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.

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The Cuba Chronicles: Introduction

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. 

Juan Ortiz was a little boy when he and two-dozen sailors went from Havana to Tampa Bay in search of conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez and nearly 200 men in the early 16th-century.  Narvaez failed to reach a rendezvous point, and his wife, back in Havana, sent a search party of which Ortiz was a part.

Upon their arrival, a few men and Ortiz went ashore to inquire with the natives.  It did not take long for the situation to worsen.  The natives bludgeoned the sailors while Ortiz was captured, bound and placed over a bonfire pit.  Moments before the flames licked Ortiz’s bare back, a young native girl interceded with the tribal chief.  He sparred Juan Ortiz’s life.   Ortiz learned the culture, hunted and gathered with the men, took a wife, created a family.

Several years later, De Soto and a new wave of adventurers found Ortiz, who then joined the crew as translator and guide.  They went as far as the Mississippi before Ortiz met his fate in a rushing river.  As Marjorie Stoneman Douglas puts it in her classic book The Everglades,

Juan Ortiz, whom the Indian girl had rescued, would find his death also, drowned crossing an unknown river, weighted down with Christian clothing and armor.

This little anecdote rightly describes religious life in Cuba over the past fifty years.  As a thriving island democracy, Cuba soon saw a breakdown in both politics and religion after the Castro revolution overthrew President Fugencia Batista in 1959.  Christianity protested with the weight of its own armor and influence but ultimately drowned under the rushing river of atheism and anti-imperialist propaganda that followed communist victory in 1965.

Now, nearly a year after Fidel Castro’s death, Christianity is learning how to swim again.  While some Baptists still weigh down faith with the clothes of a type of Christianity imported from the United States, many others have cast off consumerist models of religion in search of a thoroughly Cuban Christianity.

This is a daily, uphill spiritual battle.  Where the atheists don’t resist Christian growth, the occult Santaria movement vies for more converts to its own cause.  Where Christian missions try to recreate the megachurch mindset of North America and Africa, many Christian Cubans struggle to keep an indigenous faith that resists the shortfalls of capitalism and consumerism.

The daily lives of Cubans exist somewhere in the middle of all of this, and the Baptists that we worked with, those who make up a community of 40-some odd churches known as the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, try to blend an indigenous cultural beauty for which Cuba is known with a steadfast Gospel that embodies Christ’s salvation, compassion, and mission.  It is not a Christianity weighed down with western ideals, though it does borrow heavily from an incarnational model of missions that promotes social justice and the rhetoric of liberation that stems from the likes of Latino theologians Oscar Romero and Justo Gonzales.

Juan Ortiz  died because he divorced himself from the very culture that guaranteed safe passage through hostile environs of Florida.  Cuba’s Christian churches are trying to live by divorcing themselves from unhealthy models of Christian mission known for emphasizing other-worldly salvation at the expense of — (or, at times, total abandonment of) — community transformation.

If anything, Baptist Cuban churches are poised for growth precisely because they have engaged in ministries that bolster the Cuban imagination, especially those that protest systemic oppression, all while being sensitive to the deepest needs that exist in the local communities where the real spiritual battles are being waged.

As one local Cuban pastor told me, this is not a forcing of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “arc of history that bends towards justice,” but a long game that seeks total and utter reformation for the sake of Christ, not of our own making and in our own time, but in the kairos, cosmic time whereby God’s kingdom will imbue earth as it is in heaven.

 

3 Reasons why the Christian Calendar is Meaningful for today’s Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Our church, First Baptist of Vero, is hosting a short-term study on the Christian calendar during the season of Lent.  Although the sacred calendar has always been a part of First Baptist’s 101-year history, the church has often made an effort to educate the congregation on the importance and meaning of the Christian year.

Much of this work has come under the 20-year tenure of the Reverend Dr. Michael Carter, our music minister, who received a doctorate under the leadership of Robert Webber, a name church liturgists associate with the Christian calendar and ancient-future worship.

When I interviewed with First Baptist over a year ago, I was delighted that Dr. Carter was the resident theologian on liturgy.  I fell in love with the Christian calendar while attending a Presbyterian church in high school and Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Baptist college out of the Charleston tradition–a tradition that champions both biblical scholarship and orderly, liturgical worship.

On the heals of Ash Wednesday and while sitting under Dr. Carter’s teachings this past Sunday as he began his study on the Christian calendar, I remembered all of the reasons why I–and the churches I have belonged to and have known–cherish the sacred year.

First, the Christian Calendar reminds me that my faith in and with Christ is not all about me.  I grew up in a northern evangelical church that promoted a simple, but strong Protestant faith devoid of anything “ritualistic.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but outside of that we tried to live by the adage that our Christian witness was more about a relationship with Christ rather than religion.

But something was missing in my Christian upbringing.  By the time we moved to South Florida when I was a boy, we were so “spiritual but not religious,” that it turned out that we were neither spiritual nor religious.  In fact, my tradition was so devoid of any ritual, my only memories of spiritual experiences were limited to attending Miami Dolphins football games and that one time I walked down the aisle to make a decision for Christ at First Baptist Church of Perrine.

When I started attending New Covenant Presbyterian Church during high school and, later, PBA, I experienced all of the nuances of the Christian year.  It did not come off as ritualistic, but a way of bolstering my relationship with Christ.  I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, part of a movement–the Christian faith–that stretched two millennia into the past and connected me to the larger story of God.

As Dr. Carter stated last Sunday, “The Christian year is about sacred time that tells of God’s story, about fusing our story with God’s story, and about making the Christ event the center of that story.”

I had a strong faith from my upbringing, but now I had the skeleton to hang–and to build–some serious Christian muscles in my walk with Christ.

Second, the Christian Calendar sustains me during seasons of spiritual drought.  We all have seasons in our walk with Jesus.  Sometimes we are on fire; other times, we feel distant from God, as if we are only stepping into each day with little connection to God.  That is natural; there is a rhythm to our faith that often mimics the four seasons of the very creation of which we are a part.

It is during those times of drought and “winter” of my soul that I come to rely on the Christian year.  The rhythm of sacred time gives me the bearings and the strength to keep walking, keep at it, to hang in there.  It encourages me to keep going because, though “sorrow may last for the night, joy cometh in the morning.”

It’s like brushing teeth.  We brush our teeth because its more than a routine, it keeps us healthy and keeps cavities away.  So too the Christian calendar is good for the soul; it keeps our hearts focused on God even when God seems far from us.

I found this out the hard way after my father died tragically as a result of gun violence.  After his death, I could not pray.  I could not focus.  I did not return to the pulpit for over a month.

The liturgy–specifically the hymnody, doxology, and congregational singing–was the only thing that got me through that time of grief and heartache.  If Jesus was hard to find in the midst of tragedy, I certainly found him in the midst of song–of hearing the congregation sing, and in following those notes sprawled across that trusty Baptist hymnal.

Third, the Christian Calendar teaches us good theology. At best, theology in the contemporary church is piecemeal, the sum of a thousand topical lessons and sermons that often fail to communicate the entirety of scripture.  I have heard this first hand–a 45-minute sermon in which the pastor presents a topic or thesis, and then strings together a barrage of scriptures as if those scriptures stood independently from the context of their respective books and of the scriptural canon as a whole.

The church year walks us through the entire Bible–starting with creation, the fall of humanity, climaxing with the birth, life, death, and resurrection in Christ; and culminating with the hope of the Second Coming of Christ.  It does not stumble from Christmas to Easter and to the next topical sermon; rather, the story of Christ stands central as we learn to be born again with him, pick up our own crosses, follow Jesus into baptismal waters, through hardship of Lent and finally the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Dr. Carter quoted Robert Webber as stating, “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ stands at the center of time.”  This is not an event divorced from the rest of God’s story, but entangled with the whole of scripture.

I am far from idealistic.  I will continue to visit with churches and Christians who have no place in their life for the Christian year.  That is okay; people walk with Christ on their own terms.  But for me and my family, being intimately bound with a story much larger than the “LaGuardia” story brings liberation, healing, a sense of purpose, and theology that corrects and rebukes and reproves.

It is sacred, and that is something to behold.