do, however, share your concern about the “bright side” justifying, in the minds of some, American involvements in war.

  22. Aaron Brown on April 14, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Cuba is the only place I’ve ever travelled, other than certain remote sections of Siberia, where the folks I talked to had never heard of Mormonism or Mormon missionaries. It’s interesting to read (in the link) Ted Lyon’s comments that there are a few members holding church meetings there. Would sure have been fun to attend one of those.

    AB

  23. jon on April 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    I don’t know when or if missionaries will go to work in Cuba, but until that time the aspect of this action that most impresses me is how family-friendly it is by allowing family members greater freedom to be with each other. Republican Mel Martinez is praising it, so it seems to have some genuine bipartisan support. The idea that opening the doors will somehow strengthen the Castro regime strikes me as absurd. When you give the people the taste of increased freedom, it will be awfully hard to take it away.

  24. bbell on April 14, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Jon,

    I hope you are right. I look to China and see a regime that tramples on liberties and has leveraged a good understanding of economics to sustain its repressive regime. Castro has used the funds from trade and tourism from Europe to hold on to power.

    It could be that the overwhelming numbers and $$ of Cuban/Americans visiting and sending money to relatives will crack Cuba’s despotic government.

    The Castro’s have proven to be survivors. Fidel has outlasted 9 US Presidents.

  25. Amy on April 14, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    #24–

    Well, as I heard someone say, it’s pretty easy to be a survivor when you don’t have elections or allow anyone to oppose you, peaceably or otherwise. The Miami Herald had a pretty good editorial on this the other day.

  26. Blain on April 14, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    19 — And I suppose that the centralized authority of the Church means that it couldn’t be done without participation of US persons. Publishing a FP message in the Liahona “To Free Peoples Outside the US” suggesting that they could show their love for their brothers and sisters by reaching out individually to serve where the institutional Church can not would probably result in horrible things happening.

    It’s happened before, mutatis mutandis.

  27. Ardis E. Parshall on April 14, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    I know nothing about the church in Cuba just before the revolution, but I have material about a number of Mormon businessmen (old Mormon names like Eccles, Moyle, Snow, and Riter) who had Cuban business and frequently traveled there in the first decades of the 20th century, all having to do with natural products like sugar, citrus, and rubber. It would be interesting to know what, if any, church activity they might have carried on, even temporarily, although I suspect that such men had only colonial interests and had very limited contact with natives.

  28. Amy on April 14, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Ardis, I think it would be super interesting. Let us know if you come across anything.

  29. Bookslinger on April 14, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    AHLDuke, #9: Maybe one or more of the 3 Nephites have been working in Cuba over the last 50 years. ;-)

    Hans, #16: A similar factor is interest in the forbidden. I’ve seen this among Chinese immigrants, both young and middle-aged. They’re curious about Christianity because it was essentially forbidden to them in China.

    DavidH, #15:There is, of course, precedent for spreading other religious traditions through the sword.

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and suppose that you did not intend an implication of parallel, but rather of contrast.

  30. DavidH on April 14, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Bookslinger (29), you are correct. Steve (21) my apologies for offending you.

    There is precedent for spreading religious tradition through the sword, but that is what Elder Rector or others advocated.
    Elder Rector’s theory, and the theory of some LDS at the time of the Iraq invasion, was that victory by the U.S. enables the spread of the gospel in the lands that are defeated. Neither Elder Rector, nor the LDS who supported the Iraq invasion, in part, because of a hope of spreading the gospel, meant to say that the conquered peoples would be forced to become any particular religion.

    I.e., the sword itself does not spread the gospel, rather the sword enables someone else to spread the gospel and the people to accept it. The result may or may not be similar, through direction or indirection, but there is an important element of individual agency permitted in the second method that is not permitted in the first.

  31. Blain on April 14, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Is there any response to the last paragraph in #17 from anybody?

  32. Bookslinger on April 14, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    DavidH, I think you’re still putting a spin on the phrase “spreading the gospel by the sword”, which is not in harmony with the commonly understood meaning. And you’re also putting a negative spin on Rector’s talk.

    I would say that is _not_ what Elder Rector advocated.

    There is a negative aspect, such as the Crusades and the Conquistadors. However, in the cases of the US Military in Japan, Korea, South Vietnam, and Iraq, those are cases where we liberated people (or extended their freedom for a few years in the case of Vietnam), not conquered them.

    I think you’re still damning the US and its military with a false association, intended or not. I don’t think any of the wars I mentioned are equivalent to Islam being spread by conquest in the Mideast and Africa, or to the Conquistadors bringing along priests to force the conversion of native Americans.

    Your implication appears uncharitable both to our military, and the LDS soldiers who shared the gospel on their own time, as well as to Elder Rector.

  33. Marc on April 14, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    “Is there any response to the last paragraph in #17 from anybody?”

    We hope to sometime soon, but it’s a little lower on the priority totem pole of changes we need to make on the blog.

  34. Blain on April 14, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    33 — Thanks. If I could encourage moving it up about .01% on the priority list, I’d like to.

  35. DavidH on April 15, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Bookslinger,

    I am embarrassed that I left a “not” out of the second sentence of number 30. I think you will see that with the “not”, my post 30 agrees with your point (at least I think it does).

    The second sentence should have read: “There is precedent for spreading religious tradition through the sword, but that is NOT what Elder Rector or others advocated.”

  36. Aaron on April 15, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I believe that U.S. policy towards Cuba hasn’t worked — it was time for a change.
    I agree that while the institutional church might not be able to function in Cuba — at least for the forseeable future — the individual member will.
    I also believe that an increasingly free flow of people and ideas and everything else between Cuba and the U.S. will surely weaken the grip of the authoritarian regime there, even if it takes time.
    As for the example of China cited above, the situation there might not be ideal, but if anyone can tell me when things were better in China in my lifetime, I’ll take them to lunch at McDonald’s (I would say the Four Seasons, but, you know, what with the economy and all…)

  37. gst on April 15, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Blain, sorry the free blog they created for you isn’t up to your standards yet. If only you were a founding perma-blogger here so you could resign in disgust.

  38. Kaimi Wenger on April 15, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    It’s time for the readers to seize the means of production. Viva la revolucion!

  39. aloysiusmiller on April 16, 2009 at 6:34 am

    25. I agree. The (subdued) slobbering over Castro is disgusting. Especially when we see others going berserk over Pinochet.

    We actually should be indignant that restrictions are being eased. If there was any moral courage left in the world we would rather have a full scale naval and air blockade of Cuba and eliminate all imports and exports from that island. They would be on their knees in weeks and the Castro brothers would be survivors no longer.

  40. Kent Larsen on April 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

    [sarcasm]Yep, all the worlds problems should be solved with violence and strong-arm tactics.[/sarcasm]

  41. Dan on April 16, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Kent,

    I think aloysius has been sarcastic this whole time, particularly in regards to Pinochet.

  42. aloysiusmiller on April 16, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Well sarcasm aside the Castros certainly thought so.

  43. aloysiusmiller on April 16, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Dan No actually not. The left wing doesn’t believe in any real future for anything or anybody so they can be nonchalant about existential threats but God created the earth for a purpose and sustaining existence is a worthy goal.

  44. Dan on April 16, 2009 at 9:52 am

    see what I mean, he’s sarcastic. pure sarcasm drips from his every word

  45. aloysiusmiller on April 16, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Dan, I resign from talking to you. You are not serious whether by intent or by capacity.

  46. Dan on April 16, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    And I should take you seriously? When you say things like “the left wing doesn’t believe in any real future for anything or anybody?”

  47. Aboz on April 25, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Well, it looks like I am not the only one out there contemplating this possibilty. I was glad to see somebody else is thinking about this and validates my thoughts on it. I think the Lord put Obama in place for this very type of thing, because he is ideologically aligned with the people in the very places that the gospel is going to go next. And of course relations will thaw when he cozies up to dictators. I’m politically disbelieving in any party, so when I see any particular person in office, I know the Lord has some job for him to do that has something to do with his ideology in some way, that opens doors, or in the case of Bush, closes them. Bush was the guy we needed at the time for 911, though him and Cheney were slimeballs and got us into Iraq. Lying saks of crap. I have yet to see whether Obama is a lying sack.

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