As the world reflects on the legacy of late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, a former Southern Baptist missionary imprisoned by the Castro regime in the 1960s is remembering what Castro could not do: kill the church.
David Fite, 82, was arrested in Havana in 1965 on what he calls fabricated charges of "trafficking in foreign currency" and "ideological diversionism." Then a Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) missionary and the father of three young boys, including a one-month-old, Fite was incarcerated for three and a half years before being released in Nov. 1968.
Fite's wife, Margaret, whose father and fellow HMB missionary Herbert Caudill was jailed along with Fite, told Baptist Press the missionaries' arrest seemed to stem from their Christian faith and not their American citizenship, since 53 Cuban believers were taken into custody on the same night.
"What [the Cuban regime] wanted to do was to kill the Baptist churches," Margaret Fite said. "... There was no international problem at all. It was just an attack on religion."
But as David Fite noted, "It didn't work."
All the believers imprisoned with Fite were ministers, and many had been pastoring churches. Still, the Sunday following the arrests, "not one single church failed to have its worship service," Margaret Fite said. "And in every church someone got up in that pulpit."
The Gospel, David Fite said, "is not limited by political organizations. It moves ahead with a message that is beyond any oppression."
Yet the imprisonment was discouraging. At times, there were 300 men in a cell, with bunks stacked five high and executions of political dissidents audible outside, David Fite said. Margaret and the children were allowed to visit about once a month, though always in the presence of a guard and at times with English prohibited.
"It wasn't exactly Holiday Inn accommodations," David Fite said, "but we survived."
Early in the imprisonment, Fite recalled, there was a unique moment of spiritual encouragement.
Because all prisoners were placed in solitary confinement immediately following the night of mass Christian detentions, Fite didn't know whether any other believers were present.
"Then during the evening, I heard somebody singing" the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers," Fite said. One by one, other prisoners joined in the singing, "and before long I realized I was not alone in the arrest."
Another difficulty of the imprisonment concerned Caudill's sight, which had failed in one eye prior to the arrest and began to fail in the other while he was in jail.
When local doctors couldn't help, Caudill, then 63, was granted conditional release from prison in November 1966, though he remained under house arrest. In March 1967, an American ophthalmologist was permitted to enter Cuba and operate on Caudill, BP reported. The surgery was successful in saving his vision in one eye.
Fite remained in prison two years after Caudill's release despite a visit to Cuba by his parents in 1967 that included multiple conversations with government officials. In reporting the parental visit, BP said Fite had suffered from a hernia, jaundice and an ear infection while in prison.
The day Fite was released, he surprised his family by taking a public bus home, BP reported. The Fites and Caudills returned to the U.S. in February 1969.
Originally, Fite had been sentenced to six years in prison and Caudill to 10, BP reported.
In 1999, the Fites retired to the Atlanta area after David's service for nearly three decades at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as a professor and extension center administrator.
Caudill, who served 40 years as a missionary in Cuba, died in 1987 at age 84.
Even with Castro's death, Margaret Fite said she doesn't "know how much will change" in Cuba in terms of personal liberty and economic flourishing.
"I just know that I lived in Cuba" before the communist revolution, she said, "and it was a joy to live there. And then I lived through the process of [Castro's] taking over and things got worse and worse and worse.
"The interesting thing," Margaret Fite said, "is that as things grew worse, people needed the Gospel more than ever. They needed a God to worship, and that was their mainstay. That's why the church has grown so much."
The missions magazine Mission Frontiers reported in 2011 as many as 4,500 evangelical churches in Cuba in addition to 10,000 "house groups" from a total of 54 denominations.
"For 20 years," according to Mission Frontiers, "Protestant churches in Communist Cuba have been multiplying at an unprecedented rate."
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.