The Cuba Chronicles: Day 4

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.  Find Day 2, Part 2 here. Find Day 3 here.

We visited Communidad Christiana Emanuel in San Jose de Las Lajas, which is about 40 minutes outside of Havana.  The town name, Las Lajas, means “tile” or floor and is so named for its red ceramic tile industry.  Little red ceramic Christian ornaments, freshly made and baked by the children’s department, adorn Emanuel’s window sill in the sanctuary.

Emanuel is another free-standing church.  It is simple in design, though it has stained-glass windows that set the church apart from the other churches we’ve visited.  It does not have much room for ministry, but there is no need for wide gathering spaces.  This is a mission-sending church, with outreach ministries in the neighborhood and in surrounding areas.  They provide breakfast every morning to about a dozen homebound seniors; their sanctuary accommodates a local AA group.  The pastor is also out-and-about, as he serves as chaplain to prisons and hospitals in the region.

A seminary-trained missionary is pastor to their mission endeavors beyond Las Lajas. The first mission is in a small neighborhood of Jamaica.  The congregation of about a dozen people meet in the parlor of a home.  The parlor is cramped, only about 8×14, and they wish to build a lean-to someday that can seat an open-air church.  Jamaica is extremely poor and marginalized.  It is a fenced-in village within a village.

The second mission is about an hour out (it takes long to get there not because of distance, but because of shoddy roads), nestled in the rich green, mountainous interior of Cuba.  It is a beautiful scene, dotted with cattle and cane fields.  It is located in Juan Abrahamstad, an agriculture impoverished village, home to Communidad Cristiana El Meson (“The Church of the Inn”).

El Meson is a small house church, though the entirety of the house is dedicated to the church, and can seat between 20 to 30 members.  It was founded by a Freewill Baptist minister some years back and represented the first Christian presence in this otherwise atheist community.  Since most of the men in the neighborhood either work far away or go into the military to escape the substandard living facilities, most of the congregation is made up of women.  A woman, a proud octogenarian who received her divinity degree late in life, has been shepherd of this church for nearly a decade (she became a believer 14 years ago).  She wept the entire time we were there, so happy to have these American guests–a first time for the village–in her church.

The pastor explained that the church is named “the Inn” because it seeks to be a place of respite, specifically recalling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the Parable, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the Samaritan sees a person in need, brings the person to an inn, and provides for his healing and care.  This is how the church perceives its ministry, providing a balm to the many wounds that communism and atheism have wrought on this town of some 1,200 residents.

On the “sanctuary” wall behind the pulpit, churchgoers view a series of hand-painted crowns.  One is missing.  Pastor explained that the one missing is yours and mine.  In having received the Word of God and responded to God’s grace in faith, we believe in Jesus and then Jesus gives us a crown of eternal life.  When we receive that crown, we make up for the missing crown on the wall.  Are we counted among God’s saints?

***

This evening concluded our trip with a worship service back at Iglesia Bautista El Jordan.  There were three groups there–ours, a Canadian youth mission team, and a small contingent of churchgoers from El Jordan.  We sang, we shared, we read scripture (the lesson was from Psalm 133, “O, how beautiful it is for Christians to dwell in unity!”).

After a time of worship, Pastor Maykel split us into our groups to discuss what evangelism means to us.  A representative from each group told the rest of the congregation what was discussed.   Agreement came in the importance of relationships in sharing Christ.  We also have similar challenges: all three countries are secular, some more hostile to Christianity than others.  This requires hard work, open minds, and open ears.  We all hoped that many Christians in our nations would close their mouths more often.  All of us struggle with Christians that do a disservice to our churches by being judgmental, antagonistic, and close-minded.  This was our prayer for Canada, the United States, and Cuba.

Advertisements

The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 2

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.”

 

 

 

The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 1

Pastor Maykel shows us future plans for the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba campus. Seated to the right is Corita, pastor of Iglesia Bautista el Shalom, a Fraternity Baptist Church in El Mariel, Cuba.

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.

In a country otherwise made up of atheists, many Cubans are Catholics, some protestants, and the rest, those who follow a pseudo-Catholic cult by the name of Santaria.  Santaria is a religion that is one part Catholic and two parts African ancestral worship.  Witchcraft, along with animal sacrifices and other practices of divination, is common, and Santaria’s grip is vast and wide.

As one might expect, Baptist approaches to Santaria are about as diverse as Baptists themselves.  For many Baptists, hostility is the only action against religions other than evangelicalism; but, for many Baptists who make up the Fraternity of Baptist Churches, those entangled in Santaria are no less worthy of hearing the Gospel and being treated as neighbor.

Today we went to Maykel’s house.  Maykel is a pastor of a church in Havana, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan, as well as president of the Fraternity, and he explained how his presence in the community–he lives in the church’s parsonage–offers the opportunity to befriend neighbors who are in the Santaria movement.  Maykel’s wife, also an ordained minister, is sensitive to their neighbors’ plight, and offers hospitality whenever the need arises.

Maykel’s church is also committed to being the presence of Christ in this diverse neighborhood.  It is a hub for various ministries and groups, including after school programs and a computer classes for adults.  Although 20 churchgoers make up Maykel’s church’s youth group, they can reach up to 100 youth in the area with ministries and special events that they promote out of El Jordan.

Maykel gets a salary from the church, although it was not always the case.  He explained that when he first arrived at El Jordan, the average monthly giving was around $400.00.  Maykel communicated the real needs of ministry in the area and taught on stewardship.  Over several years, the congregation raised their level of monthly support to $1,600.00.  Their goal is to raise their level of giving to $2,000.00, so that they may be able to fund other missions and church starts throughout Cuba.

El Jordan also began a building project to acquire a dining hall, dorm room, and kitchen to their current facility.  Building in Cuba is precarious.  You begin with the walls a brick at a time instead of the foundation, lest the pipes and cables in the foundation “disappear” in the middle of the night.  Next, the church will install a roof, requiring $4,000.00 for supplies.  The completion will mean that the church can serve the community in more creative ways, as well as host meals, mission groups, and neighborhood gatherings.

Our next stop was Milano Verde, or “Green Mill,” the campus of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches.  With 2 buildings and several plans for expansion, the campus is central for the 42 churches in the Fraternity.  In fact, 50 pastors and lay leaders plan to gather here next week for a church start/evangelism conference hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Maykel explained the importance of this space.  For one, theological education is a core value of the Fraternity, and although the local seminary is effective in teaching theology, it lacks the curriculum to support pastors in church starting and outreach ministries.  The Fraternity campus is pivotal in providing these resources. Second, the campus serves the wider community, as it is home to a water purification system that is so good the local hospital uses the water to sterilize its equipment.  The system and its installation were donations by a Presbyterian church in Florida, exhibiting the Fraternity’s success in building ecumenical partnerships.

Maykel also explained how ecumenical partnerships benefit their churches’ missions.  The Fraternity recently approved placing a printing press, complete with building, on campus.  The press will publish Bibles in partnership with the United Bible Society.  South Korean churches are donating the press; Canadian Baptists are donating the pre-furbished building, and the Bible Society will donate supplies and materials for the Bibles.  Local Cubans will benefit from the new micro-economy as they will work the press and transport the Bibles to the rest of the island.  Future plans call for a volleyball/recreation field and a chapel for services.

As Maykel described the ministries of both his church and the Fraternity, I could not help but conclude that he is a master administrator and visionary.  Many from his flock have affirmed as much, as many told us of how much the church and the Fraternity have improved as a result of his leadership.  Best of all, he is not from outside the community–Maykel grew up in El Jordan, and it was there that he heard God’s call to the ministry.

El Jordan and the Fraternity’s campus embody the deepest values that the Fraternity represents, namely being the presence of Christ in a spirit of inclusivity, ecumenism, collaboration, theological education and missions.  Another Fraternity Baptist pastor we met, Pastor Corita, originally traveled to Mexico to become a theologian, but heard the call to ministry in her native land of Cuba during her studies.  After serving in marginalized communities in Mexico, primarily among children and others exploited by human trafficking, she became pastor of a church we set out to visit on Day 3 of our trip.  She, like so many people we met, is the product of those core values, and her ministry to her own flock tells the story of a people who have become born again as a result of a Baptist movement that provides hope to this diverse island.