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FIRST-PERSON: It was good for Baptists to hold sessions in Cuba

HAVANA (BP)–Why host an international Baptist conference in socialist Cuba? That question was asked repeatedly by observers prior to the Baptist World Alliance General Council meeting July 3-8 in Havana.

Baptist leaders around the world offered clear answers as they led worship services in 40 Cuban Baptist churches, helped coordinate Cuban Baptists’ first public evangelistic rally in more than 40 years and even shared the BWA’s worldwide mission and vision in a personal visit with Fidel Castro.

Korean pastor Billy Kim, the BWA’s new president, said the July 3-8 gathering was designed to “help Cuban Baptists strengthen their profile among their people because they have been under less freedom for the past 40 years. It will give them a great uplift that the BWA General Council met here.”

BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz echoed that view, emphasizing that the event “gives us an opportunity to show solidarity with the people of Cuba — that we belong together because we belong to Jesus Christ. We’re here to affirm our brothers in Christ.”

Leaders in Cuba voiced a similar perspective. “I praise the Lord that this has been a great, great dream come true,” said Victor Gonzales, a physician who serves as general secretary of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba. “It has been an unforgettable week for Cuban Baptists.

“It is the Lord opening the doors in Cuba,” Gonzales added. “The only answer for Cuba is Jesus Christ.”

Even Caridad Diego, Castro’s director of religious affairs, affirmed the BWA meeting’s impact during an opening reception held in the rotunda of Cuba’s National Capitol. She noted that the council meeting “is going to contribute to the Baptists of Cuba but also to our country.”

The timing of the meeting was significant amid intense international media scrutiny of U.S.-Cuban interaction in the wake of the Elian Gonzales drama. After months of legal and political wrangling, Elian returned to Cuba less than a week before the BWA meeting convened. Posters and T-shirts proclaiming “Free Elian” were still conspicuous throughout Havana.

Of course, the BWA event was being planned long before young Elian became an international household name. Alliance leaders approved the Havana site four years ago and worked diligently to ensure the event makes a lasting impact on Cuban Baptist life.

Cuban leaders emphasized the pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998 and the July BWA meeting are among the most significant events in the modern history of Cuban Christianity. Such high-profile visits, coupled with economic woes heightened by the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, are prompting the Cuban government gradually to reexamine the importance of religious freedom.

BWA participants didn’t stop with evangelistic efforts and increased exposure for Cuban Baptist ministry efforts, however. General Council members adopted a resolution encouraging “initiatives to ease sanctions on food and medicine affecting the people of Cuba.” Addressing the practice of economic sanctions in general, the resolution describes access to food and medicine as “a basic human right,” adding that “the denial of such access should not be used by nations as a tool of geopolitics.”

Despite the United States government’s 40-year trade embargo of Cuba following Castro’s ascent to power, BWA leaders insist the resolution rises above international political concerns. “We’re concerned not with the government, but with the people of Cuba,” Lotz explained. “We are concerned with those who are suffering.”

Even amid global debate over socialism, economic sanctions and religious freedom, world Baptists continue to find unity through an unwavering commitment to evangelism and missions — including sharing a clear gospel witness with the people of Cuba.

That focus on Christian unity is highlighted in the BWA motto found in Ephesians 4:5, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” That, above all, is why it was good for Baptists to meet with our brothers and sisters in Cuba.

    About the Author

  • Trennis Henderson

    Trennis Henderson is the national correspondent for WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union). A Baptist journalist for more than 35 years, Henderson is a former editor of the Western Recorder of the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Arkansas Baptist News state convention newsjournal.

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