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Cuban refugee building bridges as catalytic missionary in Miami

MIAMI (BP)–In a residential neighborhood in the middle of Hialeah, Iglesia Bautista Maranatha struggles to stay ahead.

High property values make relocation prohibitive, code restrictions block expansion and zoning regulations forbid even a church sign. In fact, the church continues to struggle over a paved parking area that city officials want removed.

Through it all, however, North American Mission Board missionary David Lema has been there — offering advice, encouragement and even serving as a liaison with city officials in the church’s attempt to overcome the often-frustrating barriers of language and culture. It is the sort of thing he does regularly as director of Hispanic and international ministries for the Miami Baptist Association.

“I am an interface,” said Lema, borrowing a term from his early days as a computer science student in college. “I can relate from one culture to another, and I can make things more open for communications. I can relate thought patterns that do not translate sometimes from one culture to another.”

Lema and his wife, Milvian, are featured missionaries of the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 5-12.

Lema’s abilities as a multicultural facilitator stem from his diverse background. His parents were exiled from his native Cuba when Lema was 6 because of his father’s Christian beliefs — decidedly at odds with the atheist communist government of the 1960s.

First they went to Spain, then New York City and finally to New Orleans, where his father became a Southern Baptist home missionary. After a brief period of seeking his own way, Lema too obeyed a call to ministry, serving as a pastor in Louisiana and Texas before accepting the pastorate of West Hialeah Baptist Church in 1989.

The confirmation of his call to begin work throughout the association was powerful. By 1996 the ministry in Hialeah was booming, and he felt no particular urgency to join the association’s staff when he was first contacted in 1996. He ultimately decided that if he was going to leave, his church was going to have to ask him to do so.

The next Sunday, one of the church’s prayer warriors who knew nothing about the decision told him something that astounded him.

“She looked at me straight in the eye, and she said, ‘Your days in this church are over … God has something else in store for you,'” Lema related. The church council added further confirmation with an expression of their love and support, and he left with their blessing.

With that mandate, Lema rallied his fellow Hispanic pastors and began using those relationships to further the work throughout the association.

His mission field of Miami is about 55 percent Hispanic, most of them Cuban. Much of the ministry in Miami also requires a thorough understanding of what Lema calls the “refugee mind-set.” They’re not after money, or even the American dream. They are simply looking for security.

“You want to breathe, you want to go out, you want to walk a street where you can feel like no one is going to shoot you, or no one is going to come and tell you what to do,” Lema said.

The struggle, however, comes with leaving one’s homeland — no matter how bad it has become. “And so they come here, but there’s always a vacuum. There’s always a space in their heart where they are longing for the place they left.” Generational differences — when children don’t have the same longing — compound the conflict.

“And so the refugee needs a special ministry. They need people who understand that situation to come and provide them with the things they need to get going. And once they get going, they need to hear the gospel in such a way so that they can exchange their citizenship,” Lema said. “We look for another country. Our homeland is a spiritual homeland. And you cannot imagine when we witness that way to an immigrant how he receives the gospel and how he feels comforted and at peace with that.”

At a practical level, Lema’s duties are primarily to help start churches and to serve as a support and encouragement to the pastors. In the North American Mission Board’s parlance, he is a catalytic missionary — a term he believes describes his church-planting role well.

“A catalyst is a chemical agent that will … make something happen,” he said. “I’m the person who loves to make something happen, so I will go to a pastor in a church that is not even thinking about starting a new work, and I will make something happen.”

An example of how the process works is Iglesia Biblica Bautista de Hialeah, a former independent congregation that was meeting in a storefront when Lema took his position. They desired affiliation for the advice and support the association and its network of churches could provide, as well as the salary supplement for pastors made available through the North American Mission Board.

“We’ve had several churches that have come from an independent background, and they feel that they do not want to function alone anymore,” Lema said, noting he has helped about 10 churches get started each year since he began.

Today, the storefront has expanded to two other adjacent storefronts, and attendance averages about 70 on Sunday mornings.

Beginning next year, however, Lema and the entire association have bold plans to move beyond “spontaneous” church starts such as these and work toward intentional plants in areas identified with a need. The goal for 2000 is to start 48 churches throughout the association — in addition to other churches that form by other means or existing churches that seek affiliation.

“One of the targets we’re going after this year is English-speaking churches for Hispanics,” he said. “Another is multi-housing, multicultural starts — to go into an area, establish points of contact and then develop mission-type work inside.”

Because of Miami’s high property values, new churches are particularly difficult to establish. Churches usually must meet in rented facilities, or storefronts. Compounding the problem is a number of older churches in decline that often are unwilling to give the use of their property for new churches.

The solution, he said, is an old Spanish saying which when translated means, “We pray to God, but keep hammering away” — with an emphasis on the former. Prayer is emphasized through prayerwalks and other prayer gatherings. A new spirit throughout the association has everyone excited, he said, because there is evidence God is moving.

Many Anglo pastors, likewise, have caught the vision and have begun sharing their buildings with multiple language congregations.

“We sense that more and more of our pastors are opening up to this,” Lema said. “It used to be that coming to pastor in Miami was almost like the kiss of death. … But that is turning around now. We have people who call us and say, ‘I want to minister in Miami.’ We see that as an answer to prayer.”

The other side of Lema’s ministry is that of a friend and confidant to the pastors, someone with whom they can share their struggles and successes. Conversely, because of the relationships Lema has nurtured through his regular visits and his pastoral background, they also are likely to count themselves as members of the team when Lema suggests new ideas.

“I thank God for him,” said Julio Pineiro, pastor of Iglesia Bautista de Biblica. “He’s a man full of vision, and he’s always willing to help. … He shows me that he’s not only a Christian but a friend.”

Lema said such ministry is important not only to affirm the pastors and let them know that the association cares about them and supports them, but it also strengthens his ability to lead.

“Sometimes I go out with the pastors because I realize that’s how we bond,” he said. “If I want this guy to come on board for some of my kooky projects, he has to trust me. And the only way we can build trust is through relationships.”

But with all of the stresses of dealing with the personal and ministry needs of so many pastors, Lema said he is also thankful for the support of Milvian, his wife, in helping him “disengage.” “Sometimes she reminds me of areas that I have neglected or people that I have neglected,” he said.

Milvian, a schoolteacher and mother of two, said she believes her involvement is also important in David’s ministry.

“I want the pastors to see us as a unit,” she said. “I want them to see that we’re active together, the four of us. And it’s interesting because … the wives come to me, and they feel like they can talk to me and tell me how hard they are working.”

At heart, Lema said he remains a pastor. His goal is to be perceived as a “colleague in the trench,” having earned the respect of the pastors by working alongside them. So when opportunities arise to spend time witnessing to the drunks, prostitutes or gang members, he likes to take the opportunity. It keeps him focused on the needs of the people, and the urgency of his calling.

“Whenever someone walks with me, or I go and I deliver a tract, or I witness to someone, it’s almost like God is smiling in our city,” Lema reflected. “It’s like God is doing something, and to me that provides the motivation and the fuel to go out there every day to do the ministry that God has called us to do.”

    About the Author

  • James Dotson