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Cuba hurricane survivors get Baptist relief

HAVANA, Cuba (BP)–Southern Baptists will send two containers of relief supplies to Cuba to help victims of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike rebuild their homes and lives.

An agreement negotiated with the U.S. and Cuban governments will allow a container of building supplies and food to be sent to both of the Baptist conventions — eastern and western — on the island nation 90 miles off the Florida Keys, according to Jim Brown, U.S. director for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization.

Assessment teams of representatives of the International Mission Board, Florida Baptist Convention and BGR toured opposite ends of Cuba, evaluating needs and discussing possible responses with Cuban government officials. Hurricane Gustav wreaked havoc on western Cuba; Hurricane Ike ravaged the eastern end of the island. Estimates of the damage range as high as $5 billion, according to news reports.

“The entire island of Cuba has been damaged in one degree or another by both Gustav and Ike,” Brown said. “Most of the damage was related to housing — houses destroyed or damaged, roofs gone or partially destroyed, crops damaged or destroyed, areas of sporadic flooding, electric infrastructure damaged, and destroyed personal items. There also is a tremendous need for food and water.”

The government dispatched soldiers to clean up roads and fallen trees and Cuban Baptist churches leaped into action after the storm, meeting needs out of the limited resources immediately available to them, Brown said.

“Baptist churches in both the east and west did a superb job meeting needs in the aftermath of both storms,” he said. “As we traveled around the country, people all across the island were commenting how well the Baptists assisted them in their time of greatest need.”

The assessment teams arrived in Havana Sept. 16 and met with the Cuban Office of Religious Affairs the following day. The team received assurances from the government that additional supplies and food sent by Southern Baptists would be distributed to churches 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 Western Cuba Baptist Convention.

One of the containers being shipped to the country will go to the Island of Youth in western Cuba and the other will be delivered to eastern Cuba, Brown said. A Baptist leader in each area will work with three government officials to decide how the contents will be distributed.

The building material and food will be purchased in South Florida, and Florida Baptist congregations will help repackage bulk food in smaller quantities for distribution to families, Brown noted. The Cuban government will provide warehousing and transport within the country and recipients of the aid will sign receipts to verify delivery.

The relief effort provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to Cuba’s people that Baptists are people who care about people in need, said one member of the assessment team.

“It is heartbreaking to see areas already struggling with poverty and scarcity to be so badly damaged,” said Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., and president of the Florida Baptist State Convention. “Many small villages will be without power for months and desperately need supplies for building and repairs.

“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.

“The church in Cuba is still vibrant and strong and growing despite difficult circumstances,” Rice added. “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.”
With reporting from Barbara Denman, director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.

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