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U.S. medical vols, Cuban convention create channel for humanitarian aid

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–The Baptist Medical-Dental Fellowship is making plans to send to Cuba medical supplies, textbooks and witnessing tools, building upon the work of six medical volunteers who spent a week in the country last November.
“This is a great opportunity to establish relationships with the health professionals of Cuba,” said James D. Williams, executive director of the BMDF, a group of 1,750 health professionals in 43 states and seven countries.
The U.S.-Cuban diplomatic front is easing, Williams said. Of the longstanding U.S. embargo, he explained, “Our government has opened up relations with Cuba that now make it possible to provide humanitarian assistance.”
The six-member BMDF team’s fact-finding trip was at the invitation of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba. The Baptist volunteers met with 100 Baptist health-care workers at Havana’s McCall Baptist church and made stops at Cuban hospitals at the capital and Cienfuego on the western coast.
“They have wonderfully trained health-care workers, but nothing with which to practice their craft,” said Charles Walker, who led the group and is Baptist Student Union director at Louisiana State University’s medical school.
“The list of needs covered everything from proper shoes and uniforms to medicines and medical supplies,” Walker said.
The BMDF plans to send a 20-foot container of medicines and medical supplies in March.
“It is very important to have a formal invitation from Cuban Baptists and a willingness to work through the churches that are there,” explained Fred Loper, who went on the trip as a North American Mission Board missionary and family practitioner from Trinity International Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
Among the medical needs identified, Loper said, are:
1) donations of pharmaceuticals and equipment — especially autoclaves, diagnostic ultrasound, mammography units, laboratory equipment.
2) donations of up-to-date textbooks for the medical library being created at the Cuban convention’s seminary.
3) people willing to travel to Cuba to lead medical education seminars and lead discipleship workshops.
4) donations of money to use in shipping supplies to Cuba.
“It represents a unique opportunity for the Baptist Medical Dental Fellowship,” Williams said. “In responding, we will work cooperatively with the International Mission Board and with the Florida Baptist Convention.”
In 1997, the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba had 147 churches, 218 missions and 13,528 members.
Last March, President Clinton eased some of the embargo’s restrictions and allowed Cuban Americans to send up to $1,200 a year to family members in the island nation, while nonprofit organizations could begin sending medicine. According to CNN, Clinton expanded those allowances recently to allow any U.S. citizen to send funds, resumption of direct mail, more flights and a streamlined process for groups seeking approval for a visit.
“They’re in a great need for simple medicine,” said Walter Sandusky Jr., an orthodontist from First Baptist Church, Memphis, Tenn., who went on the fact-finding trip.
The BMDF team took in 200 pounds of antibiotics, vitamins and hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes, under a U.S. permit for humanitarian aid.
“Life is hard for Cubans,” added Walker, from First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La. “Doctors don’t have stethoscopes. Doctors don’t have blood pressure cuffs,” he continued. “Go to an ear doctor and he’d write a prescription. But the pharmacist wouldn’t have it, and the people couldn’t buy or afford it.”
Walker said the BMDF needs samples and donated antibiotics, asthma medicine and medication for diabetes, heart problems and fungal infections.
“We are distributing this medicine through Baptist medical and dental professionals,” he noted.
The 20-foot container will go to the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba, which will pass it on to churches who will give the supplies to health professionals.
“We want the word to get out that Baptists have medicine,” Walker said. “The specific intent is to share good news and strengthen Baptist churches.”
Restrictions against Christians also have eased in the communist nation. “They can preach in the churches,” said Frank Moreno, the BMDF team’s interpreter. “But they are not allowed to give tracts on the street or tell people publicly about Christ.”
Moreno, who has been to Cuba six times in the last two years, directs the Florida Baptist Convention’s Hispanic and international church-planting department.
“For a number of years the Baptist people had felt alone in Cuba,” Moreno said. “It is a joy to see a group of people from the BMDF helping in a very practical way and being concerned about our brethren there.”
For more information, call the BMDF at (901) 227-5971 or e-mail to [email protected].

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  • Clay Renick