Religion Today

Paul Northrup raised his hands and shouted ``Alelujah!'' A congregation of more than 1,000 Cubans echoed back.

The small church that Northrup planted in central Cuba 50 years ago has grown and thrived since he left in 1959, becoming a small part of a broad movement that Cuban evangelicals have built across their socialist nation.

``They told us when we left, the work would fail,'' Northrup said. ``There were seven churches then. Now there are 53.''

Northrup, now 71, and his family came down from Southern California to join with Cuban church members for a 50th anniversary celebration this month at a borrowed Methodist center called Camp Canaan, some 170 miles east of Havana.

For hour upon hour, they sang, clapped, prayed and preached in a big brick church whose wide-open sides let breezes cut the tropical heat.

'`It makes me happy. It's kind of like our kids and grandkids,'' Northrup said.

Northrup came to Cuba with his wife, Vera, in 1953 as an independent preacher, carrying only ``our clothes and an accordion.'' In Sancti Spiritus, he found a radio station that sold him time for $6 a minute and he began to preach.

Soon he managed to establish a small church called Buenas Nuevas -- ``Good News.''

A milkman who regularly passed by grew curious and decided to enter one day. ``I didn't know that by entering, my life was going to change,'' said Eliseo Leon, who is now president of Buenas Nuevas.

As Northrup built the church, Fidel Castro was building a revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Northrup recalled seeing rebels that Batista's men had hung from streetlights. Another day, ``Batista sent his planes in at night. One had a searchlight and the other planes would strafe where they thought the rebels were.''

``Not that it would have done any good against a .50-caliber (gun), but we took all the mattresses we had, piled them on a bed'' and hid underneath, he said.

After toppling Batista, Castro's revolution veered toward socialism. Relations with the United States soured and the atmosphere grew uncomfortable for many Americans.

Northrup said he left because his presence could make some think of Buenas Nuevas as a U.S. church: ``We felt we'd hurt them more by staying.'' He later went on to found Gospel Relief Missions, based in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Hundreds of other pastors, both foreign and Cuban, also left the country.

For the next 25 years, all religions struggled under an explicitly atheist government that discouraged all sorts of religious faith. Believers were barred from important jobs and were viewed with hostility by officials who oversaw just about all aspects of life.

``They were trying to make ends meet. There were some places they lost membership,'' said Marcos Antonio Ramos, a Miami-based Baptist preacher and historian of Cuban Protestantism.

But the wall was starting to crack by 1984, when Castro attended a Protestant service with Jesse Jackson. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc later led the government to abandon official atheism and to openly, if warily, accept religious faith.

The arrival of Pope John Paul II in Cuba in 1997 drew attention to the island's Catholics, but many analysts estimate that attendance at Protestant churches has long exceeded that at Catholic services.

The 1990s brought what Northrup called ``a great awakening.''

Ramos estimated that weekly Protestant church attendance has roughly tripled since 1989 to 300,000 people, with an additional 100,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, though he said the Protestant growth appears to have stalled in the last few years. He estimated Catholic attendance at about 150,000.

Northrup's decision to register his new church with the government in 1954 turned out to be fortunate: After the revolution, no new churches were recognized and unofficial churches, often operating out of houses, ran the risk of being shut down.

It's still hard to get permission to build new churches and Buenas Nuevas has about 200 home-based worship centers. They are among thousands of such home churches that Assemblies of God, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestants have sown across Cuba.

Among them are a few churches served by Carlos Rumbaut, of Ciego de Avila. He said he was a priest in the African-based Palo Mayumbe spiritualist religion before following his father to Christianity.

``I felt something strange'' one day and went out walking aimlessly, he said. When he wandered across a church, Rumbaut said, he went in and found his father there, praying for him.

For Northrup, perhaps the best thing about the 50th anniversary ceremony was realizing he was not really needed for the church to develop.

``The work for a missionary,'' Northrup said, ``is to plant a seed, get it growing and then move on.''