Christianity in Cuba has "grown in the shadows of culture for many years," but a number of organizations are working to help invigorate that growth by equipping and training pastors and churches, alike, inside the Caribbean nation.
From Bible distributions to gospel trainings, efforts to grow the faith have ramped up over the past two years with Christian organizations seeing unprecedented opportunities to help Cuban citizens and churches gain biblical knowledge.
As these initiatives grow, a number of institutions, including The Luis Palau Bible Institute, the International Bible Society, the Luis Palau Association and Logos Christian University will host a historic gathering in Cuba this November that will offer ministry training to scores of local pastors.
It's an event that will be a first for the region, and one that is made possible due to the growing freedom inside Cuba, according to Dr. Carlos Barbieri, director of the Luis Palau Bible Institute.
Rather than simply offering online and video classes to pastors — which are often ineffective due to technological constraints — the organizations involved will come together to run free, on-site courses.
Barbieri told Deseret News that the effort comes at a pivotal time.
"The church in Cuba has grown in the shadows of culture for many years. Many of the churches and church leaders were born in the trenches and underground," he said. "They are bold and persistent. They are undoubtedly a living example for others, committed to the scriptures and passionate about the Lord."
The Luis Palau Bible Institute had previously trained a small number of pastors inside Cuba, but the task was quite difficult, with many barriers impacting the effectiveness and scope of those efforts.
"We have been training a very small group of Cuban leaders who can access our materials and training online," Barbieri explained. "It has been a very small amount — no more than 40 pastors and leaders throughout the entire nation."
But the on-site classes planned for November are slated to accommodate 220 pastors, offering a broader reach for the institute's ministry training.
Barbieri said that emails and letters from pastors and faith leaders over the past few years have told the Bible institute that the trainings are much-needed, with a lack of access to technology creating problems for those attempting to consume the content online.
"We have attempted many times to send DVDs, old-school computer disks, or even hard drives to help with training," he explained, noting that internet access is not always widely available in Cuba. "None of them were very effective."
So, the organization started thinking about on-site efforts to help bridge the divide. And changing political winds have, in many ways, helped in organizing the Luis Palau Bible Institute's November plans, Barbieri said.
As previously reported, the Obama administration has taken steps to ease decades-old restrictions on Cuba — regulations that have kept the U.S. out of Cuban affairs and had essentially isolated the country.
According to Barbieri, warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba have led the Cuban government to be more open to Bible training courses and more willing to grant religious visas to teachers. Additionally, the scenario has helped create smoother travel inside the island, while also profoundly impacting Cuban Christians who are looking to spread their faith.
"Most important of all is that Cuban Christians feel more free to engage in these events and participate in these training courses without fear," he said.
More open communication has also allowed Barbieri and his team to better assess churches' needs inside Cuba. With that information in mind, the Luis Palau Bible Institute will bring in educators this November to offer Bible instruction.
"The idea is to take several teachers and have three days of intensive studies on specific topics of unique interest to Cuban pastors," Barbieri said. "We figured that if pastors cannot access the studies online, we will bring the studies directly to them."
One of the keys to the training will be the cultural elements that the Bible institute has kept in mind throughout the organizational process. Despite being "semi-isolated from the world for the past five decades," Barbieri said Cuba is still a Latin culture and that this must be taken into account when training churches.
"Their culture is as Latin as any other Latin American country and needs Latino leaders and teachers, who understand their mindset and can help in very specific issues within the church," he said. "Issues like pastoral counseling, counseling through domestic violence, dealing with adultery, fighting against child abuse, or breaking addictions."
The changing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has led many Christians to further explore what's been happening inside the Caribbean nation for the past 50 years when it comes to church growth and sustainability.
Similar to Barbieri's claim that Christianity has had a healthy growth in the region, CBN News also covered the issue earlier this year, concluding that the church has fared "amazingly well" during the country's isolation period, with the outlet adding that "many believe the hardships and suffering have paved the way for an explosion of church planting."
Other organizations have sent tens of thousands of Bibles to Cuba over the past two years as well, seeing newfound opportunity after relations between the U.S. and Cuba started to thaw.
In fact, the American Bible Society called the situation an "unprecedented opportunity for the church," announcing in 2015 that the organization is hoping to send 1 million Bibles to the region over a three-year period.