By Joe LaGuardia
On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years. These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here.
We visited Iglesia Bautista Ebenezer on the outskirts of Havana. It is a thriving church and home to the Martin Luther King, Jr., heritage center, a non-profit recognized by the Cuban government. (That the church is named “Ebenezer,” the same as MLK’s church in Atlanta, was coincidental.)
Aside from the heritage center, the church hosts on-going professional development for adults and training camps for youth and college students interested in learning about social justice, non-violent civic engagement, and community reconciliation. After-school programs and other ministries, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also bolster the congregation’s ministry. Visiting professors from around the world come to stay at a campus apartment to teach theology to clergy and lay leaders in week-long intensive courses.
Ebenezer exemplifies what some theologians call “leaven”-style missions, recalling Jesus’ parable in which he likens the Kingdom of God to a woman who subversively sneaks leaven into a batch of bread. The church hopes that the Gospel infiltrates their neighborhood and, from efforts in education, in reaching communities for Jesus Christ across the island.
This is a fundamental part in Ebenezer’s history: As one of three original churches (another being Pastor Maykel’s church, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan) to found the Fraternity of Baptists, its previous pastor worked with the government to soften religious tensions. This work, which began some 25 years ago, attracted the ire of other Baptist churches, and the three churches were accused of promoting communism. The atheist government, meanwhile, was weary of the Christian influence. The Fraternity formed as a result of this schism.
Ebenezer’s work with the government became an asset not only to Christians in Cuba, but to the entire population in the mid-1990s. At the time, the Soviet Union collapsed and resources were scarce. Cuba entered a time of hardship and famine. Churches, especially those working close with the government and non-profits in the area, became hubs for emergency relief. This leverage led to further dialogue, and Ebenezer was able to seat the first Christian senator in Parliament since the advent of Communism. We met the senator, who remains influential throughout Havana.
Ebenezer is a flagship church in the Fraternity as it seeks to raise up a new generation of Christian business and government leaders who seek to be on mission in Cuba. The leadership is made up of three pastors, one devoted to the work of the Heritage Center and training; another to developing, writing, and producing Cuban Christian liturgy, disseminated to the rest of the Christian churches in Cuba (indigenous liturgy is extremely important in the Fraternity); and a third engaged in pastoral care and programming. The pastors rotate in preaching and church leadership. They want to model the type of egalitarian community they believe reflects God’s kingdom. Every year, each pastor takes a different category of ministry, so the energy and creativity stays fresh and vibrant. (To me, this church mirrors the kind of leadership model and good work you can find at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.)
Ebenezer is one of eight churches in the Fraternity that have free-standing buildings. The rest are home churches that rely on the resources and training that churches like Ebenezer provide — Pastor Maykel calls it “divine resourcing,” which reminded me of my own ideas on “creative resourcing” we’ve been implementing at First Baptist. (I like Maykel’s term better, as it assumes that God is in charge of the agenda rather than our own limited brains!)
Pastor Maykel, Pastor Corita (whom we met earlier), and the three pastors at Ebenezer believe that they are reaping the harvest of seeds sown so many years earlier with visionary pastors who were willing to dialogue with what were once sworn enemies of Christendom. Through their hard work, they now have a chance to be a part of the governing process–its the slow work that affirms Martin Luther King, Jr’s admission that the “arc of history bends towards justice.”