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.



4 Ways to use Social Media for the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the past two years, many church visitors found us by our website.  Our online presence is a major draw for our guests, second only to personal invitations.

If that is the case, then it stands to reason that churches, especially those concerned about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, need to think intentionally and “missionally” about the use of social media.

The use of social media is not for the church leadership or administration alone.  Every person in the church must think critically about how social media may harness the power of evangelism and testimony in a world that has entered the digital age.

Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel, states that a church-wide approach to social media has to do with a church’s philosophy of ministry.  If a church is teaching that each person is a minister called to share the gospel, then the use of social media must come under the lordship of Christ.  No word published should be without some spiritual scrutiny.

There are several models for social media usage that might guide churches–and Christians–on the appropriate use of online communication.

Santa Clara University professor and journalist Elizabeth Dresther, for instance, argues that Christians can keep in mind the acronym, LACE, when online.*

The L stands for listening.  She argues that Christians can use social media by listening to others and assessing the emotions and needs behind the opinions and posts that people often publish.

Ask yourself: What are the concerns that people express in social media?   Do fears, prejudices, or anxiety seem to be a common theme?  How might God’s Word address these fears and empower friends to “love thy neighbor” rather than disparage the unknown?

The A in LACE is attend.  We Christians are asked to be the presence of Christ for others; this can happen in person or online.  Our comments and contributions on social media platforms can attend to people who need encouragement.

C is for connect.  Our digital world gives the illusion that we are relating to each other intimately and in real-time.  Yet, people feel more isolated than ever.

A recent article in the New York Times by Adam Grant revealed that people are less likely to make friends at work because people spend time on online or on phones during breaks instead of talking to co-workers.

We must keep our connections authentic and vibrant.  We cannot settle on being a voyeur in the lives of others, keeping people at arm’s length.  Connecting to people is the intentional act of moving past the “like” button.

The E stands for engage.  Engaging others online for Christ encourages that we share words of edification on our profiles and in emails.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

Are we promoting the cause of Christ and challenging people to think in new ways with our communications?  Are we building an alternative community with quality content and thoughtful reflection fitting the Christian faith?

Too often, our engagement is limited to promoting political or theological views that reinforce our embedded beliefs.  Status quo can be dangerous in this setting: if Christian engagement does not inspire transformation and conformity to the image of Jesus, then why share it in the first place?

We all know that social media is a powerful tool in keeping up with friends and family.  It even has the power to shape our day if it exposes us to a heartbreaking story of a loved one in need or bombards us with offensive opinions that linger in our minds well after the computer is turned off.

Likewise, it can be an effective tool for Christ, for it has shown that it can influence people to mobilize and get excited about a cause, religious or otherwise.

Although the Bible did not originate in a digital world, its principles are just as applicable.  We are still commissioned, whether in person, at church, or while surfing the world-wide web, to share the Good News of Jesus’ love, make disciples, and, ultimately, baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“Digital Media–It’s All About Relationships,” in Bearings for the Life of Faith (Autumn 2014): 4-8.

Raising Great Commission kids is important in faith development

Jesus once told his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt. 19:14 NRSV).  Although we know that Jesus has a special place in his heart for children, it is rather difficult for us to include children in a life of faith in creative and positive ways.

In the most recent issue of On Mission SBC magazine, Brian Haynes points out that godly parenting includes the act of teaching children how to participate in a Great Commission lifestyle. No one is too young to start partnering with God in ministry for the sake of His kingdom.

This is rather difficult to do in this day and time.  Family schedules leave little free time; churches often segregate families into age groups on Sunday mornings.  Homework, sports, or other extracurricular activities have replaced family devotions around the fireplace each evening.

We may not be as stern as the disciples, shooing children away from Jesus; but we do indeed fall short of helping our children experience Christ on a weekly basis.

We Americans have certain rituals in place to help our children grow in the faith.  Sunday school comes to mind.  Also, we stock up on faith-based books and toys from the local Christian book store.  Some churches still make a children’s sermon a part of their weekly worship.  Children’s fellowship on weeknights expose our little ones to missions.

In a techno-pluralistic world as this one, however, we need to start expanding how we teach our children about faith formation and their relationship with God.  If we only rely on the tried-and-true habits of yesteryear, listed above, we’re only giving our children a part of the Christian story: We are teaching them that Christianity is something that you do.  At church.  In a small group.  Usually for only one or two hours a week.

We realize that our missional walk with Jesus is not a Sunday and Wednesday event only.  We also realize that we are called to “be the church” and be “on mission” wherever we find ourselves: at work, in our communities, while we exercise at the local gym.  Are we teaching our children that they are not excluded from this call to missional engagement on a daily basis?

In our family, we try to help our children see God everywhere they go by asking them to pray for the people at school and in their community.  Every day, we ask who they would like to pray for, and we follow up those requests by asking how they might have seen God working in the lives of others the next day.

My son, as young as he is, is just as responsible for maintaining his relationship with God as his older sister.  When he has trouble sharing with his friends, we often associate sharing with the radical hospitality that Jesus showed to his friends too.

Speaking of radical hospitality, how do our churches communicate to our children that they are a part of our local Kingdom movement?  At our church, we try to balance family worship (the first half of our Sunday service) with age-appropriate discipleship (children go to small groups with a volunteer teachers during the sermon).

Another way we show radical hospitality is to help children become a part of our liturgy at worship.  Sometimes we print children’s activities on the front of our worship bulletins (rather than having separate children’s bulletins) that relate to the day’s scripture lesson; I find that adults enjoy doing the activities just as much as the children.

Other times, we have children do scripture readings, singing, and special prayers.  Some of them may be learning how to read, but watching a child try to articulate a verse in front of the congregation is more of a blessing than having a well-spoken adult do it for the umpteenth time.

God’s heart remains with our children throughout church life.  It is important that we encourage them to participate in God’s mission, no matter how old or how young.