A Return to Cuba: Opening Doors for Christ
Twenty years ago, God called me to return to Cuba, the country where I was raised by my parents before it was overtaken by a communist regime that vehemently opposed my belief in Christ and severely discriminated against people of faith. And yet, it was the country that desperately needed to hear about the love
by Robert J. Lerer, MD, FAAP
Twenty years ago, God called me to return to Cuba, the country where I was raised by my parents before it was overtaken by a communist regime that vehemently opposed my belief in Christ and severely discriminated against people of faith. And yet, it was the country that desperately needed to hear about the love of Christ.
From Peace to Revolution
My family immigrated to Cuba from France in 1946 when I was a baby, just after the end of World War II. My parents, both dentists, sold all their belongings in Paris with dreams of a better life in America, and they ended up settling in Havana. The 1940s and 1950s were prosperous times. My dad was a successful dentist, well-liked by Cubans and popular with the large expatriate community in Havana.
I was a typical teenager in the ‘50s, devoting my time to school, sports and socializing with friends. It was an idyllic existence. However, I knew from listening to adult conversations that there was a civil war in the eastern provinces, with violent guerrilla fighting between President Fulgencio Batista’s troops and rebels under the leadership of Fidel Castro. At night, I heard the sound of bombs detonating. During the day, I watched Batista’s police officers brutally beat university students for protesting civil right abuses. On New Year’s Eve 1958, Batista and his top leadership suddenly and unexpectedly left Cuba. A few days later, I joined hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who were hoping for peace, lining the streets of Havana to watch and cheer Fidel Castro’s military troops as they marched and rode atop captured tanks and trucks through the main streets.
But peace did not come. During the next two years, I witnessed a radical transformation of my country and my people. Consolidation of power occurred with tremendous savagery. Former sympathizers of Batista, civil servants, soldiers and businessmen were sent to jail, and many were executed. Businesses and property were seized in the name of the state. Eventually, Fidel Castro declared that his aim was to turn Cuba into a communist country, aligned with the Soviet Union and true to Marxism and Leninism. The Cuban revolutionary Congress soon officially declared Cuba an atheist country. My parents, my Cuban-born brother and I fled Cuba two years after the triumph of the communist revolution, moving permanently to the United States to start a new life in a new land. Again.
All Roads Lead Back to Cuba
I was 15 years old when we fled to the U.S. in 1960, becoming penniless refugees. Five years later, I became the first Cuban American refugee accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School. Twenty years after graduating from medical school, I had a powerful born again experience during a weekend retreat with my wife Janis, a psychiatric nurse. I heard the still voice of God convicting me that I was not using my gifts in pediatric medicine to reach the lost outside my community, especially in the third world. In 1991, Janis and I started volunteering on short-term mission trips with Caring Partners International, a medical ministry based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Through them, we joined groups of healthcare professionals doing primary care in underserved regions of India and Mexico, and we also joined Christian medical faculty teams teaching in medical schools and hospitals in China, India and Nicaragua. Around that time, I joined CMDA and was particularly transformed after attending a weekend Saline Solution seminar which allowed me to become better equipped to present the gospel to colleagues and patients.
In 1995, I felt God calling me to return to Cuba as a healthcare missionary. But serving the Lord in Cuba would be challenging. Everything about Cuba’s recent history made it clear I would encounter resistance, but the work would not be effective if we didn’t work with the government. However, before I could even think of returning to the country, I had to find it in my heart to forgive a government that had caused my family to uproot and face all the challenges inherent in immigrating to another country. On my own, I could not possibly succeed, but our great God is more than able. By faith, I trusted Him and began planning to return to Cuba.
Healthcare in Communism
When communism took over in 1959, Cuba had one of the best and advanced healthcare systems in Latin America. It had the third lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America, and there was one doctor for every 1,000 people. Each of the six main provinces had at least one university-affiliated hospital for advanced patient care and for teaching students and residents. Many physicians at that time received all or some of their education or completed post-graduate fellowships in the U.S. or Europe.
After the revolution, private healthcare ceased to exist as all control and property reverted to the government. Healthcare professionals were put on salaries ranging only $25 to $30 per month. After 50 percent of the healthcare professionals left the island within three years, the government took even more measures to centralize healthcare. Yes, the healthcare system was free and was readily accessible to patients, but it faced frequent and chronic shortages of instrumentation, equipment, computers and medicines. Faculty and teachers in the medical schools who remained taught the same quality medicine in post-graduate training that was being taught prior to the revolution; however, without access to information about advances in medical care or new treatments, as well as funding after the fall of the Soviet Union, overall healthcare skills eroded as time passed. Buildings, equipment and hospital infrastructure continued to deteriorate, leaving most healthcare professionals working long hours with limited tools in challenging conditions.
Returning to Share Christ
Janis and I took our first trip to Cuba in 1996, where we met with the Minister of Public Health and received approval to set up faculty visits from medical schools in the U.S. We also coordinated a humanitarian program that allowed shipping containers filled with medical equipment and supplies to be donated from the U.S. Since then, I have taken 35 trips to teach at more than 20 hospitals, accompanied by teaching faculty teams from across the United States. Dr. Victor González, a prominent oncologist at a university hospital in Havana who was also a leader of the Western Cuba Baptist Convention, became host to our teams. He helps obtain necessary visas from Cuba and licenses from the U.S. government. Caring Partners has provided millions of dollars in medical aid to Cuban hospitals, and the Cuban government has long acknowledged that it is the number one provider of medical humanitarian help to Cuba from the U.S.
The teachings we organize on these trips are extremely useful to their healthcare system, but what is even more valuable is the love of Christ we offer. For three decades following the communist revolution, religion was severely suppressed and Christians faced discrimination. All Christian schools and universities were shut down and church leaders left Cuba by the thousands. Demonstrating your faith by attending church or sharing Jesus was equated with a lack of support for the government and the Communist Party. During this time, openly Christian students were denied advancement in high school, admission to medical school and placement in residency.
In spite of decades of suppression and discrimination, Christianity survived and thrived. And by the time I returned to Cuba in the mid-1990s, the government had amended its constitution and softened its stance against religion, allowing for freedom of religious expression and forbidding discrimination against people of faith. Soon all churches of all denominations started growing exponentially. Nevertheless, the majority of the population remained unreached, including healthcare professionals. Through our teams, I have noticed, over time, the opening of once closed doors, enabling our faculty members in classrooms and volunteers in patient wards to share the gospel openly in all government hospitals.
In 1997, while members of the team were making rounds with our colleagues and nurses, we visited with the bishop of the Methodist Church of Cuba who was hospitalized following a stroke. We asked him if we could pray for him, but one of the hospital administrators informed us it was against hospital rules. One bold Cuban nurse spoke up and asked what harm would come from a group of American Christian physicians and nurses praying for this man of God. The administrator consented, and several members of our team laid hands on the patient and prayed for healing, strength and restoration. No sooner had we finished than we heard three other patients and their loved ones, in adjoining beds in the room, asking us to come and pray for them, which we did. Today, there is more openness to the gospel and praying for patients among the Cuban healthcare professionals. Now, they often direct our ward prayer teams to the sickest patients so we might pray for them, and our Cuban colleagues frequently join us.
It is not unusual for hundreds of people to attend our lectures. At other times, we teach in smaller classroom venues or churches where we give seminars open to professionals and the public on common diseases and how to manage them. This year, we handed out Bibles to every person attending our courses in the medical schools, something we have never done before and would not have been allowed to do even five years ago. When our team members deliver excellent scientific sessions in Cuban hospitals and medical schools, then take a few moments to share their faith and their motivation to volunteer in Cuba, Jesus is honored and glorified. And they also receive a powerful message that being a Christian physician, scientist or nurse is congruent with faith in God.
A New Era of Ministry
After more than 50 years of open hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, diplomatic relations were restored in 2015 and the American flag now flies over the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. As the two countries enter a new era of diplomacy, so too do we enter a new era of ministry. Our new partnership with CMDA brings new opportunities for teaching teams through Medical Education International (MEI). The first two MEI teams to visit Cuba in the program’s history traveled there in November 2015. The first team was an autism team, and the conferences they hosted shared valuable information and techniques with more than 250 Cuban national healthcare professionals, as well as parents of children with developmental disabilities. The second team was a multi-disciplinary team, and they visited the busiest emergency room in Cuba, presented a variety of lectures on topics including oncology and surgery, hosted a pastor’s conference for local pastors in Cuba and more.
In Cuba, you never know what obstacles, what spiritual warfare, what fiery darts might be hurled by Satan. Fortunately, all planned programs went off without any difficulties. There is no doubt our daily prayers for protection and effectiveness in teaching and sharing Jesus were crucial. Throughout all of the lectures and conferences, the members of the two teams were able to share their own personal testimonies and also spend time showing Christ’s love to patients in various hospitals around the country.
MEI is planning more trips to Cuba as the country continues to grow more open to Christianity, and I invite you to join us. You can come and share your expertise and also be blessed by the wonderful people of Cuba as you introduce them to Christ. For more information about joining us in these efforts, please visit www.cmda.org/mei.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert J. Lerer, MD, FAAP, graduated valedictorian of his class from Birmingham-Southern College in 1966. He obtained his medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he graduated third in his class. After completing three years of pediatric residency at Yale, including being chief resident of the neonatal intensive care unit, he joined Pediatric Associates of Fairfield in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Lerer is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He has been the Commissioner of Health of Butler County for 40 years, the longest serving health chief in the history of Ohio. He and his wife Janis, a missionary nurse, have four adult sons and daughters.