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Fla., Cuban Baptists ‘offer hope to each other’

[SLIDESHOW=39625,39626,39627,39628]HAVANA (BP) — As the United States turns its attention to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, Florida Baptists continue to work alongside its neighbors 90 miles to the south maintaining relationships built during the past 18 years.

“We offer hope to each other,” said David Gonzales, director of volunteer teams ministry with the Western Cuba Baptist Convention, referring to the partnership between the Florida Baptist Convention and its sister convention in Cuba.

“We have volunteer teams who come to help our churches with evangelism, ministry and construction as a vital part of our vision for church planting,” Gonzales said. “I believe one of the best things that has happened through the partnership is the close relationships developed between Florida Baptist churches and Cuban churches.”

The partnership between the Western Cuba and Florida Baptist Convention was established in 1997 with Florida providing funding to underwrite pastoral salary assistance and other needed projects identified by the Cuban Baptist leaders.

In 2014, Florida Baptists sent 24 teams with 176 volunteers to work with the Havana-based Convention organized in 1905, which is estimated to include a combined 2,872 churches, house churches and missions, including 62 new congregations.

Florida Baptists established a similar agreement with the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention in 2014, sending four teams with 32 volunteers to the Santiago-based Convention with 4,569 congregations.

This year, 23 teams from Florida Baptist churches are scheduled to go to Western Cuba; seven to Eastern Cuba.

“On average every 12 days a team of Florida Baptists goes to Cuba,” Craig Culbreth, lead strategist for the Convention’s Missional Support Group, said.

The volunteers are making an eternal difference as they minister in churches, lay bricks and build roofs, Gonzales said. He cited a Cuban mason hired to work alongside a Florida Baptist team who was led to the Lord through Florida Baptist volunteers. “Many of our churches have had that experience,” he said.

“I’ve seen the influence of Florida volunteers raising up lay persons to leadership and serving the Lord today as pastors in their churches,” he added.

“There are many examples of how the partnership makes a difference in reaching Cuba for Christ,” Gonzales noted. “Not only because of the financial support provided to us but also by the ministry of many American Christians who come and do ministry as part of a volunteer team.”

For the past four years, the 300-member First Baptist Church of Aurantia in Mims has worked alongside a church in Surgidero de Batabano, a small fishing village on the southern coast of Cuba with only one evangelical church.

Members from both congregations have worked together to construct a church building that the Cubans have been working on for 11 years. They expect to complete the project by 2017 or 2018.

Floridians also have preached, conducted Bible studies with adults, and led a children’s church that has touched young lives in Surgidero and neighboring villages, said Aurantia pastor Dal Cottrell, who returned from the island country Jan. 31.

The work in Cuba is “mutually beneficial” to churches in both countries, Cottrell said. “We go and provide biblical and construction materials they cannot get. While at the same time they teach us about perseverance and holiness in a society not so friendly to the Gospel. We go with a mindset of giving and serving the Cuban people but we realize after we return we receive much more than we gave.”

Team members return from the trip with “a greater desire to reach their neighbors for Christ and to better reach our own community with the Gospel,” he said.

“I see Florida Baptists as a vessel to take hope to a country in dire need of encouragement,” he said.

Steven Shelhammer, pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Cocoa, took ten members to the Cuban Baptist campground in Mantanza Jan. 9-16. Performing construction tasks by day, the group led evangelistic ministry and a children’s ministry by night.

“It was absolutely rewarding to go to share the Gospel with people who have never heard the message before. It was a blessing beyond measure,” he said.

Although initially concerned about whether church members who had never been on a mission trip would embrace the project, Shelhammer said he had little trouble filling the team of volunteers. Since the group returned to Florida this past month, more members have expressed interest in going next year.

“We now have a heart for Cuba. What God did there and here is unbelievable. We have been blessed,” Shelhammer said.

Florida Baptists’ passion to share the Gospel with Cuba has historical roots, beginning when William F. Wood of Fernandina felt called to minister to Cubans living in Key West and then became the first missionary to Cuba in 1883, sent and supported by the Florida Baptist Convention. That action set into motion a 20-year commitment by Florida Baptists to underwrite missionary efforts to Cuban populations who had migrated to Key West, Tampa and Ybor City.

Also in 1881, the State Board of Missions employed Adela Fares of Key West as a missionary to the Cubans; and commissioned Alberto Diaz in 1886 who was preaching Baptist doctrine in Havana, a rarity at that time in Catholic Cuba.

Responsibilities for Cuba were assumed by the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) in the late 1880s. But that did not stop Florida Baptists’ involvement. At the HMB’s request in 1913, Florida Baptists’ Woman’s Missionary Union corresponding secretary Charlotte Peelman travelled to Cuba to organize the first Southern Baptist WMU in the island nation.

The HMB continued to support the ministry in Western Cuba through church planting and pastor training until the 1959 Communistic takeover which forced the gradual withdrawal of 168 Southern Baptist missionaries — two of whom were imprisoned. Between 1970 and 1994 no Southern Baptist missionary effort was permitted.

Despite government persecution, Cuban Baptists kept fighting to spread the Gospel.

In 1987 the Southern Baptist work in Cuba was reassigned to the International Mission Board.

Having returned from Cuba this past September, John Holloway, strategist in Florida’s Partnership Missions Team, said he believes the country is undergoing a “transitioning.”

“Change progresses as the influence of cultures from around the globe and the growing tourism pushes change forward,” he said. “The entire country seems to be more mobile. People are on the move. A cautious optimism prevails with change on the horizon.”

The Cuban brothers in Christ continue to demonstrate a zeal for evangelism and church planting that Holloway calls “contagious and epidemic.” Church members pray and plan for Gospel advancement in the areas of church planting and strategic locations of leadership development.

In the future, Florida Baptists, who provide a large percentage of both Cuban conventions’ operating budgets from gifts to the Maguire State Mission Offering, will assist the Cubans to expand new groups, houses of prayer and investing in Bibles and discipleship materials.

And while many Cuban Baptists in the 1960s were involved politically, this generation of church leaders has always lived under a Communist government and now work within the guidelines given to them, Culbreth said.

“Young pastors are becoming more courageous and are thinking strategically about church life and how to make disciples,” Culbreth noted.

“The most visible change seems to be in the heart of the evangelical leaders nationwide as they pray and plan for their tomorrows,” Holloway said. “There is a prevailing belief that God has given Cuba a mandate to advance the Gospel and that He is orchestrating the events of Cuban history to bring about His will.”

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  • Barbara Denman/Florida Baptist Convention