Bringing Christ’s Comfort to a Communist Island
Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos by Steve Shambeck
Late one night in 1989, friends Ricardo Bicet and Osmel Hernandez, both 17, sat on a bus in Havana, Cuba, watching three Americans. They were fascinated by their accents and cheerful demeanor. Ricardo, the more impulsive of the two, blurted out, “Hello! Are you Americans?”
Pastor Bob Kopeny of Calvary Chapel East Anaheim, CA, nodded politely yet cautiously. Americans were usually not allowed into the Communist country. Cuba’s decades-old alliances with Communist China and the Soviet Union caused continual political tensions with the U.S. Bob had been warned to be wary of strangers and not to break any laws—lest he be jailed or cause more persecution to the Cuban Christians they had come to encourage.
At a loss for what else to say, Ricardo pressed, “Do you want to exchange pesos for American dollars?”
Knowing this was illegal, Bob shook his head. His group disembarked and began the half-mile walk to their hotel. Bob’s pulse quickened as the two burly young men, built like NFL linebackers, followed them.
“Wow, so you guys are from America,” Ricardo called out. He felt drawn to them. “We have never met any Americans! I like practicing my English.”
Bob silently prayed for guidance. He had been warned not to talk about Jesus on the streets with strangers. Ricardo asked what the Americans thought of Fidel Castro. Bob carefully replied, “What do you think of him?”
“I think he’s a very great man,” Ricardo said. After more talk, Ricardo pointed to some scantily clad women passing by. “What do you think of the girls here?”
Bob replied, “We’re not here for that.” Surprised, Ricardo asked why they had come. Bob longed to tell these two young men about Jesus. He said, “If you want to know why we’re here, come to our hotel in the morning before we go to the airport.”
The next morning, the two young men returned in their best clothes. The Americans offered them breakfast, but they chose to have their first Coca-Cola instead. They all went outside and sat on the Malecón, a long seawall overlooking the sparkling blue ocean. Ricardo interpreted as Pastor Bob shared about Jesus Christ—a name Osmel had never heard before. Bob explained that God the Father had sent His only Son, Jesus, to earth to die for all people. He related a modern parable of a railway worker whose young son got caught in the machinery of a bridge, forcing the man to decide whether to save his son or to save all of the people in the train. Though he loved his son so much, the man made the sacrifice to save the oblivious passengers.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:17
Osmel was captivated. As he looked at a small sailboat gliding on the water, time seemed to stand still. Even as a child in an atheist culture, he had wondered about God. His heart filled with hope and hunger. Is there really a Father God in heaven who loves me like this? He felt a strange, hopeful peace at Bob’s words.
Ricardo also was fascinated by Jesus. Like many Cuban young men, Ricardo had idolized Castro—even declaring, “My god is Fidel Castro.” But as Bob spoke, Ricardo felt the power and presence of the one true God.
He and Osmel both prayed with Pastor Bob, repenting of their sins and accepting Jesus as their Savior. Each immediately sensed God’s Holy Spirit inside of them. Bob embraced them and gave them each a Bible. They exchanged addresses. Bob marveled that, though his team had come to encourage, not evangelize, the Lord had brought two young men hungry for the Gospel.
“If we’re faithful to do what God calls us to do, He will accomplish so much more than we ever could,” Bob reflected. “We were just going to encourage our brothers and sisters at a small church in Cuba. We had no idea that God was going to raise up this young man [Ricardo] to start the first Calvary Chapel there.”
Continuing in the Truth
Though his communist family said Christians were enemies, Pastor Ricardo recalled, “I loved and respected Pastor Bob because he presented the Gospel to me. In the Book of Daniel it describes how the people recognized that the Spirit in Daniel was stronger than any other. That’s what happened when I met Pastor Bob. There was something different about him—the truth he taught, his sincere life, his love for someone he didn’t even know. Every month he would send me a Gospel tract in Spanish about the love of Jesus, and it would comfort my heart.”
Ricardo and Osmel wanted to grow in their faith but became discouraged. One day a telegram arrived from Pastor Bob that he was returning and wanted to see them. Osmel recalled, “He said we were to call him collect, so we ran to the hotel and called. I remember how amazing it was just to hear his voice.” Over the years, Bob brought Christian materials in Spanish to disciple them. “I told Bob that he was like my dad. He said, ‘Osmel, we only have one Father—God.’ He was teaching me to rely on Jesus, not him.” Both Ricardo and Osmel grew in the Lord. Sensing God’s call on Ricardo’s life, Pastor Bob brought him to the States to attend a Calvary Chapel pastor’s conference where he met Pastor Chuck Smith in 1997.
A Calvary in Cuba
Ricardo returned and started a Calvary Chapel that year, meeting in the home of Pablo—a man who had been dying of cancer until Ricardo and his wife Misleidy prayed for him. “God did a miracle, so they dedicated their house to God,” Ricardo recalled. After they grew to 60 people, God provided a larger house in the poor Havana suburb of San Mateo for 15 years where the church blossomed to 170-plus. Last October, Calvary Chapel Havana moved to a bigger building eight miles from downtown Havana. “I always dreamed of having a bigger building because I knew God wanted to grow His Church,” Ricardo related. “There is such a need for salvation; we live in an area where Santeria is practiced.” Santeria is a pantheistic Afro-Cuban religious cult with elements of Catholicism and animal sacrifices, practiced by nearly 13% of Cubans (Washington Post, April 2015).
The Santeria cult is not the only spiritual challenge in Cuba. According to the 2015 survey, 44% of Cubans identified as non-religious, 27% as Catholic, and only 5% as Evangelical. Ricardo added, “Many Cuban people feel that becoming a Christian means you are betraying the government or turning your back on communism. It’s a very extreme idea.” His entire family has come to Christ. “God is making history with us,” declared Ricardo of his congregation. “I am so glad that I can be a part of His purpose and plan here in Cuba. His purpose has preserved us.”
Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7:25
On the same seawall where Ricardo and Osmel accepted Christ three decades ago, Pastor Bob led two teen brothers to Christ with Associate Pastor Ozzie Castillo of CC East Anaheim this past January. The teens then came to CC Havana and met other believers their age.
The East Anaheim team also ministered to Sampson, a stranded young man from Liberia who accepted Christ; they later bought him a plane ticket home. Ozzie reflected, “Perhaps God wants to do again what He did through Pastor Ricardo. We are praying for these young men, for the Word of God to be fruitful in their lives. God does His work one person at a time.”
Hope in the Word
Like other Calvary Chapels, Pastor Ricardo related, “Our people love the Word of God. Sometimes when I’m teaching, I go over an hour and say, ‘I’m sorry;’ and they say, ‘Keep going.’” Learning the Word verse by verse has given believers a steadfast faith in a country riddled with spiritual confusion, Christian persecution, and economic struggles. Ricardo added, “I’m so glad they know that, in times of trial, they can go to Jesus Christ. He is the Savior, the Forgiver, the Redeemer—the solution for every problem. They know that Jesus dwells in them and that the Holy Spirit can guide them.”
Pastor Ricardo believes Jesus is raising up the next generation to do His work in a country where sexual promiscuity and drugs are polluting young hearts. He observed, “This generation is facing harder things than I ever faced—but our God is the same God; the Holy Spirit has the same power.” Following God’s leading, Ricardo invited one of the youth who has a heart for Jesus, Samuel, to share a devotion every Sunday morning before the regular service. “We have 30 adults coming and listening to a 13-year-old preaching. These young people—they are the Joshuas, the next generation—the ones who are going to continue God’s work in Cuba.”
Churches used to have to meet in houses, but now are allowed to own buildings. Pastor Bob noted, “The churches feel more freedom to do the work of the ministry in Havana. Over 30 years, I’ve seen a growing openness to the Gospel and more evangelism opportunities.” Still, he noted, poverty and poor living conditions remain: unreliable electricity and transportation, low wages, cramped and dilapidated housing. “But the Cuban people make life work: For them, life is about family and friendship, not achieving success.”
Love and Care
As they do on each trip, the January team spent a lot of time talking, listening, and praying with people one-on-one. Team member Tom Montes recounted, “The Cuba trip is not a typical missions trip; we don’t feed the homeless or build something—we focus on fellowship and encouragement for the church.”
Tom added, “The primary gift we give them is to sit down with them, look them in the eye, listen to them, and pray for them. We make sure there’s time for that.” Tom comforted Ricardo’s father, Andres, who lost his grown daughter, Adriana, about a year ago. “He told me how hard it has been on him and his wife; they were all very close.” Because Tom had been to Cuba twice before, Andres felt comfortable sharing his grief. “I sought him out. I just listened, let him talk until he got it all out. Then we prayed together. I also spoke with his wife; I could see that she was in a lot of pain.” Tom keeps in touch with Andres and added, “He’s doing better.”
Osmel met Karen when she came with CC East Anaheim in 1995; in 2004, they married, and he moved to the States. He has a heart for CC Havana’s elderly and tries to visit them yearly; he and Karen send food and personal items monthly. “I’m so grateful for all the Lord has done for me—not only to save me, but to give me a wife and a family,” Osmel rejoiced. The couple attends CC East Anaheim.
Encouraging the Persecuted Church
Pastor Ozzie explained why it’s important to edify believers in Cuba. “In every church service, there are spies; the minister doesn’t even know who they are. People come to hear if anything is said that could be seen as anti-government. If they report it, they gain favor with the government, and the pastor will be punished right away,” Ozzie said. Pastor Ricardo has been persecuted twice this way. Ozzie recalled, “From 2004 to 2010, there was a long battle in court, and they were trying to shut down the Calvary Chapel. Pastor Ricardo had to hire a lawyer and collect signatures from his neighborhood saying that they didn’t want the church to close. Even one of the deputies from the community also signed. Praise God for His favor!”
Bob expounded, “Our unique mission has always been to encourage the Church in Cuba—to love them, to pray for them, to let them know they are not forgotten.” He urges other U.S. churches to reach out to at least one persecuted church abroad. “They need us—not just materially, but emotionally and spiritually. They need to know they are not alone.” He reflected on how the apostle Paul had collected offerings from the Macedonian Christians for the needy, persecuted believers in Jerusalem. “This is a biblical, foundational truth: As members of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must care for one another.” Those with few material resources can still reach out with prayer and letters.
Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:4
Bob added, “The Lord wants to use you and me to affect this world; He’s going to bless us so that we can bless others. As His Church, every one of us is to live for the Lord: to take what He has given us—our gifts, our finances, our passions—and use them for His glory to touch other people in Jesus’ name.”