My First Sunday School Teacher / Mario Barroso

Perhaps the real name of Mary Pepa was Maria Josefa, but everyone, those who loved her and those who did not, never called her by her real name. Maria Pepa was a Christian woman, Methodist, never had children and was widowed a few years after her marriage to the only man she ever loved.

She was a very active Christian and even when old age and illness prevented her from further gathering in the temple with the rest of her brothers and sisters, this woman did not stop preaching and influencing with her life others to come to the feet of Christ.

It was with her I started to take my first steps in faith, I was a little girl and studied at the elementary school right next to her house. In the back of her yard that adjoined our school there was a large clump of tamarinds, we children always wanted to eat the tamarinds when they were still green and Maria Pepa with the greatest patience in this world told us that the fruit wasn’t sweet yet and not to worry because she had planted them for the school children , and when they ripened we would all eat them.

With this infinite love, she spoke to us of Jesus and invited us to church. The majority did not accept the invitation because at that time going to church was like committing a crime, people did not go near the evangelical and Catholic churches for fear of being marked and if they did, they would do it almost secretly to avoid injury. Only Christians who are confirmed and consecrated as Maria Pepa continued attending and preaching, fearless, courageous and steadfast in the love of Christ.

It was in these brief encounters I started talking to Maria Pepa, and one day told her I didn’t attend church because it could hurt my family, some of whom were Party members, but I wanted more than anything to learn about Jesus and of the Bible.

Then came the idea to come to her house on Sunday afternoon, she taught me the Bible lessons she received in the morning at the Sunday School of her church. I had no Bible because in the years when Christians were chased and harried by the Government almost no Bibles entered the country and only a few believers had them. Maria Pepa had two, which she and a very old woman used, the Reina Varela version revised in 1909.

With this Bible I started my first lessons. Beginning on Monday I would be longing for the arrival on Sunday, noting my lessons in a small notebook. How much I loved that woman, my first Sunday school teacher, a house that was my first temple and that Bible worn by age and use, I can never forget them.

When in the afternoons or evenings I passed by the Methodist church and it was open, always looked inside, seeing only two or three people, mostly elderly like Maria Pepa, the Pastor at the front and a few children, their children.

The churches were empty, the Socialist government as defined in 1961 had imposed on Cubans Communist doctrine and wanted to wrest from them their beliefs, their spirituality. Many believers stopped attending services or meetings, their jobs were at risk, or the studies of a family member, those who did not believe, now believed less because the system saturated Cuban society with its atheism and materialism.

Many Bibles were destroyed and in the schools the most poignant lesson was that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” The teachers explained that only the ignorant could believe in God and the church took advantage of this ignorance to exploit men. They tried to erase God from our lives, our history, but it is impossible to erase from the heart of those of us who love it.

Men and women of courage as Mary Pepa were the mainstays of Cuban churches, they continued to preach the Word of Life in the midst of adversity and darkness, to them we   Christians today owe our survival.

The God of the Ages prevailed, as it will even in end times, he’ll bring perfect justice and be true to his people. Maria Pepa died in the early nineties, I never forget the moment of our parting when I was going to study at the University of Havana, she put her hands on my head and prayed with closed eyes to the Father: “Dear God give courage to this your daughter that above all things of this world, she remains true to you in the name of our Redeemer, Amen.”

A farewell hug and a definitive goodbye sealed the last time we would be together in this life. But the sweet voice of my brave Sunday school teacher sounds like a spring of living water in my memory.

January 4 2012