SANTIAGO DE CUBA -- It's a broiling Sunday in the eastern foot of Cuba, where both Fidel and his revolution survived their childhoods, and six Canadians are exploring through the smudge of burning brush.
Our young guide, Ricardo, has just explained the monthly rations that Cubans collect from sparse shelves in a rudimentary highway store when one of us wonders whether we can visit inside a farmhouse.
It's not what Ricardo does but together we use the excuse of the singing we hear from what appears to be a woodshed beside a humble home to reconnoitre inside a crude fence.
The shed has only three walls of salvaged boards, a battered metal roof, dirt floor and lots of gaps. There are 30 people, two to each crude bench, and a simple lectern. An old woman in her best dress, with more enthusiasm than an ear for music, is leading the song. All ages, from a tot with huge ribbons in her pigtails to an old man bowed by time.
Ricardo explains they're "involved in cultural activities." I whisper to Mary it's an evangelical service because women are holding their palms aloft in that lovely gesture of reaching out to God. Then a handsome young man in a startling white shirt and tie, acting as pastor, tells us they're Pentecostals, and welcomes the awkward visitors.
We say we're from Toronto and give our names. I add my religion, "John ... the Baptist," which encourages them to ask if we have a song. So I belt out two verses of Onward Christian Soldiers. My colleagues join in some of the time (Catholics aren't much for such hymns) so we probably startle the livestock. That stirring battle cry of church music seems suitable in the circumstances, considering the obstacles and persecution that churches have faced under their foe of communism.
They search through tattered hymnals and sing that stirring hymn back to us in Spanish, often off-key. It's a moment Mary and I will never forget. It symbolizes how Cuba has changed as Fidel Castro approaches his 75th birthday and wants to prove, at least in religion, he's not the cruel ogre.
Unfortunately as the churches fill, so do the prisons. Pope John Paul II came in 1998 to get a better deal for Cuban Catholics and to act as a moral shield for the Cuban bishops who have spoken out against the state. Castro allowed him in to gain credit in the world on human rights. He even released a few hundred from prison. Then the cruel charade stopped and dissenters and journalists were jailed again.
That the foundation under Cuban Christianity has often been on sinking sand was illustrated by a Harvard professor who wrote that as hundreds of thousands flooded into Havana's Revolution Square for the open-air mass by the Pope, (where many could no longer recite the Lord's Prayer), they were met by dozens of thugs who glowered in intimidation.
Yet they had been encouraged to come by posters saying "No tengas miedo" (do not be afraid). Castro felt obliged later to insist to the Pope that no Cubans had been afraid.
But the message of the Jesuit-educated dictator (he once had a teacher who had had Pierre Trudeau as a student) has always been mixed on religion. In an interview with a Dominican friar, he compared the sacrifices of a revolutionary to those of a religious martyr and said "if there ever was a name more hated by reactionaries than that of a Communist, it was, in another time, the name of the Christian." American bishops who met with him in 1985 said they were dazzled by his familiarity with theology and liturgy.
Yet even though a priest joined Castro's guerrillas as a chaplain in 1958 in these foothills of the Sierre Maestre where we found the tiny church, and he christened countless peasant children with Castro as their godfather, Christians were harassed under Castro when he triumphed. Church property was seized, devotions banned, priests had to flee and even Christmas was abolished. The Catholic Church in Cuba had never been strong but there was now fear in worship. Devout Catholics emigrated whenever Castro allowed.
In 1980, only 2% of Catholics attended mass and 40% of the 200 priests left were in Havana. Then tensions and cruel gamesmanship eased in the mid-1980s. In 1992, after the crushing shortages of everything, especially food, caused by the collapse of Soviet aid, a constitutional change made the island a secular (not religious) state when it had been formally atheistic. Castro even restored the Christmas holiday.
Now the World Council of Churches comes calling. According to the Cuban Council of Churches, there are 300,000 Protestants and 280,000 Catholics attending services and mass in the country of 11 million people, and churches are "fast growing, high energy, with most members under 40."
No longer do church reports have to conceal identities, as they did for three decades to avoid government oppression.
Although hundreds of Pentecostals have been persecuted and murdered in the last decade in Mexico, which is part of our trade pact and welcomed at the Quebec City talks, they feel safe enough under Castro, who was banned from Quebec, to ask strangers to sing along.
(Just another of the riddles presented to us by the cynical diplomacy of Realpolitik where expediency combined with lucrative trade can make official Canada tolerate even the religious persecutors of China.)
The contradictions of Castro towards the church his family worshipped (his father was named Angel) are reflected in this city he loves so much. Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's cultural cradle as well as its second-largest city, but it's also the stronghold of Santeria, a faith based on African gods mixed with Catholic imagery and saints. The sick and needy come to a santera who performs her rituals and may make sacrifices, perhaps even a goat, to the gods.
It also has El Cobre on its outskirts, a church like Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral (but not quite so big or grand) that honours the miracles around the discovery of a floating Virgin of Charity statue 400 years ago that became Cuba's patron saint. The Pope came to her basilica to honour her. The church of the Black Madonna is the most famous church in Cuba. Here Cubans flock to pray for miracles, for illness and wasted limbs to be healed, just as other faithful make pilgrimages to Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre or Medjugorje or Lourdes.
Or they just pose before the altars. Some even wrap themselves in the Cuban flag, which not so long ago would have been profane considering the communist war on Christians.
The girls come too on their 15th birthday, in their best frock, which can again be called their going-to-church dress. Their beaming parents bear flowers and gifts. The Cuban girl becomes a woman at 15, and the traditional birthday celebration is more important even than her wedding.
And so the new women come like orchids that have just bloomed to El Cobre, to pose in front of the Black Madonna statue as the borrowed cameras flash and the tourists from the package tours look on. It's truly a lovely sight, but not, for me, as heart-warming as that dark shed by the highway, where Pentecostals worship far from golden chalices.
There was another hymn I used to sing long ago in the choir too, about "come to the church in the wildwood ... no spot is so dear to my childhood ... as the little brown church in the vale." That little meeting in the shanty had all the charm of that simple old song.