Posted by Craig Borlase on 22 June 2017

When the school bus pulls up to the kerb at 6:31am and unloads its cargo, the sound of unbridled joy and excitement is almost loud enough to drown out the ocean. It is Easter Sunday down by the beach, and though the rising sun is hidden behind heavy cloud, its warmth blown away by a chilly breeze, the newly arrived congregation is buzzing and ready to worship. This is Cuba after all.

But things haven’t always been this way for the good people of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Varadero. There was a time when the flame of the church grew so faint that it might have been extinguished at any point.

And yet, thanks to one ordinary woman’s persistence and one gifted theologian’s humility, that flame remained alight.

The story starts more than half a century ago in the early 1960s. The Revolution had turned Cuba into a socialist state and members of the overthrown regime were routinely executed on television. The country was officially declared atheist and Christians found themselves the victims of anything from mild discrimination to extreme persecution.

Like so many others churches in the country, the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Varadero witnessed a mass exodus. Almost overnight its fifty-strong congregation – pastor included – either fled to the US or abandoned their faith and joined up with the Castro regime.

All of them, that is, except for Rita Rodriguez.

A single woman in her sixties, Rita chose not to flee or denounce Christ. Instead, she remained faithful. Even when the church’s main building was confiscated by the state, she refused to back down. She kept her faith public and her church attendance uninterrupted. Every Sunday she unlocked the one room that the church had been allowed to keep. There she prayed, worshipped and studied the Bible. It didn’t matter that there was no pastor and no choir to join her. Rita was not deterred that hers was the only voice that echoed around the room. She knew the regime had declared that churches without any members should be permanently shut down, and she had heard of other congregations where it had happened. She knew that if she missed a single Sunday, there might never be another church in Varadero again.

The news of Rita’s commitment spread, reaching thirty miles away to the town of Matanzas, and the ears of one theologian named Sergio Arce Martinez. Dr Martinez was a brilliant man with a phd from Princeton Theological Seminary and widely regarded as the foremost theologian in Cuba at the time. As a high profile Christian leader in a country where some Christians were being sent to work camps, Dr Martinez had to choose his battles carefully. And as a husband and father, what little time he had at home was precious. He likely had plenty of better things to do than make the uncomfortable, hour-long journey to Varadero every Sunday and lead a church service for a congregation of one. But when the state ruled that every church must have a pastor in order to remain valid, Dr Martinez knew he had to act.

So, every Sunday, Rita Rodriguez and Sergio Arce Martinez met and kept the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Varadero alive. Week after week, month after month, for four years they met as a church of two: the theologian who could easily have pursued more glamorous preaching opportunities, and the old woman who could have chosen to live a quiet life free from risk and danger.

Rita only got to see a glimpse of the fruit of her persistence. By the time she died in the 1980s the church had grown a little, with maybe a dozen or so regular members turning up to worship alongside her. But as the the years passed, the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Varadero began to bloom.

Today, it is thriving church that shares the love of God through multiple different ministries. Its congregation – now three hundred strong – fills its new church building from the front to the back. And on a windy Easter Sunday morning, as the sun slowly lifts the clouds, the sound of their singing and the depth of their gratitude for Jesus, is enough to flood the sky.

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