It was another hot Sabbath afternoon in Cuba. My mother was practicing with the church choir while I waited in the foyer.
“Giovanni, look what the pastor made,” my friend Ana said. She held up some small cards with information about a big evangelistic meeting coming up.
“Invitations!” I said. “We can’t let these go to waste. Let’s surprise the pastor and pass them out.”
Another girl, Maria, grabbed them. “No, Giovanni, that’s breaking the law.” At that time the laws about religion in Cuba were strict. We could worship God and attend church, but we could not try to convert people to our faith.
“Besides,” Ana said, “these are for people who go to our church.”
“They’re inviting everyone to learn about God.” I lifted several from the pile.
“You’re only 11 years old. Who’s going to listen to you?” Maria challenged.
“Well, I’m going to find out. Are you coming?”
Reluctantly Maria, Ana, and two other girls followed me out into the sun.
As the five of us moved along the street, the girls caught the missionary spirit. Along the sidewalk we gave cards to people walking or sitting on their porches.
“Ana! Maria! Look over there!” I pointed to the park.
It was full of families enjoying the warm day. “Let’s go there next.”
The park was very crowded. I didn’t see the man sitting on the bench until I nearly tripped over his long legs. “What do you have there?” he asked politely.
“An invitation”‘I was out of breath'”for a special church meeting. My friends and I want everyone to come learn about God.”
The man read the card. He sat up straighter on the bench. “You’re breaking the law, young man.”
The girls ran up to me. “Giovanni, we need to cover the whole other side of the street. Come on!”
Ana pulled on my arm, but the man’s voice boomed, “Stop! It’s against the law to give out religious literature.” As he stood up, I realized he was wearing a military uniform. “You’re under arrest.”
A chill ran through my body. My heart pounding,
I said, “You can’t arrest us. President Castro said we have religious freedom in Cuba.”
The officer ignored me. “Where are your parents?” he demanded.
I swallowed. “In church a few blocks from here.”
“Come with me.”
He led us across the park to a police office, where he made a telephone call. While the man spoke quietly into the phone, I had an idea. I bent down to tie my shoe and slipped my invitation cards inside my sock.
“The police are on the way. You’re going to jail,” the officer told us.
“Sir, may we tell our parents what has happened?” It was the second time I had asked. He shook his head no.
Ana and Maria were hugging and sniffling. I continued, “Sir, they’ll be so worried about us.”
The soldier shrugged.
Across the street I saw Sister Herrera, a woman who attended our church. “Sister!” I called to her.
She looked surprised to see us with a soldier. Then the police van pulled up, and her hand went to her mouth in shock.
“Sister Herrera! Please go to the church! Tell the pastor and our parents we’ve been arrested for giving out the invitation cards.”
She nodded slowly, then turned back toward the church. Through the back windows of the police van I saw her hurrying along the street. She wiped away tears as she ran.
The youth detention center was a place I had never seen before. Officers placed us against a wall and patted up and down our legs, looking for hidden weapons.
When the officer was near my ankles, I closed my eyes and prayed.
He did not find the cards.
Another soldier began waving the girls’ cards. “This is against the law!” he shouted in our faces. “We take this very seriously. We will not have kids thumbing their noses at the law!”
Officers separated me from the girls. I was brought into a room with two soldiers. One asked me questions. If I didn’t answer quickly enough, he shouted or slammed his fist on the table. He wanted to know my name, my parents’ names, my address, and where I went to school.
“What will your principal do when he learns you’ve been arrested?” the officer sneered. “Schools don’t keep students who’ve been in jail.”
The second officer leaned back in his chair and laughed.
When they brought me back to the main offices, they took the girls for questioning.
I looked around and suddenly knew what to do with my hidden invitations.
Slowly I withdrew one card, hiding it inside my hand. I leaned against the desk in front of me.
The other officers were busy, some working on paperwork, some talking on the phone. Carefully I opened the desk drawer a crack and slid the invitation inside.
No one saw me.
I moved to another empty desk.
I had just slipped my fifth card inside another desk when the police officers came back in with my friends. The girls were crying quietly.
“What are you doing over there?” the officer demanded. He grabbed my arm. “This way! Let’s see how you missionaries like a jail cell.”
We followed him through a maze of hallways and big wooden doors. He opened one door with a key and motioned us inside.
When the door slammed, it echoed throughout our room.
Back at the church, choir practice had turned into a prayer meeting for our safe return. The pastor and my mother hurried to the police station. They demanded to know where we were, but the police refused to answer their questions.
The pastor persisted, and finally an officer made some phone calls. He told the pastor and my mother that we were at the youth detention center.
“I’m hungry,” Ana said.
“Me too,” I told her. “But God will help us.”
“Oh, Giovanni, do you really think so?” Maria had fresh tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to get kicked out of school.”
“We’ll be OK,” I said. I could see the sky growing dark through our tiny cell window. We had been locked up for several hours with no water or food.
“Why don’t we sing?” I suggested.
After our third hymn I heard my mother’s voice coming from somewhere down the hall.
“Shh!” I told the girls. “My mother is here! I can hear her.”
We strained to listen. She seemed to be arguing with the officer who had arrested us.
Then we heard footsteps, and an officer unlocked our door.
“You’re free to go,” he said.
“Thank you, sir. May we have our invitation cards back?” I asked.
He leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Leave, boy, before you get in more trouble.”
We felt relieved as we walked out of the detention center and headed toward the church with the pastor and my mother.
“Pastor, wait a moment,” I said. I bent down, reached into my sock, and pulled out a handful of invitation cards. “These are yours.”
“What?” The pastor looked astonished. “You hid them this whole time?”
“That’s not all.” I smiled. “When the officers weren’t looking, I slipped some into their desks!”
“Giovanni! How brave of you to witness so boldly! God bless you!”
“Now we can pass the rest of them out on the way back to the church,” I suggested.
“No, Giovanni!” gasped Ana. But that didn’t discourage me from handing cards to the people we passed.
The prayer meeting had grown as others learned of our arrest. We were surprised to see the church so full.
The five of us recounted our story. Then we all knelt and thanked God for keeping us safe. We also prayed for the officers, asking God to direct them to come to church and hear His message of freedom in Jesus Christ.
Fortunately the government of Cuba now puts fewer restrictions on religion than it did a few years ago when this story happened. I hope I am never arrested again, but it will take more than that to stop me from sharing my faith!
Illustrated by Javier Saltares