CANTON The Rev. Miguel Acosta has resided in the United States for more than a decade, but he has not forgotten Cuba, his birthplace, where Christianity is alive and well.
On Oct. 17, Acosta and members of the Christian Missionary Network for Cuba will have a benefit from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Lifeway Christian Books, 1100 30th St. NW. The proceeds will benefit churches and faith leaders impacted by Hurricane Irma.
Acosta said dozens of houses of worship on the island were severely damaged by the Category 5 hurricane that struck the Caribbean earlier this month, killing at least 75 people.
"We want to support pastors and leaders who were affected by Irma," he said. "The hurricane wiped out houses; they lost everything. In Cuba, there's no life, house or auto insurance. When you lose it, you lose everything."
Acosta said he's deeply grateful that family in his native Havana were spared, but the current diplomatic tensions between Cuba and the U.S. may be hampering the response in calls for help.
"But our call as Christians is to support other Christians in need," he said.
Acosta said he has returned to Cuba at least five times since 2010.
"It's open to faith; churches have more freedom," he said. "We definitely have seen new openings and opportunities. I was well-received by the authorities, as a religious person. Right now, there are good opportunities to establish conversations between churches and the state."
Currently, Acosta is pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Sandy Township. Prior to that, he served Iglesia Luterana Trinidad in Canton, and helped start a second, bilingual congregation in Massillon.
Acosta, who speaks English, Greek, Italian and French, holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy and theology.
Others working with the Christian Ministry Network for Cuba include the Rev. Gabriel Chavers, pastor of Deliverance Christian Ministries, the Rev. Walter Moss, Sandy Valley Church of God missionary Elizabeth Williams and Michael Vandevort, a Spanish teacher at McKinley High School.
Historically, Cuba's religious roots are Roman Catholic, and various folk religions brought to the island by Afro-Cubans centuries ago.
Acosta estimates that today about 30 to 40 percent of Cubans are evangelicals and Protestants.
When Acosta first left Cuba, it was due in part to the government's hostility toward religion. His mother was a labor organizer in Havana who helped to organize the late Pope John Paul II's historic visit there in 1998.
She emigrated to the United States as a political refugee.
But Acosta's recent visit in June found no such ill will toward organized faith.
"We gathered freely with pastors and friends," he said. "I was able to preach. We invited government officials to meet with us. It was a very friendly environment."
Asked if the death of longtime President Fidel Castro was a catalyst, Acosta said the country has been working toward change for many years. He also noted that the full picture of Cuba is rarely shown in media. He cited the country's free health care system and its high literacy rate.
According to UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Cuba's literacy rate stands at 99.7 percent. The U.S. rate is 97.7 percent.
"Positive things are not sometimes told in media," he said.
Items needed include monetary donations, schools supplies, diapers, shoes, personal hygiene items, over-the-counter medicines, gently used or new clothing and Spanish-language Bibles. All donations are tax-deductible.
For more information call 330-265-7329, or email Acosta at firstname.lastname@example.org