JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Even as Cuban government officials warned Sept. 18 of a severe shortage of food during the next six months, Florida Baptists were exploring ways to ship food and building supplies to aid its decade-long partner, the Western Cuba Baptist Convention.
The food shortage was caused when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ripped through the island nation earlier this month, damaging crops of rice, beans, plantains and sweet potatoes, killing farm animals and, according to CNN, causing an estimated $5 billion in damage.
“It is heartbreaking to see areas already struggling with poverty and scarcity to be so badly damaged,” said Florida Baptist Convention President Willy Rice, who was among a team of Florida Baptists who traveled to Cuba and assessed the damage.
“Many small villages will be without power for months and desperately need supplies for building and repairs,” added the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater.
The team of Florida Baptists, partnering with Baptist Global Response, arrived in Havana Tuesday, Sept. 16, and met with the Cuban Office of Religious Affairs the following day. BGR representatives took Southern Baptist relief funds, released with the permission of the U.S. Treasury Department, for food and building supplies that could be purchased there.
The team sought and received assurances from the government that additional supplies and food sent by Southern Baptists would be distributed to churches in the Western Cuba Baptist Convention as intended, said Craig Culbreth, director of the Florida convention’s partnership missions department.
The government meeting had been arranged by Victor Gonzales, a Havana oncologist who serves as president of the Cuban convention.
The Florida team was conducting a previously scheduled planning and vision meeting with leaders in the Western Cuba Baptist Convention. They used that visit to assess the storm damage in communities outside Havana and explore avenues to respond to the impending crisis.
“We went to one village where we were specifically told that the church had been the first to help provide support and supplies to hurting people,” Rice said. “This has given those churches an incredible opportunity to demonstrate compassion and build a bridge to share the message of hope.”
Yet providing help will “not be without challenges,” Rice added. “Obviously government restrictions make it more difficult. Our convention leaders are working on a plan to attempt to get much-needed food supplies and building supplies into Cuba.
“We do believe that this is an opportunity to make a positive difference and leave a lasting witness,” Rice said.
The Florida group toured some of the hardest-hit areas several hours from Havana, said Tim Maynard, pastor of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
“In one of the communities, every house you came to — 10 out of 10 — the roofs were gone. None of the houses looked livable.”
Yet people were living there among the ruins, reported Maynard, who serves as vice president of Florida Baptists’ state board of missions.
In each of the locations, the team prayed with pastors, convention leaders and students at the Baptist seminary.
In the relief plan formulated during the trip, Florida Baptists and BGR will transport two 40-by-15-foot shipping containers filled with building supplies and food from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.
Culbreth said additional response will depend on the results from the short-term relief. And in the future, some teams may have the opportunity to help with damaged churches.
Both Maynard and Rice said they believe the help of Florida Baptists during this crisis can change this nation spiritually.
“I believe the storm has opened a door for us to get unprecedented opportunities to share the Gospel in ways we could never have before,” Maynard said. “They are beaten down and looking for someone to help them back on their feet.”
Rice agreed. “Our participation in Cuba communicates to these pastors and church leaders that they are not forgotten. They are more grateful and appreciative than most people could ever imagine,” he said.
“The church in Cuba is still vibrant and strong and growing despite difficult circumstances. We are sowing seeds for the future. We can be a blessing to those who are literally giving their all for the spiritual future of Cuba.”
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.