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.

 

New friends and frontiers in Cuba

Lissett, me, Kristina, and Maykel

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, my family and I had the privilege of hosting in our home the Reverend Maykel Baez Bruffau, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Jordan and president of the Fraternity of Baptist Church of Cuba, and Ms. Lissett, a musician and worship leader in a sister Cuban church.

This was part of an ongoing partnership between the Fraternity and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Like the CBF, the Fraternity is comprised of churches that emphasize congregational ministry, women in ministry, and creative liturgy focused on the arts and missional engagement.

Maykel and Lissett attended the CBF General Assembly last week in Atlanta, and are making rounds in several churches to give testimony and to sing.  They will not be at First Baptist of Vero Beach this weekend, but they were nice enough to visit us in Vero Beach for a few days to get some rest and time off during their two-week stay.

Aside from my enthusiasm about this partnership (we at First Baptist are praying about joining a small team of pastors in November to reciprocate the relationship), I have been amazed at spending time with people from Cuba–a new frontier for missions and ministry since the easing of relations between the Obama Administration and the Castro regime a few years ago.

I had time to hear Maykel’s story.  Many families deal, for instance, with substandard housing.  Since resources are scarce, families work together to provide community enrichment, education, and support.  In Maykel’s case, he has a parsonage that was restored with the help of the church.

I asked him about things we take for granted, like appliances.  He gave an example and said that each family gets a Chinese refrigerator, which is infamous for leaks and too small.  Each family gets a voucher that barely covers the cost for the appliance, and it takes some families years to pay off the balance.

Other things, like infrastructure, also suffer under the communist dictatorship, although things have improved greatly under Raul Castro.  Small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to provide for a rise in middle-class demands, and the increase in American tourism has bolstered the economy.

The current Administration under Donald Trump threatens this delicate balance, and although communism is no pie in the sky, waning tensions between the two countries have provided the small island an economic step in the right direction–why close off an entire economy to quality refrigerators or microwaves?  We are too big and powerful a county to come under Castro’s sway, so why fear a better partnership?  (You’d think Donald Trump of all people would know a good deal when he sees one.)

Maykel also told me of his Christian upbringing.  He is pastor of the very church in which he grew up, and his pastor who raised him and encouraged him to go into the ministry retired only a few years ago.  Maykel considers her his spiritual mother, and he speaks with her on the phone almost daily.

In Georgia, I spent many days in conversation with communities and churches of color with whom my old church worked.  We spent many hours in dialogue and many more projects together to bridge racial divides.  My time with Maykel and Lissett provided me a new set of friends who spoke a language entirely different from my own, and we’ve been having fun trying to communicate with English and Spanish.

I found that I have become quite self-conscious of both my language and my belongings over the course of this week.  In my language, I use many figures of speech, and that does not translate well for people who only know rudimentary (and very literal!) English.  I’ve also taken note of how many things we take for granted.

We Americans do not know what it is like to go to a grocery store and not have an array of choices of things to buy.  We do not know what it is like to be forced to have all the same items and be confronted with a government and elite class that hoards so many resources even doctors need to barter to make ends meet (Cuba has a universal healthcare system, but patients are still expected to bring a “gift” to the doctor when the need arises).

Since most Cubans make about $20.00 a month, there is no discretionary spending on…well, anything.  Even getting a Coke or a belt is something of a luxury for Maykel and Lissett.

My new friends have taught me more than I can process this early on in the relationship.  Our time with Maykel and Lissett have opened our eyes to a bigger world, something I’d forgotten since my last mission trip to Ghana back in 1999.

I look forward to what God has in store for us who partner with the CBF and the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba.  More lessons, I’m sure–and hopefully a clearer call for justice, for Cuba’s and our own nation’s sake.