February / March - 2020 Vol. 108

barbed prison wire
.  “Viva Cristo Rey! Long Live Christ the King!”

The Brother of Faith in Castro's Gulag

by Armando Valladares
Shortly after the fall of the Batista regime in [Cuba] 1959, a 23-year-old office worker for the Ministry of Communications of the Cuban Revolutionary Government was arrested. His crime was his outspoken opposition to communism around the workplace. He refused to display a plaque on his desk saying, “If Fidel [Castro] is a Communist, then put me on the list. He’s got the right idea.” Armando Valladares’s imprisonment would last 22 years.

In Against All Hope, Cuban poet Valladares has produced a painstaking account of his sojourn in hell. His tour of life in Cuban prisons reveals man’s lowest capabilities... Valladares and his fellow political prisoners were routinely beaten, tortured, and psychologically manipulated. Every act of the guards was intended to break the will of the inmates and cause them to enter “political rehabilitation” courses. Valladares held his ground throughout and paid for it dearly. His account is a relentless tale of human degradation: months spent in solitary confinement, submersion in a ditch filled with human excrement, infrequent visits from family, and overcrowded conditions.

Against All Hope takes its title from Romans 4:18, and its author’s faith in Jesus Christ is gripping. When first incarcerated, Valladares heard the nightly cries of those before the firing squads: “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King). This witness led to the author’s conversion.
“I not only understood instantly, as though by a sudden revelation, that Christ was indeed there for me at the moments when I prayed not to be killed, but realized as well that he served to give my life, and my death if it came to that, ethical meaning.”
The reader catches in Armando Valladares a faith that works in the depths of desperation. In contrast to the oft-heard American gospel of success and prosperity, the author exposes his readers to a gospel of hope. Valladares cries out to a God who doesn’t “make everything okay” but who is God nonetheless:
“I never asked him to get me out of there; I didn’t think God should be used for that kind of request. I only asked that he allow me to resist, that he give me the faith and spiritual strength to bear up under these conditions without sickening with hatred. I only prayed for him to accompany me. And his presence, which I felt, made my faith an indestructible shield.”
The following excerpt from Against All Hope describes the "Brother of Faith" who turned the prison of hell into a community of living faith in Jesus Christ.

The blows of the machetes and bayonets on the prisoners' backs sounded like low thunder. The file began to break up, but the guards chased the men down, striking out blindly. The first prisoners made a superhuman effort and almost ran to dodge the blows. Suddenly, one prisoner, as the guards rained blows on his back, raised his arms and face to the sky and shouted, "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!" There was not a trace of pain, not a tremble in his voice; it was as though it were not his back the machete was lashing, over and over again, shredding his skin. The brilliant eyes of the "Brother of the Faith" seemed to bum; his arms open to the sky seemed to draw down pardon for his executioners. He was at that instant an incredible, supernatural, marvelous man. His hat fell off his head and the wind ruffled his white hair. Very few men knew his real name, but they knew that he was an inexhaustible store of faith. He managed somehow to transmit that faith to his companions, even in the hardest, most desperate circumstances.

 "Faith, brother," he constantly repeated, and he left a wake of optimism, hope, and peace. All of us called Gerardo the Brother of the Faith. He was a Protestant minister and had dedicated his life to spreading the word of God. He was his own most moving sermon. When he came to the prison of La Cabana, thousands of prisoners were squeezed into those galeras. There was simply no space. Men slept on the floor, in corners, under beds. And the fear of death permeated our nights, for those were the nights of the firing squads. We never knew if we would ever again see our friends who walked off to the tribunals. Bullets killed so many Cubans who stood up to the dictatorship; the centuries-old moats shook with the brave cries of "Down with Communism!" or "Viva Cuba Libre!" But at those instants of almost unbearable anguish and dread, the Brother of the Faith would say that the prisoner they had shot was a privileged man, that God had called him to His side.

                                Cristo Rey - at firing squad
Christian prisoner faces his executioners in Castro's Gulag

He helped many men face death with strength and serenity. He came and went constantly among the groups of men, trying to instill faith, trying to calm their spirits, trying to give support.

When they opened the galeras he would go through them, looking for sick men, and whether the sick men wanted him to or not, he would carry off their dirty clothes. And you would see him down there in the prison yard, with a piece of burlap bag or plastic tied around his waist like an apron, standing over mountains of dirty clothes, bent over the washbasins with sweat pouring off him.

He would get us out of our cots to go to the prayer meeting. "Get up, you lion cub! The Lord is calling you!" It was impossible to say no to the Brother of the Faith. If he saw that someone was pensive and downcast, he would say to him, "I want to see you at the prayer meeting this afternoon," and you had to go. His sermons had a primitive beauty; he himself had an extraordinary magnetism. From a pulpit improvised from old salt-codfish boxes covered with a sheet behind a simple cross, the thundering voice of the Brother of the Faith would preach his daily sermons. Then we would all sing hymns he wrote out on cigarette packages and passed out to those of us at the meeting. Many times the garrison broke up those minutes of prayer with blows and kicks, but they never managed to intimidate him. When they took him off to the forced-labor fields of Isla de Pinos, he organized Bible readings and choirs. Having a Bible was a subversive act, but he had, we never knew how, a little one which he always carried with him.

If some exhausted or sick prisoner fell behind in the furrows or hadn't piled up the amount of rock he had been ordered to break, the Brother of the Faith would turn up. He was thin and wiry, with incredible stamina for physical labor. He would catch the other man up in his work, save him from brutal beatings. When one of the guards would walk up behind him and hit him, the Brother of the Faith would spring erect, look into the guard's eyes, and say to him, "May God pardon you."

There were more than a thousand prisoners in that building. We all had great admiration, great affection for the Brother of the Faith. Whenever the guards broke in to beat the stragglers out to work, there, always encouraging us, cheering us up, was the Brother of the Faith. "Don't tempt the devil, brothers," he would call out to the tardy men. While we stood in the long line for "breakfast"—the never-failing sugar water—many times the Brother of the Faith would tell Bible stories or make us laugh with his original and highly personal disquisitions on sin and men's conduct. "Don't ever forget that I lived in sin and knew temptations," he would tell us. His constant labor was to teach us not to hate; all his sermons carried that message.

Against All Hope book cover

Excerpt from
Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag, Chapter 31, pages221-223, author (c) 2001 Armando Valladares, published by Encounter Books, New York, London

Communities of Faith and Light
in the Darkest of Places

by Charles Colson

To model the kingdom of God in the world, the church must not only be a repentant community, committed to truth, but also a holy community...  When we are that holy community, we make an impact on an unholy world, no matter how desperate the circumstances.

Thousands of such communities of light exist around the world in accountable fellowships where the gospel is faithfully proclaimed and where members reach out in an effort to bring God's mercy and justice to those around them... Only as the church maintains its independence and distinctiveness from [the secular] culture, it is best able to affect culture. When the church serves as the church, in firm allegiance to the unseen kingdom of God, God uses it in this world: first, as a model of the values of his kingdom, and second, as his missionary to culture.

One example that clearly illustrates this comes from the Cuban Isla de Pinos, from a prison so dark and remote that most of the world never even knew it existed. The huge circular cellblocks were built during the 1930s under Batista's regime. When someone asked the dictator why he had built it so big, he replied, “Ah, don't worry. Somebody will come along who will manage to fill it up.” That somebody was Fidel Castro.

“Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!”
One of the prisoners there was a young anti-Communist named Armando Valladares. Early in his confinement, he often heard prisoners – fellow Christians – taken to the firing squad. Such executions always took place at night, and the dark silence would be broken by triumphant shouts: “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!” Then the explosion of gunfire – and silence again. Soon all prisoners were gagged before their executions. The killers could not stand their victorious defiance.

According to Valladares, the most faithful member of that tiny Christian community, made up mostly of Catholics, was a Protestant prisoner known simply as the Brother of the Faith. He constantly sang hymns to God and shouted encouragement to his brothers to have faith, to follow Christ to the end.

Then one night several prisoners were forced from their cells, and guards began to beat them with sticks, truncheons, bayonets, and chains. “Suddenly,” writes Valladares,” “as though to protect them, there appeared a skeletal figure with white hair and flaming, bizarre eyes, who opened his arms into a cross, raised his head to the invisible sky, and said, ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’ The Brother of the Faith hardly had time to finish his sentence, because as soon as he appeared [the lieutenant] ordered the guards to step back….he fired his AK submachine gun. The burst of fire climbed the Brother of the Faith's chest, up to his neck. His head was almost severed, as though from the blow of an ax. He died instantly” (Against All Hope, Ballantine Books, 1986, p. 421).

Fortified by the faithfulness of this one man, as well as by his own faith, in a way he could not forget, Armando Valladares survived gross inhumanity, psychological abuse, and torture for twenty-two years. In 1983 he was released and made his way to the West and freedom. His memoirs of those dark years, Against All Hope, have exposed to the world the hidden horrors of Castro's prisons.

And therein lies the irony: Though Castro controls the Cuban press, suppresses the visible church, conquers academia, and rules a ruthless government, he cannot rule the spirits of those he has enslaved. He cannot extinguish the light of the soul set free by God. And out of a flicker of light in one dark prison came the indictment of his regime that shocked the world.

Out of brokenness comes wholeness and might
Is this not the way our Lord works? Out of brokenness and foolishness come wholeness and might. Out of prison comes power – real power-that defies even the most brutal repression. Out of tiny monastic outposts come education, moral endurance, and artistic excellence that can save a civilization. And out of holy obedience today, in communities of light, will come what he wills, as we are faithful.

Excerpt from Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, Chapter 17, by Charles Colson,  © 1989 by Fellowship Communications. First published in 1989 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA. Republished by Regal Books.

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