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What Cuban Refugees Brought With Them

This is the second of a 3 part blog series on the experiences of Cuban immigrants in the Christian Reformed Church. And stay tuned for the 3rd and final installment coming up! 

This blog series is widely owed to the work of Marilyn Bierling, who interviewed 18 individuals who were involved with Cuba and the CRC in order to unearth the rich history of Cuban and the CRC church. We’re grateful to everyone who boldly shared their story with Marilyn in 2011, and those who have continued to share their stories with us. If you would like to learn more about the history of Cuba and the CRC, you can explore the records at Calvin University’s Heritage Hall or search their online collection

When Cuban refugees began arriving in 1959, their presence in the Christian Reformed churches who sponsored them was the largest influx of people from a different cultural background that the originally Dutch denomination had experienced until that point. But the story of the CRC in Cuba began much earlier.

Years before Castro seized control of Cuba, young and single Bessie Vander Valk moved to Cuba to serve as a missionary. Within a few years, she met and married Cuban pastor Vincente Izquierdo. Together, they started an independent church in Cuba, and started to develop their ministry without the support of a denomination. As the 1950’s began, LaGrave CRC in Grand Rapids began supporting faith missions in Cuba, including the ministry of Bessie and Vincente. In 1959, the CRC sent the first official missionary couple, Clarence and Arlene Nyenhuis, to Cuba—nearly two decades after Bessie had arrived. At this time, the CRC also began officially sponsoring Bessie and Vincente’s ministry. This was the same year that Fidel Castro rose to power, setting off the largest refugee influx in U.S. history. 

At the dawn of the 1960s, the CRC started sponsoring and supporting this influx of Cuban refugees admitted on Special Immigrant Visas, mostly through the Good Samaritan Center in Miami operated by World Renew (then Christian Reformed World Relief Committee). As refugees arrived from Cuba, they entered into another imperfect community. Not only were racial tensions mounting in the United States, but the CRCNA, as a denomination founded largely by Dutch immigrants, struggled at cross-culturally engaging with those of a considerably different background than their own. As former director of the Good Samaritan Center, Jim Tuinstra, remembered, there was the unrealistic expectation that the Cuban arrivals would “become Dutch with a Spanish name overnight.” Ramon, who was a CRC pastor in Cuba before immigrating to the United States, echoed this sentiment: 

“ was hard for some of us, even when we arrived and had worked with the Church in Cuba, to enter the Christian Reformed Church here…” 

The denomination in the United States had rigid rules and hierarchy, which created challenges for cross-cultural engagement. Despite these difficulties, many Cubans stayed in the Christian Reformed Church, weaving together Reformed theology, their Cuban heritage, and their position as immigrants in a new and sometimes hostile country. 

Though Cuban immigrants displayed astounding faith and resilience, it was often difficult for them to rebuild their lives in a foreign place. Norma remembers what it was like for many who came to the US: 

“When you leave everything behind and come to the unknown with one little suitcase, with 30 pounds of clothes, or less, and you have zero, it doesn’t matter if you were a professional in Cuba; you come here, and you are [perceived as] illiterate.” 

Cuban arrivals were acutely aware of all they had sacrificed to immigrate to the United States; they left behind friends and family members, nearly all of their possessions, and the familiarity of being in one’s own culture.

The felt needs of Cuban arrivals were an important connecting point for CRC churches, many of whom could relate to common  immigrant experiences. Most of the Cuban refugees that ended up joining the CRC first connected with the denomination through the material help the Good Samaritan Center provided to arrivals in Miami. This was Reformed theology in action; in focusing not just on the spiritual, but also on the felt needs of Cuban arrivals, the churches welcoming refugees demonstrated that “the Gospel isn’t just… for the next life. The Gospel begins now” (Ramon).

Though the Christian Reformed Church’s engagement with refugees has been far from perfect, Cubans are a blessing to the denomination. The CRC in Cuba has been resilient, enduring a hostile political environment to be a living witness of the body of Christ. As the Cuban Revolution erupted, the Nyenhuis family and the Vander Valk/Izquierdo family both decided to leave Cuba for the United States, leaving behind more than a dozen congregations that had resulted from their ministry. The Cuban leaders who remained kept the church alive, despite many difficulties (see our previous blog post for context). 

And once Cuban arrivals had settled in the United States, Cuban CRCNA members championed spaces for other Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees in the denomination. CRC involvement with Cuban refugees also kick-started decades of immigration advocacy in the denomination. Since the influx of Cuban refugees into an originally Dutch denomination, the CRC (and Cuban arrivals themselves, especially) have gone on to welcome refugees from Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and other countries across the globe. 

As Ramon reflected on adjusting to life in the United States, he described one of the greatest challenges: 

“We immigrants have an experience that other people… a life experience that others don’t have. To leave everything you own behind, to leave your family like we had to do, and face a new life, with a different language. Perhaps this makes you grow spiritually, to trust a lot more in God.”

The rich legacy of faith of Ramon and Cuban arrivals continues to shape the CRC. Learn more about their continued influence in the final blog of this series.

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