“The Salvation Army provides hope to the Cuban people,” said Lt. Ivis Diaz. “We can satisfy spiritual needs here, and we help in other ways as we can.”
Diaz and her husband, Lt. Odilio Fernandez, are corps officers of the Havana Central Corps–a growing corps with an active ministry–in a division for many years isolated from the Army world.
Once down to three corps, the Cuba Division–a part of the Latin America North Territory–now contains 14 corps and two outposts. The number of soldiers has grown in the past 10 years from 100 to 600 and the Home League is active, with 420 members. Diaz and Fernandez are two of 35 officers in Cuba. Since 1990, Major Felipe Prieto and his wife, Major Ines Castilla, have been divisional leaders.
Home League is one avenue of growth at Havana Central. “We have six Home League meetings in five homes, and one meeting at the corps,” said Diaz. The corps also has men’s league, which has Bible study, fellowship and special skills classes; corps cadets; League of Mercy; and Sunday school. On Sundays, 61 Senior and 17 Junior soldiers attend services.
The William Booth Home in Havana, a Salvation Army ministry for 60 years, cares for 46 residential elderly and provides meals for 35 elderly from the community. A doctor provides medical care at the home. Major Francisco Lopez and his wife, Major Anna Medina, are in charge of the home, which is also the meeting place of the Havana Central #2 Corps. According to Captain Arnoldo Gonzalez, divisional secretary, there is an increasing need for housing for the elderly, and the Army provides one of the few accommodations in the city.
The Army has a feeding program at two other sites as well, serving 50 elderly at Havana Central #2 Corps and 20 at the Central Corps.
Life is difficult in Cuba. Grand avenues are lined with once-gracious homes in dire need of repair. Everything needs a coat of paint. There are no traffic jams because there are few cars. With the average salary only 180 pesos, or $8 U.S. per month, and the typical rent (from private parties) at 200 pesos, many extended families must live together to survive.
“This causes many social problems,” said Diaz–who is a lawyer by profession, and in 1993 earned a salary of only 198 pesos a month (then, $2 U.S. dollars). With financial help from the council of churches, the corps assists 14 needy families in the community, buying them food, soap, clothes and hygiene kits. “We could help many more people if we had the money,” Diaz explained. She notes that every three months they bring the clients to activities at the corps, and one grandmother who had been getting assistance became a Christian. She now brings family members with her.
Salvationists continue the work under adverse circumstances as well. Churches must obtain permission from the government to buy a car, and may apply only every 2-3 years. Recently, none of the four cars in the division were running, and all and needed repairs. The corps officers at Havana Central have no car. “My husband’s car is a bicycle,” said Diaz with a smile.
And yet, their faith is strong and circumstances are getting a little better. Diaz notes that when she was a student, times were hard for the church in Cuba. She was told if she didn’t leave the church, she couldn’t go to the university. “I was pressured to leave the church, but my parents, who were Salvation Army officers, told me I needed to stand up for my faith. ”
Josué Prieto, the son of Prieto and Castilla, and his wife, Hilda Perez, will soon enter the Army’s training college in Costa Rica. Both have university degrees; Hilda is a mechanical engineer, and Josué is a computer systems analyst. Hilda, who teaches a Home League Bible study, was converted in 1992 when General Eva Burrows visited Cuba; her family had been Communists.
“In Cuba, even with Communism, so many had a Catholic heritage that people still remembered the church and Christ,” said Josué. “The church has been growing the past eight years due to growing hope in Christ, and inner strength. People are finding a growing faith.”
A “Hidden” Army
The Salvation Army has been in Cuba officially since 1918. Prior to the revolution in 1958, the Army had programs including children’s homes, a medical clinic, a school, and an eventide home. All of the Army’s social work, with the exception of the eventide home, was taken over by Castro’s government.
While The Salvation Army still existed in Cuba after the revolution, it existed in total secrecy. Cadets were trained at the divisional commander’s house and had to find their own housing. Salvationists were not able to print The War Cry, and could not hold open air meetings.
According to Western Territorial Commander Commissioner David Edwards, ministers of religion apparently were denied ration cards under the new government, since what they did was not considered work in a socialist state. Consequently, during the time the International Army lost contact with Cuba from 1963-1974, a number of officers had to seek other jobs to survive.
“One of the dilemmas that has faced the Army in Cuba has been how to survive under the system and still maintain the integrity of our witness,” Edwards said.