Willie Santiago continues a legacy of faith amidst persecution
The Middle-Eastern Jesus movement that took place in the first century is one of the most compelling and surprising social phenomenons in history. What seemed to be defeated group of just over one hundred people erupted into tens of thousands in a matter of decades, reaching a million in just 200 years. This diverse community of rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, was connected by more than just belief in a resurrected rabbi or a newly adopted religious ideology. Their souls were knit together in a supernatural phenomena that couldn’t be denied, then or now. Former enemies shared meals, finances, and newfound purpose.
Church planters and kingdom dreamers today wonder at the possibility of a revival like the one we read about in the book of Acts. We long for our faith communities to return to the simplicity of a diverse spiritual family that attracted outsiders with its radical love and power through the Holy Spirit. Could an explosion of such genuine faith like this happen in the twenty-first century?
As we ponder this question, stories reach us from across the majority world where such revivals still take place. The house church movement in China, despite heavy persecution, is multiplying at a rate that rivals the first century. The church in Syria and Iraq is growing rapidly in the face of war, violence, and the attempted extermination of religious minorities.
And 300 miles south of Miami on the island of Cuba, another revival has grown steadily over the past few decades, quietly transforming a country where many believed God had been pushed out.
From revolution to persecution
The Cuban Revolution ended in 1959, inaugurating an era of mass persecution of minorities. Fidel Castro and his communist allies overthrew the standing government and claimed power. American missionaries were forced to leave the country and an exodus of over 200,000 Cubans to south Florida began. Anyone remaining in Cuba who disagreed with the regime’s agenda was forced into labor camps, where many died from torture and suicide.
“We long for our faith communities to return to the simplicity of a diverse spiritual family that attracted outsiders with its radical love and power through the Holy Spirit.”
“Growing up with a government that is communist for the last 60 years, it has been very hard for us to tell people what the Lord is doing in Cuba,” says Willie Santiago. “Most of the churches in the United States, when you talk about Cuba, the first thing that comes into their mind is the Cold War, the Cuban Missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and Russia.
All these things happened. They are true, but also there is another truth: a revival, especially in the young people.”
Willie Santiago is one of the pioneers of this Cuban revival. He is the founder of Cuban Connections, a ministry that serves the poor in Cuba and facilitates relationships between the long-isolated Cuban church and her international brothers and sisters in the US, Canada, and beyond.
Willie recalls the persecution and mockery he and his family faced when things were at their worst for religious minorities. At the time, anyone whose beliefs differed from the atheist government was forced to leave the country or enter concentration camps. His family was Christian, capitalist, and resisted the communist government. These were three potentially deadly strikes against the Santiagos.
At age seven, Willie was called to the front of his schoolroom and mocked by his teacher and classmates because his family was a member of the local Christian church. The teacher prayed to God for a bicycle with Willie at his side while the students laughed. “You see, Willie, if God was real I would have a bicycle,” the teacher said.
Willie still remembers the humiliation of that day. But while growing up as an outsider was trying, Willie treasures his rich Christian heritage and the story of how his family came to Jesus.
The story goes like this: In 1940 in rural Alabama, a young woman named Leora Shank decided to serve Jesus as a missionary in Cuba. When she first arrived in the small town of Santa Rosa, she worked with local farmers and helped with the harvest. In the beginning, before she learned Spanish, she struggled to communicate the Gospel with the community.
“After some time, she found out that some of the farmers and their families had come to Christ because of her testimony. ‘Preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’ This is exactly how she lived,” Willie says.
Eventually, she started a house church into Santa Rosa. One day she met Margarita, a young mother of three who practiced Santería.
“Miss Leora Shank shared Jesus with her and the next Sunday Margarita went to the little home church and accepted Jesus. Margarita was my grandmother. Somebody from Alabama came to Cuba and shared Jesus with my grandmother and changed the destiny of my family.
Today, my sister is a pastor. My cousin is a pastor. My brother is a pastor. Two of my sons are pastors. All of this is because of missions work.”
Revival through house churches
As a young boy, Willie idolized the Scottish physician and missionary, David Livingstone. He dreamed of being both a doctor and a missionary. While he never had the opportunity to pursue a career in medicine, God would give him the chance to become a missionary among his own people during some of Cuba’s darkest days.
“Somebody from Alabama came to Cuba and shared Jesus with my grandmother and changed the destiny of my family.”
The Cuban religious revival began in earnest in the 1980s following a decrease in religious persecution by the communist government. In 1993, the government decided to allow citizens to gather in their homes. So began the Cuban house church movement. In the midst of political turmoil and the attempted destruction of religion in Cuba, God invaded the darkness and began to do His work.
Willie’s journey to becoming a missionary and eventually founding Cuban Connections was birthed out this Spirit-led revival. Instead of looking to build a safe and secure life, he gave himself to the dangerous, fulfilling work that he found God had already begun. At great personal risk he stepped into vocational ministry, leading the growth of the house church movement within Cuba. It was work God had prepared him for throughout his entire life.
Willie says one reason the house church movement in Cuba is so successful is because of the family-centric culture that already exists. After a family came to know Jesus, they would often open up their living room, garage, or backyard for gatherings with other believers.
“There is a pastor friend of mine who started a church in his living room with 5 to 7 people,” Willie says. “It started to grow to 10 to 15. Before you knew it, he had to take down a wall in the living room because the church was growing. They kept growing and so he had to take down another wall. Eventually, they cleared out the entire second floor and now they host the church upstairs because there isn’t enough room downstairs.”
Often, within a few years of conversion, people would open their homes and begin shepherding new believers. This was a low-cost solution that helped facilitate the rapid growth of the Cuban church.
What started as a meeting of a handful of people would quickly grow to 20 or more. People reconstructed their homes to facilitate larger gatherings. Unbelieving neighbors felt comfortable attending these meetings because of their informality; they felt like the gatherings so common in Cuban familial culture. While attending a formal religious service may have been intimidating, joining neighbors for a meal felt natural. People could wear shorts and flip-flops without the fear of standing out.
This warmth and inclusivity has been the context for the Cuban revival over the last forty years.
Unity among the family of God
Today, Cuban Connections runs a seven-acre farm that serves as both a home for disabled people—offering employment, meals, and belonging—and a hub to facilitate growth among Cuba’s house church network.
Cuban Connections was founded in an effort to bridge the gap between isolated Cuban Christians and their global brothers and sisters. The organization pushes back against the narrative of wealthy visitors coming to serve the poor in Cuba by building relationships between believers that resemble the movement that took place in the first century. Diverse groups of rich and poor, Cuban and American, share meals and serve God together as family.
“We are an interdenominational ministry working with different groups that have varying theological backgrounds and beliefs,” Willie says. “When you are being oppressed, in such a heavy situation, you aren’t concerned with asking what theological brand people are. You just want to be with people who know Jesus.”
Willie sees the present reality of God’s kingdom most clearly in the transformational life changes taking place in the lives of his neighbors. Those oppressed by alcoholism, infidelity, and drug abuse are walking in freedom because of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work in their lives. The conversions taking place among Willie’s neighbors are more than just intellectual affirmations. Sustained life-change attracts the attention of everyone in the neighborhood, leading to further transformation.
“When you are being oppressed, in such a heavy situation, you aren’t concerned with asking what theological brand people are. You just want to be with people who know Jesus.”
The global church has always thrived in the face of government persecution. Why? For Willie, who has suffered under such persecution, the oppression brought about a deeper knowledge of himself, his God, and the necessity of faith. It is out of humility and lived experience that he says of persecution, “Let it come.”
This release from self-protection has freed Willie and the Cuban church from spending their energy protecting “Christian” culture. Instead, they use their voices and their lives to proclaim the goodness of Jesus. They know that the kingdom of God is subversive and takes root in the human heart, not political parties or government buildings. Willie says that this is how socialists and capitalists worship God together in peace every Sunday in Cuba.
The massive growth of the Cuban church under government oppression gives Willie a unique perspective on unity in the midst of political division. He says there is no tie between which political party is in power and God’s ability to spark revival. He warns that if we put our hope in politics or presidential candidates, then we will become divided, just like Cuba once was. Our hope should be in the Gospel and our unity should be in the love of Jesus.
“If you believe that any political party will advance the return of Jesus or be the cause of the spread of the Gospel, you’re wrong. My advice to the church is to have our own personal political opinions, but do not let this [cause] division at the communion table.”
The thriving house church movement in Cuba is proof that government oppression cannot confine God. While the presence of missionaries and church buildings can be eliminated, the presence of God is inextinguishable.
This presence is seen perhaps most clearly on a Sunday morning in a Cuban living room. Decades later, some of the same teachers and students that bullied Willie as a child now worship God together with Willie and his family on Sunday mornings, largely because of the revival that Willie helped facilitate.
While the church has always thrived in the face of persecution, it is not persecution itself that leads to revival—it is believers’ ensuing dependence on God alone. The kingdom of God can explode onto our present scene, regardless of circumstance, much like it did in two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
Photos by Isaiah Rustad (@isaiahrustad) for Experience Mission, which partners with Willie and his ministry to organize missions trips to Cuba. Photos show Willie and an Experience Mission team working on the Cuban Connections farm and worshipping with local churches.