"Their sacrifices were incredible," said Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board (formerly the Home Mission Board) as he reflected upon the missionaries' ordeal in the years following the Castro-led revolution. The two men remained in prison until their release in 1969.
Ezell's March 21-23 visit -- on the eve of Pope Benedict's official stopover on the Caribbean island nation -- marked the first time an HMB/NAMB president had visited Cuba since William Tanner traveled there in 1978, more than three decades ago.
Ezell was in Cuba as a guest of the Florida Baptist Convention to attend the Western Cuba Baptist Convention's annual meeting at historic Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Havana. The building -- located around the block from the country's capital building -- originally was purchased through Annie Armstrong Mission Offering funds.
Traveling with Ezell were John Sullivan, Florida's executive director-treasurer, who preached during the WCBC annual meeting; Carlos Ferrer, NAMB vice president and chief financial officer; and Florida convention staff members Craig Culbreth and Dennis Wilbanks.
The Florida Baptist Convention has partnered with the Western Cuba Baptist Convention since 1996 and funds 51 percent of its annual operating budget, earmarking more than $1.8 million for the past 15 years to underwrite pastoral salary assistance, theological education and leader training.
For Ezell and Ferrer, the trip was the opportunity to see the foundation established by Southern Baptists' Home Mission Board when it first sent missionaries to the country in 1886. The WCBC, organized in 1905, flourished under the HMB support. Through a letter-writing campaign by home missionary Annie Armstrong, the board purchased the Calvary church property in 1888 as well as the seminary and a retirement home for senior adults to advance Cuban Baptists' mission.
Then in 1959 after the Castro-led revolution, WCBC churches were persecuted as Cuba was declared an atheistic country until 1992 when it was formally changed to "secularist."
The Communist Party's initial crackdown on the spread of Christianity drew the Cuban Baptists together as they sought to survive in a hostile regime.
Despite such adversity, in recent years the work of the WCBC grew as leaders functioned under the government's regulations and restrictions by focusing on evangelism and church planting. While much freer to worship, the government will not allow Baptists to purchase new buildings for churches or ministries.
So it was the foresight of the HMB and Cuban Baptists in purchasing buildings before the 1960s that enabled the WCBC to prosper today. Ezell said it was "inspiring to see the passion and the vision of Annie Armstrong and others to purchase such property."
"They did then what they cannot do now," he said. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Annie Armstrong offering a century ago "gave them credibility and a sense of permanence that exists today."
The HMB continued to support the ministry in Western Cuba until 1987 when Southern Baptist work in Cuba was reassigned to the International Mission Board.
Former WCBC President Victor Gonzales, a layperson and respected oncologist at University Hospital in Havana, believes the past two years have been filled with advancements for the Gospel.
"The work is doing better and better. We are still living in a revival," said Gonzales, who has mobilized the convention for the past five years by emphasizing prayer and church planting.
In the past two years, WCBC churches reportedly baptized 4,706 people and planted 60 new churches, bringing total membership to 23,000. The convention has 347 affiliated churches (churches officially recognized by the Communist Party) and at least 1,000 additional missions, house churches, houses of prayer and cell churches.
The Holy Spirit is at work in Cuba today, Gonzales told the group. A 50-day prayer emphasis held annually from Easter to Pentecost is "bringing more people to Jesus every day and revival to Cuba."
The Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention, which until recently had been served by the American Baptist Convention, now relates to the International Mission Board. IMB missionary Kurt Urbanek said the two Cuba conventions consist of nearly 7,000 churches -- 672 affiliated churches, 1,346 missions and 4,901 house churches, houses of prayer and cell churches.
The cooperation of the two conventions will be necessary to reach the 11 million Cubans for Christ, Gonzales said. With recent approval by the government to hold public rallies, even more focus will be given to church planting in the big cities, he said.
While in Cuba, Ezell and Sullivan visited Rebirth Church, a house church that meets in the three-bedroom apartment of pastor Humberto Leal. The Alamar apartments where Leal lives originally were built by the government as a model communistic community. About 1,000 Cuban families reside in the multi-storied apartment buildings located about eight miles from downtown Havana.
The church was planted when one family residing in the massive apartment complex became Christians. At the family's request, a pastor from Havana rode his bicycle 10 miles each Sunday to lead worship in their home. The congregation grew as neighbors were reached and even lent chairs for church members to use during worship and Bible study.
When the congregation grew to over 200, the government forced the church to downsize and disperse into several other apartments. Now five constituted churches are located in the apartment buildings, evangelizing and ministering to families throughout the community.
Leal's church serves as the official church and the umbrella for the other congregations. Each Sunday as many as 80 people attend Rebirth Church, holding Sunday School and new member classes in the bedrooms and small den, while worshipping in the home's covered patio.
David Gonzales, WCBC liaison with the Florida convention, said this type of church multiplication is an example of what is taking place throughout Cuba, noting, "We are able to saturate and penetrate communities with the Gospel through this kind of hybrid church planting strategy."
The model is especially crucial today as the government will not allow new churches to be built or purchase property, Gonzales said. Even renovations of existing buildings must receive approval from the authorities, a long and tedious process.
The group also visited Getsemani Church in Guanabo, a seaside community east of Havana where 70 believers meet weekly in the backyard of a renovated carpenter's shop. With the words "Solo Cristo Salva" -- only Christ saves -- emblazoned across the front door, the church has started three house churches in the community, pastor Moisés Redondo said.
The three-day trip was unforgettable for Ferrer, the NAMB vice president, who was born in Cuba and left at age 10 when his family's property was seized after the revolution. The exiled family eventually settled in California where home missionaries led them to Christ.
"I came here with a spirit of wanting to help the Cuban people," Ferrer said. "But I leave humbled about what their plans are for the future -- and their accomplishments in the past."
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.
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