On April 20, 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro made a surprise proclamation in Havana that any Cuban citizen who was not happy under his regime and wished to immigrate to the United States could depart from the port of Mariel provided boats were available. 125,000 Cubans rushed to take the offer. Many Assemblies of God (AG) ministries were there to ease the difficulties of their arrival.
After the 1959 communist revolution, thousands of Cubans sought to flee their homeland’s restrictive policies. With few exceptions, the Castro regime refused those requests. During the 1970s, as economic conditions worsened, along with political and religious persecution, many Cubans grew desperate. In April 1980, several Cubans rushed the Peruvian embassy to seek asylum but were fired upon by Cuban guards. The embassy refused to return the Cubans to Castro, and soon more than 10,000 Cubans were crowding into the embassy gardens pleading for asylum.
When the April 20 announcement came that dissidents, whom the Cuban newspapers referred to as “criminals, lumpenproletariats, antisocialists, bums and parasites,” could leave the island if boats were ready to take them from the Mariel port, thousands of Cuban exiles in Florida hurriedly rented fishing boats to pick them up. By October, 125,000 refugees had crossed on these boats before the order was ended.
In May of 1980, the Pentecostal Evangel editor, Robert C. Cunningham, wrote in an editorial of the crisis: “As more and more people find themselves victims of oppressive governments, it is good to know there are still some countries where they can find refuge from their persecutors.” In June, the Evangel put out a call for assistance: “The Assemblies of God has launched an effort to provide financial aid for the refugees, sponsors to help in resettlement, and bilingual communicators who live near refugee camps to assist in meeting immediate needs.”
The Aug. 10, 1980, Pentecostal Evangel issue offered a report of the AG effort to aid Cubans fleeing from oppression and persecution. “Like the early settlers of the United States, they are seeking a home in a free land … Can we afford to ignore this great missionary challenge of offering the gospel to needy souls?” commented T.E. Gannon, national director of the Division of Home Missions. He further stated: “Immediately upon hearing of the plight of the Cuban immigrants, the Division of Home Missions began seeking to minister to these people. For evangelism to be effective and successful, it is necessary to reach the immigrants as soon as they arrive. This calls for emergency action.”
Life Publishers, the AG missions press, provided 19,000 Bibles to the camps where the refugees were resettled. CH (LTC) Robert E. Barker, USA Task Force Chaplain, wrote to the AG Chaplaincy department to thank them for their help in securing Bibles for Cuban refugees at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. “It was a thrill personally to watch several Cubans receive their Bibles with great pleasure and enthusiasm. They really appreciate owning their own Bibles! Thank you once again for your concern for these neglected people.”
Many Hispanic AG ministers and laypeople living near the refugee camps in Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania worked feverishly to provide ministry, housing, food, and clothing. They also served as interpreters and “pastors” in the camps. Sam Hernandez, a 1968 Cuban refugee and graduate of North Central Bible College, was granted a month’s leave from his church in St. Paul, Minnesota, to go to Wisconsin’s Camp McCoy to be of service. He conducted two to three services a day, discovering that the Pentecostal message did not die in Cuba when the missionaries were forced to leave as he found several members of Cuban Assemblies of God churches among those housed at Camp McCoy.
Adolfo Carrion, superintendent of the Spanish Eastern District, reported that many Cuban refugees were now attending Assemblies of God churches in cities where they were resettled, including one man who was of an “atheistic and communistic persuasion, who was a confirmed materialist” who was gloriously saved and never misses a service. It was found that after years of religious oppression, Cuban immigrants readily responded to the gospel.
Ruth A. Lyon, editor/promotions coordinator for the Department of Home Missions, concluded the August refugee update with an appeal to the Scriptures, “What we do, we must do quickly. And the extent of what we do depends on offerings received. This is one way you can help these strangers within our gates. Jesus said, “I was a stranger, and ye took me in” (Matthew 25:35).
Read Lyon’s report, “Meeting America’s Newest Home Missions Challenge,” on page 16 of the Aug. 10, 1980, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “A Cure for Depression” by Ada Nicholson Brownell
• “First National Men’s Convention”
• “How to Win Your Husband to Christ” by Stephen J. Vaudrey
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.