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Cuba native is baseball chaplain, interim pastor, attorney & more

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (BP)–As a director of missions, interim pastor, practicing attorney and avid fisherman, Rafael de Armas wears many hats — and a Texas Rangers jacket.
De Armas, director of missions for Florida’s Peace River Baptist Association, began serving as a chaplain to the baseball team’s Spanish-speaking rookie players in 1996. The rookies, who train and play in Port Charlotte, were “tough guys,” reluctant to come to chapel, he recalled. “They’d scatter when they saw me.”
Two years later, though, de Armas had a different kind of problem. After a couple of weeks of spring training, a coach complained to de Armas that whenever the chaplain came to the field, the boys would stop playing and run up to greet him, which the coach considered “unprofessional.”
Despite that minor concern, de Armas clearly has won the respect of the players and team officials.
Last year he was asked to give a prayer and devotional at a motivational meeting for the Hispanic players and management of the Texas Rangers organization. At the end of the meeting, de Armas was given the jacket. Making the presentation were two players he had once helped when they had difficulty getting housing.
“It was a complete turnaround, from open hostility to love and affection,” de Armas said.
De Armas’s ministry to the players, which resumes with this year’s spring training, has run the gamut from chapel services to help with transportation and tax returns, along with meals at the de Armas home and at the Spanish mission of First Baptist Church, Port Charlotte, which de Armas serves as interim pastor.
Rafael’s wife, Clysta, started inviting the players and their wives for meals when she learned they missed the traditional foods from their homes — which might be Puerto Rico, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.
“That’s been my main ministry, to feed them,” she said. She also does a good bit of “mothering.” Rookies often are as young as 17, 18 or 19; some come from rural settings and have never lived away from home. Unlike the stars of major league baseball, these boys do not earn huge salaries and their jobs are not necessarily secure.
During the 1998 season, about 80 percent of the Hispanic rookies attended chapel services, Rafael de Armas said. “Maybe one or two” are Christians, he added, and others have expressed interest in becoming Christians, but have not followed through yet.
“They have a lot of questions and they participate,” he said. “They like to sing.”
Dan Sherman, most recently pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Punta Gorda, has led chapel and Bible studies with the English-speaking Rangers players for about six years, de Armas noted. “He’s had good success with those boys,” with a number making professions of faith.
De Armas, who came to the States in 1954 to attend college at the invitation of a South Carolina pastor who had preached a revival in his native Cuba, felt God’s call to become a lawyer while serving on the staff of First Baptist Church, Orlando, at its downtown location in the mid-1970s.
As he ministered to Mexican immigrants there, de Armas became concerned about the legal difficulties they encountered — from immigration problems to traffic tickets — and the shortage of lawyers willing to handle their cases.
An offense the average citizen would get a ticket for could send an illegal immigrant to jail, where he would stay until his court date, de Armas said.
So one day he told Clysta, “Next Thursday, instead of going fishing, I’m going to go find a law school.”
He visited the law school at the University of Florida in Gainesville, hoping to find a way to begin a “law clinic” using the university’s students and the Orlando church’s facilities and personnel. The outcome of his visit, though, was that “the dean guaranteed me a place in the next class if I would apply and meet the entrance requirements.” He graduated three years later, in 1975, passed the bar exam and began his practice.
“Some weeks I do nothing in law,” he said. “Some weeks I do 80 hours. … The Lord kind of arranges my schedule.”
The law practice has been a ministry extension, he said, and also a source of income that has enabled him to do things he otherwise would not have been able to do.
People sometimes wonder if the attorney’s and minister’s roles mix, he said. He’s been asked, for instance, how he can defend someone who is guilty.
“What do pastors do? Defend guilty people all the time,” de Armas said. “For sin we have a defense. If you accept Christ, you have a perfect defense.”
The legal profession has stringent ethical standards and there are consequences for violating them, he added. “If all Baptist preachers were also attorneys, both professions would benefit.”
After 26 years at the Orlando church, de Armas accepted the call to Peace River Association in August 1995. Adjusting to the director of missions’ role was a challenge in some ways. The first six months, every time he went to church, he sat there and cried, he recounted. “I wasn’t a pastor anymore.”
Then Mision Bautista Port Charlotte “called me as interim pastor and I stopped crying.”
When he decided to become a DOM, de Armas thought he would love being a “pastor to pastors,” he said, but he found “most pastors don’t think they need a pastor.” Relationships with pastors and leaders in the association’s 23 churches have not come automatically; it’s taken time and effort.
Some of his best time with pastors is time spent fishing, he said. He has a boat and enjoys deep-sea fishing; on one excursion in the Gulf, he and one of the baseball players caught a shark that measured six-feet-plus in length.
In light of his own multiple roles, it’s not surprising that de Armas has a heart for bivocational ministers. “We need to tear down the misconception that a man can’t be a full-time pastor and hold a secular job,” he said. Bivocational pastors shouldn’t be seen as second class, he emphasized. It may be a part-time salary, but the work is always full-time.
De Armas sees the baseball chaplaincy and the interim pastorate as an extension of his work as a DOM. “I’m more of a missionary than I am an administrator,” he said. “I’m here to help people.”
As DOM for a small association, he can have time for hands-on work. How it all comes together, he said, “is up to the Lord.”
“Whatever he’s in, I’m in too,” Clysta de Armas affirmed. “We’re a team.” In addition to supporting Rafael in the baseball ministry, she is Woman’s Missionary Union director for the association and is involved in ethnic-language work. She also has served on Florida Baptists’ state board of missions twice and as a state language representative for WMU.
Rafael de Armas’s focus on hands-on ministry is reflected in his leadership of the association. “I’d like to minimize procedure and maximize missions,” he said. He envisions the association as a family of churches that will devote its efforts to feeding the hungry and ministering to the unwed mother, that will “can Robert’s Rules of Order and enthrone the Bible.”

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  • Shari Schubert