February 6th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
By Shasta Darlington, CNN
Havana (CNN) – For decades, Cuba’s evangelicals met behind closed doors, holding services in living rooms and converted garages.
But as the country confronts hard times, followers have come out of the shadows, turning to religion to meet both economic and spiritual needs.
On a recent Sunday morning, worshipers packed a Pentecostal church set up on the second floor of an apartment building in a working class suburb of Havana.
They swayed back and forth to the raucous music amid shouts of “amen!” and “hallelujah!”
The Rev. Marcial Miguel Hernandez is the church’s pastor and the president of Cuba's National Council of Churches.
“The crisis is an opportunity for faith,” he told CNN. "Crisis is God's opportunity for the church to show its solidarity and love for our neighbor.”
Faced with a mounting budget deficit, Cuban President Raul Castro announced last year that the state needs to eliminate more than one million jobs, or about one-tenth of the workforce.
He also gave the green light for more private businesses, in an effort to help hire the unemployed.
But many people are also looking to God for help to fill the void.
“You can't be romantic about the situation,” Hernandez said. “There are going to be a million people, maybe more, who will be unemployed. The church is getting ready for this.”
He said attendance at evangelical churches had jumped in recent months.
Rita Suarez, a television worker who frequents Hernandez’s Free Evangelical Church, said many people were seeking spiritual guidance.
“When we have faith, we find the strength to make things work in this new scenario,” she said.
Maria Elisa Ramon found financial support from the church when the government granted her a license to open a private restaurant in her home.
“My pastor has been a big help,” she said. “He lent me money and encouraged me when I wanted to give up. He told me God was on my side.”
After decades of hostility, Fidel Castro began to mend relations with the country's many churches in the 1980s, as churches showed their willingness to work with the state. That process accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the Cuban government searched for new allies.
The government's efforts have been focused largely on the Catholic Church, which claims the biggest share of adherents in Cuba. The program was helped by Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998.
Since the 1980s, the number of evangelicals in Cuba has more than tripled to one million, according to the National Council of Churches.
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