The Teacher Who Chose to Stay
Teaching in the face of Communism
By Abner F. Hernández Fernández
Pastor Virgilio Zaldívar Marrero was teaching in the theology program of Colegio Adventista de las Antillas, in Santa Clara, Cuba, when the victorious Communist Party of Cuba confiscated the school campus and facilities in 1967.1 As official pressure on the church mounted, prison or going into exile seemed to be the only options available. Pastor Zaldívar, however, chose to stay on the island in order to train generations of ministers for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cuba. His students would take over the risky task of nurturing and supporting the growth of the church during its most difficult years, even when any contact with the world church was lost.
With All His mind
Virgilio Zaldívar Marrero was born in 1918 in Holguín, Cuba. Virgilio’s parents were honest people who from his very first years instilled Christian values in him and made every effort to provide him with the best education available in the region. Very soon Virgilio showed exceptional abilities in language, literature, and history.
His best abilities, however, would emerge after he chose to dedicate his life to God. Even his conversion would become a foretaste of his future success in studying and sharing God’s Word as a pastor.
Virgilio was just 14 when one day, walking by a Seventh-day Adventist church, he overheard the sermon. He stopped to listen, and the words of the preacher made a deep impression in his young mind. The Bible truth he heard that day made such an impact in his life that he decided he wanted to give his heart to Jesus and be included in the baptism planned for just a day later. Virgilio looked for the preacher, and insisted on being baptized as soon as possible.
As a way of an answer, the preacher gave this young man a task apparently impossible for a 14-year-old: “If you can learn all the doctrines of the church handbook by tomorrow, I will baptize you.”
The preacher thought he had solved the problem, until the following day, when Virgilio came with every question answered and knowing every doctrine with its Bible texts. He was baptized that same day in December 1932. From that moment onward he devoted his whole life to the Lord and to preaching His Word, sharing with others the blessed hope of His second coming.
Virgilio decided to immediately start sharing what he had learned. He was just 15 when he began organizing evangelistic efforts in which hundreds made the decision to follow Christ.
His first formal job for the church was at the publishing agency, in 1940, where he worked with such a dedication and devotion that he was invited to enroll in the theological program at the Colegio Adventista de las Antillas. With the experience of several years of self-taught studies, Virgilio began to teach other students even before his graduation in 1943.
A Successful Pastor and Teacher
After graduation Virgilio Zaldívar would spend the following 20 years ministering, preaching, and organizing new churches and schools in various towns and cities of the island. At the same time, in 1947 he was asked to serve as the secretary-treasurer of the West Cuba Conference and president of the publishing agency. In 1955 he was ordained to the ministry and officially became Pastor Zaldívar.
From 1963 until his retirement in 1991 he devoted his full attention and energies to the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Antillean College in Cuba, where he served as both professor and dean.
When Antillean College was confiscated by the Communist government in 1967, the training of ministers was momentarily halted. Two years later Pastor Zaldívar opened a small center for training ministers in the children’s Sabbath school classrooms in the Santa Clara Adventist Church, just six miles (9.5 kilometers) from the closed down Antillean College. Later the fledgling seminary was moved to a better-equipped place, which boasted three bedrooms (two for men, one for women) and one classroom, located on the first floor of the former headquarters of the Inter-American Division and the Antillean Union. This ongoing training of ministers was an open challenge to Cuban authorities by the church leaders in Cuba and Pastor Zaldívar.
Class contents were prepared by Zaldívar himself, who wrote hundreds of pages to be used in his classes. Before the Cuban revolution, he had purchased some books that he still kept, including books by Ellen G. White and Daniel and the Revelation, by Uriah Smith. In addition, thanks to the efforts of some teachers and students, it was possible to recover a series of books, old texts, and syllabi that had been used in the School of Theology of the Antillean College. Even though the books were not many, for 35 years they served as the only library the ministerial students were able to access.
Pastor Zaldívar’s students attest of his unswerving Christ-centered approach to teaching and of his passion for Christological topics, to such extent that, when he taught from the Bible, often tears began to fall from his eyes as he reflected on Jesus’ love and grace for the lost humanity. Another aspect that had a deep impact and a lasting impression on his students was his strong and consistent life of prayer. And finally, his habit of staying in his office after worship every evening, to study and read until about 10:00.
His years as a pastor and seminary professor were the source of numerous unnamed rewards, though some educational and ministerial leaders of the church also decided to honor Zaldívar’s longstanding contribution to the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cuba. In 1988Montemorelos University, an Adventist educational institution in Mexico, awarded him a doctorate honoris causa in Education.
Never Too Old
Pastor Zaldívar’s enthusiasm for sharing God’s message with others was never put out, not even in old age. After retirement his home in Santa Clara became a dynamic and fruitful evangelistic center. In fact, his home became the place several university professors and students attending the nearby Universidad Central, a public educational institution in Santa Clara, found the God of the Bible. The old pastor used to give them advice out of his vast experience and share with them new teachings from the Word of God. Some of the young people who accepted the Adventist message are now pastors in Cuba; among them is Luis A. Morales, himself a pastor and professor in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the island.
The last time I met Pastor Zaldívar, he was bedridden. We exchanged just a few words, but he gave me an encouraging message that helps me to persevere in my Christian walk. “The Lord is coming soon,” he said enthusiastically.
Pastor Zaldívar passed away on November 22, 2007, and now is waiting for the resurrection morning, when he will finally meet his Friend and Savior, Jesus Christ. Pastor Zaldívar was “a prince in Israel,” an example and a legacy for the younger generations of Seventh-day Adventists in Cuba.
1 Part of the information for this article has been taken from Virgilio Zaldívar’s own accounts, and from the Web site of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Santa Clara, Cuba (http://iasdsc.netadvent.org). Additional sources include: Angel Aramís de Armas, “La obra educativa en Cuba, su historia y el nuevo establecimiento” (M.Ed. thesis, Montemorelos University, Montemorelos, Nuevo Lein, México, 1993), pp. 52, 53; and personal written and oral communications with various current leaders and retired workers of the SDA Church in Cuba.
Abner F. Hernández Fernández is a Ph.D. student in church history at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He has served as a pastor and theology teacher in Cuba and Mexico. He is married to Keila Díaz, and they have two wonderful sons, Jasiel, 13, and Josías, 11.