In today’s Cuba, can churches and LGBTQ rights each find path forward?

John Wesley rides his horse through the Cuban countryside, beneath tall palm trees and mountains so green they look purple. He holds his reins in one hand and his Bible in the other.

But the painted portrait hanging in the Rev. Enoel Gutierrez’s office depicts a scene that never happened. There is no record that Wesley, the 18th century Methodist leader, ever came to Cuba, or anywhere else in the Caribbean – though he traveled so much to preach that it’s said he could have circled the Earth 10 times.

Still, Mr. Gutierrez is determined to bring Wesley to his island nation. To bring the painting he commissioned from his imagination to life.

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Religious diversity and participation have flourished in Cuba since the country loosened restrictions over the past three decades, particularly among evangelical churches. But it’s more than sermons. Conservative Christianity has become a political force to be reckoned with, in a country whose ruling Communist Party has traditionally allowed next to no dissent. In communities with tight media controls and limited internet access, religious leaders are uniquely positioned to shape opposition in ways the government hasn’t seen in decades, analysts say.

“As a Christian, we are responsible for the whole education of the person,” says Mr. Gutierrez, sitting on a couch beneath the Wesley painting in his office at the Methodist seminary in central Havana. “We need to go to the people and help the people see the reality of the country, the reality of the politics, because many people don’t have access to that information.”

Beyond Roman Catholicism, which has dominated religious life here for centuries, other faiths’ numbers are small but quickly growing. And Evangelicals’ outsize influence was on prominent display last year, ahead of a referendum on Cuba’s new constitution, as they targeted an article legalizing same-sex marriage.

In September, for example, dozens of evangelical leaders published a letter of opposition. One week before the vote, more than 100 heterosexual couples wearing their wedding clothes gathered in protest on the Malecón, a central roadway along the Havana coast.

The referendum passed by a wide margin on Feb. 24, ushering in changes such as expanded private property rights and presidential term limits while maintaining the one-party system and centrally planned economy. But the article proposing to redefine marriage as a union “between two people” was nixed before the vote. The new constitution does, however, ban discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Members of Cuba’s LGBTQ community, who have seen acceptance grow significantly in the past few decades, saw their hopes for marriage postponed. Evangelicals managed to tap into a larger anti-same-sex marriage sentiment that pervades much of Latin America, say experts, while testing how much space there is for public dissent. 

“It is not an exception; homophobia is present in the Latin culture, as well as the patriarchal culture of Cuba. Patriarchal culture has always favored heterosexuality as the positive norm. … Before English and Spanish colonialism in the Americas, native peoples recognized that a person could have ‘two spirits,’ meaning that they possessed masculine and feminine attributes, and that was not a problem,” says Teresa de Jesús, coordinator at the National Center for Sexual Education. Patriarchal ideas are passed from one generation to another within families, she adds, and one can’t change culture from one day to the next.

Weeks after the vote, churches across Havana still kept posters taped to their doors of four stick figures holding hands (a man and a woman with their two children) and the phrase “I am in favor of the original design.”

“John Wesley said without social holiness, we have no personal holiness,” says Mr. Gutierrez. “Holiness cannot be [just] inside these walls.”

LIVING FAITH OUT LOUD

Hundreds of congregants raise their hands in the air at a Saturday morning service at Iglesia Metodista de Marianao in southwest Havana, shaking with enthusiasm as Pastor Leidy Guerra speaks in a rhythmic chant. Don’t just read the Bible, says Ms. Guerra, but really live it. Even when the odds seem too great to overcome.

When the service ends, the church erupts in kisses. Cubans greet each other with an audible kiss on one cheek – and the more kisses, the more meaningful the greeting. Kisses for Ms. Guerra and Danielle Byerly, a visiting missionary from Asheboro, North Carolina, who worked with the church in 2017 and 2018, echo throughout the church.

During Ms. Guerra’s four years as a pastor, the congregation has grown by several hundred to about 3,000 today. Many of the new members have been women and about 40% are under 30. They are exhausted, she says, from daily struggles such as feeding their families.

“Cuba is not the same as it was 20 years ago,” says Ms. Guerra. “People are now more thirsty. They need a solution.”

But this desperation has fostered a distinct religious passion in Cuba, says Ms. Byerly, whose church in North Carolina is one of many United States congregations that have partnered with Cuban counterparts over the past few years.

“In the U.S., if you want something you can go work for it,” says Ms. Byerly. “You can’t do that here, so here you need that hope in God.”

Part of congregations’ popularity is practical: They have spread their reach into communities through benefits that are common elsewhere – such as cooking meals for older people or tutoring the young – but new to Cubans.

“Now [the church] is not just a place for praying,” says Arturo Lopez-Levy, a political scientist at New York University. “It’s a place for community.”

When a deadly tornado ripped through Cuba in January, for example, churches responded immediately. Alain Gonzalez, 18, who joined University Methodist Church in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood a few years ago, says congregants stayed after services to fill trash bags with clothes and food for tornado victims.

Mr. Gonzalez, idling on the steps of his church waiting for an evening service to begin, pulls his cellphone from his pocket and thumbs through photographs. He stops on one of a mound of trash bags that seems taller than he is.

“Look at what we did,” he says. “And that’s only from the collection at one service.”

‘A DIFFERENT WAY TO BE SAVED’

This kind of public activity was long forbidden to Cuba’s churches. Shortly after seizing power in 1959, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheist state. He canceled Christmas and shipped boats of priests overseas. But after the fall of the Soviet Union set off an economic crisis, as many Cubans struggled for basic necessities, Castro softened his ban on religion and permitted believers to join the Communist Party.

When Raúl Castro took over the presidency from his brother in 2008, religion took another leap forward on the island. Pews began to fill up. In 2015, Mr. Castro himself talked about returning to the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis played a mediator role in talks between Cuba and the Obama administration. Religious practice is still tightly controlled, however, with government signoff required for new churches and public gatherings.

The revival has had noticeable breadth. Santería, a tradition that first developed among African slaves brought to Cuba, is now practiced more openly. The Jewish community, which almost completely emigrated during the Castro years, is gaining strength; the island’s Muslim community has increased from 500 members to 7,000.

And while a 2015 survey by Univision and Fusion found that only 7 percent of the country identified as evangelical or Protestant, totaling about 800,000 people, the pace of growth is notable. About 20 Methodist churches open annually, says Mr. Gutierrez, and he hopes to soon have at least one in every Cuban city. Established congregations are growing, too.

“All the people in Cuba had received an education not to believe,” says Mr. Gutierrez. “But the people need hope; they need to see a different future for their life. They see a different way to be saved.”

Evangelical churches are not the only ones testing the waters of dissent. Take the Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, one of Cuba’s most outspoken priests, who has published open letters of opposition to both Castros. Not so coincidentally, the local government’s band practices loudly next door to Mr. Conrado’s service, says his friend Silvia Pedraza, a sociology professor and Cuba expert at the University of Michigan.

“Some priests and ministers have taken huge risks for a long time with their criticisms,” says Professor Pedraza. “There are plenty [of priests] who say, ‘Our religious life has to play into how we live, and how we live is politics.’”

“The church has a different vision of life and human rights than the government does,” she adds.

CAUTIOUS CHANGE POST-CASTRO

The government’s vision may be changing. In 2018, Miguel Díaz-Canel became the country’s first non-Castro president in more than 40 years. Three months later, the government approved a new constitution to replace the 1976 version. And then, it again did something surprising: It convened “popular consultations” across the country to allow citizen input, which produced tens of thousands of suggestions.

Mr. Díaz-Canel has made a responsive government his signature policy issue because he understands that he needs to build support, especially as the economy stalls, says William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington.

“Díaz-Canel’s strategy is to build legitimacy by showing that his government is open to hearing what people think and what people need,” says Professor LeoGrande. “The constitutional process itself gave people a publicly approved venue or platform to articulate their views, and the church really took advantage of that.”

It’s not a dramatic turn toward democracy. More than 2,000 journalists, human rights defenders, and general dissidents were arrested during the first half of 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. Even in the privacy of their own homes, many Cubans avoid talking politics – making opposition to the proposed constitution even more notable. During the “public consultations” period, the marriage section was the most discussed issue, the National Assembly tweeted in December, with most comments against amending the section.

“We need to say something is right or wrong according to the Bible,” says Leslie Quesada, the pastor at Primera Iglesia Evangélica Los Pinos Nuevos in central Havana, one of the religious leaders who signed the September protest letter. “If we want to start helping our country, we need to start thinking in a biblical way.”

But if Evangelicals are finding their voice, so is Cuba’s LGBTQ community. During the early years of the revolution, many gay Cubans were fired from their jobs or sent to labor camps, and homosexuality was illegal until 1979. More recent progress is often credited to Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl. She established – and now directs – the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and has led an annual march against homophobia and transphobia for more than a decade. (In May, the government suddenly canceled the 2019 march, though about 100 marchers defied the ban, without CENESEX support.)

But in December, Cuba’s National Assembly announced on Twitter that the new constitution would exclude the explicit provision for same-sex marriage. Neither the 1976 definition of “between one man and one woman” was included, nor the floated definition of a union “between two people.”

Even so, when it came time for the referendum, almost 14% of voters opposed ratification or left the ballot blank, and 15% of Cubans stayed home from the polls. When the 1976 constitution was ratified, by contrast, only 2% opposed or left the ballot blank, and just 1% stayed home.

The government has announced plans to explicitly define marriage in the next two years, when it revises a national law covering marriage, divorce, and child care via another referendum.

“They kicked the can down the road to not put the referendum at risk,” says Professor LeoGrande. “Maybe they can come up with some language to make everyone happy, but I don’t think so. … It will be a really interesting test of how far this new [political] tolerance is going to reach.”

LAS FAMILIAS

To Ms. de Jesús, the new constitution represents more than the government’s tolerance for political opposition.

Even in its revised version, the new constitution signals a tolerance of LGBTQ people that she has worked toward for decades. Today, she is a coordinator at CENESEX, founded by Ms. Castro. It’s still a victory, says Ms. de Jesús, who notes that as a lesbian she has faced discrimination all her life – discrimination now outlawed under the new constitution.

“I am 58 years old, and now is the first time in all my life that I might have all my rights,” she says, quickly wiping away tears. “I’m very proud that in my country they’re making something like this.”

The biggest difference, she says as her eyes light up with a sneaky twinkle, is Chapter 3 of the constitution. In the 1976 version, it is titled “Familia.” In this year’s constitution, it is “Las Familias,” which some interpret to mean there are many types of “legitimate“ families. Advocates say they are confident the upcoming family-code revision will solidify same-sex couples’ right to marry.

On the back porch of her apartment, as her two cats jump between a forest of potted plants, she looks at her girlfriend of 36 years in the room next door.

It’s taken only a few letters for them to start planning their wedding. Las familias.

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