Today's From the States features items from:
Florida Baptist Witness
Baptist Message (Louisiana)
The Christian Index (Georgia)
Tampa church planter returns to
native Cuba to teach church leaders
By Carolyn Nichols
TAMPA, Fla. (Florida Baptist Witness) -- Othoniel Valdes left Cuba in 1968 as an 11-year-old whose father was imprisoned for his faith. This summer he returned for the first time to the nation of his birth as a teacher and preacher. The trip sparked a desire in Valdes to plant churches in his homeland.
Valdes, who works as a church planter with the Tampa Bay Baptist Association, travelled to Cuba with a team of Floridians to train pastors and lay leaders in the western part of the nation, the first time a LifeWay Christian Resources team had offered training in Havana. Team members were Valdes and his wife, Carmen; Rafael and Clysta DeArmas, former director of missions in the Peace River Baptist Association; and Carlos and Ericka Ludwig, pastor of Igreja Batista da Paz, a Brazilian congregation in the Tampa Bay association.
The men of the team taught a three-day leadership conference attended by 70 from 11 churches, including nine pastors, and their wives encouraged women in the local congregations. The team worked with Pastor Ivan Elio, "LifeWay's go-to guy in Cuba," Valdes said.
More than a decade ago Valdes volunteered to be a part of a Florida Baptist Convention team exploring the possibility of a partnership with the Cuban Baptist Association, but he was advised that his presence—as a Cuban native—might create problems for the team. Valdes put returning to Cuba on hold until last year when a missions conference at Bell Shoals Baptist Church put him in contact with a Cuban pastor who told him of the LifeWay projects in Cuba.
"There was no reason to be involved before because I could not go. This time I could go, and it was for evangelism and teaching," Valdes said.
When Valdes left Cuba with his mother, Carmen, and his three siblings, the family left behind their father, the late Benjamin Valdes, a pastor who worked with the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board). He had served three years of a 12-year prison term as a political prisoner. The HMB, along with First Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., sponsored the family, allowing them to exit Cuba. They flew to Spain, and eventually to Georgia.
"Thank God we were allowed to leave. This is my home now," Valdes said with a Spanish accent laced with a Georgia drawl. "I say that I am a Cuban redneck from Marietta."
Benjamin Valdes eventually joined his family in the U. S. after his release from prison, and they moved to south Florida, where the elder Valdes served as pastor of Coral Park Baptist Church and Gethsemane Baptist Church, both in Miami.
Othoniel Valdes' May 26-June 2 return to Cuba brought back only one memory of living on the island, he said. Now 55, Valdes recalled driving with his father on a "long avenue next to the port." He had hoped to return to the Yumuri Campground where his family vacationed, but the river was out of its banks, preventing driving into the area.
He said he was never concerned about his safety in Cuba.
"I wasn't sure I would be granted a religious Visa to travel, but, after I got that, there was nothing to fear," he said.
Valdes was pleased to find Baptist work in Cuba thriving.
"Baptist churches are very strong, aggressive and evangelistic. It was impressive," he said.
Valdes was also impressed by the evangelistic fervor of a layman with whom he made visits in Bejucal. The man took off work to make visits with Valdes, one of which was to a friend in prison. The inmate is the reason the Christian man remains in his community, Valdes said.
"His childhood friend is not a Christian and has lived a difficult life. We told him the plan of salvation, but his heart is hard," he said. "It was one of the saddest things I saw—the power of the evil one."
The need for churches in Cuba did not go unnoticed by Church Planter Valdes. He hopes to one day plant congregations in Matanzas, the western Cuban city where he attended church with his family as a child. The city was his father's hometown.
"This is one of Cuba's largest provinces—a 250,000 population with just one church. My connection with the city is not casual. It is no coincidence," he said.
Although relatives he knew as a child are now deceased, Valdes and a second cousin now living in south Florida are talking about traveling to Cuba together.
"I wasn't interested in going back before now, but now I know I can go back with something to help. There is a reason for me to be involved there," he said.
This article originally appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention. Carolyn Nichols is a newswriter for the Florida Baptist Witness.
First Ville Platte
team brings Gospel to India
By Rachel Ortego, Special to the Message
VILLE PLATTE, La. (Baptist Message) -- Undaunted by the task of bringing the gospel to regions of India where only 2 percent of the people are Christian, eight members of First Baptist Church in Ville Platte, La., packed sausage, roux and Bible lessons for a 10-day missionary trip to the area of Valiveru, India, in late May.
The trip was physically tasking and adventurous and brought them under close scrutiny by the Indian police, participants said.
"Two years ago, a missionary trip like this was in none of our immediate or even long-range plans, yet God moved mightily through a new church member, Suresh Chiruguru, who joined the church in 2010," said Pastor Kevin West. "Suresh was on fire for mission work, specifically to support and encourage the little church from his home town in India where Christians were meeting in a dirt-floor hut with no air conditioning."
Chiruguru was ordained as pastor of evangelism and missions at First Ville Platte, and Revival for All Ministries (RFAM) was birthed in a rent house on a back street in Ville Platte.
"Suresh began to work with his Christian brothers back home to forge a connection with First Baptist in every way possible," West said. "Prayer meetings were held on Skype, videos shared and a newsletter was published. When the time came, we were able to step out in faith for this mission trip that changed lives at both sides of the globe.
"It is one thing to hear about what the Holy Spirit can do on a mission trip but it's another thing to see it," the pastor continued. "It brought home to me what the first church in Acts must have been like. Even with opposition, they love the Lord and expect miracles to happen. They expect God to move. In America we go through programs rather than have expectations that God will show up and move."
Pastor West said pastors of all Christian denominations attended the pastor's conference on core values that First Ville Platte led in India in late May.
"They are not begging for handouts but want to learn how to stay the course and persevere," West said. "They are begging God to move."
Pastor Kevin is no stranger to people in the church in India. His Sunday sermons in Ville Platte are translated in Telugu and broadcast to the church where women in colorful saris fill the floor in prayer and the men serve dutifully. Pastor John Babu Moparthy leads the congregation in India of about 500-700 on Sundays.
Since the inception of RFAM, the 500-member church in the struggling neighborhood of Valiveru has moved its worship services from a thatch-roofed, door-less hut to a beautiful stone building made possible mainly by offerings from First Baptist Church in Ville Platte. Within these walls, Indian pastors are allowed to preach, but foreigners are forbidden to bring the gospel message.
On the First Ville Platte mission team's second day in India, the arrest of a local political leader made the danger very real. The man was Hindu, but converted to Christianity and supports Christian communities and churches. Routinely, Indian police would visit the church during the mission trip, asking about the purpose of the Americans' visit.
"We were very concerned that we would not be able to continue with our work, but the Lord prevailed," Chiruguru said.
"The Christians of India put us to shame with their faith and conviction," said Sunday school director Neil Ortego, one of the members of the mission team to India. "We take so much for granted here. They don't, and they are the most servant-minded people you will ever meet. So many of them are poor, but they are content and happy in the Lord."
"If you want to meet a Christian, go to India," said Lance Bertrand, another one of the short-term missionaries, speaking in a church service upon their return. At another point in his talk, he said, "Hinduism made me mad - seeing things like no funding for schools if you were Christian - but looking through God's word made me see that we need to hate the sin and love the sinner."
A newsletter with articles from Ville Platte church staff members and West's Sunday messages, translated from English to Telugu, are distributed bimonthly in and out of the state of Andhra Pradesh to Telugu-reading communities.
"When we started publishing the newsletter people were so hungry for the gospel message," Chiruguru explained. "We bumped the circulation from 500 to 750, then 1,000 and they kept asking for more. Right now, we print 3,000 copies and we still cannot keep up with the demand."
While in India, the Cajuns joined the local clergy to visit the sick, aged and poor in the area; enjoyed a high school celebration and the birth of a new baby, ordained two pastors and taught the pastors' wives and families how to bar-be-que and make gumbo.
The group also held a conference for pastors and deacons, conducted regular church services, and led a children's vacation Bible school and youth service.
This article originally appeared in the Baptist Message (baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
Shorter's venue for
sharing the Gospel
By J. Gerald Harris
KINGSTOWN, Saint Vincent -- Shorter University and Carterville's Tabernacle Baptist Church invaded the beautiful island of Saint Vincent with basketballs and Bibles on a recent mission trip.
Saint Vincent is the largest island of the Grenadines, a chain of over 600 islands in the Windward Islands. The beautiful tropical island, discovered by Christopher Columbus on his third voyage in 1498, is composed of partially submerged volcanic mountains.
The island has a population of approximately 120,000 people and Kingstown is the largest town on Saint Vincent. The Anglican Church has more adherents than any other religious body, but the presence of voodoo superstitions accentuate the spiritual needs of the island.
Tabernacle, having partnered with Saint Vincent's Baptist Convention for several years, has assisted in church planting efforts, Vacation Bible Schools, and community service, endeavoring in all things to be the hands and feet of Christ.
When Steve McCombs, missions minister for Tabernacle, and Sabrena R. Parton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and member of Tabernacle, approached Donald Dowless, president of Shorter University, about joining the church in the mission effort to Saint Vincent, Dowless responded in the affirmative without hesitation and provided the resources to make it happen. The Shorter president and his wife, Teresa, also became a part of the mission team.
Dowless commented, "Shorter's partnership with Tabernacle Baptist Church in this mission trip was a natural outgrowth of our goal to provide spiritual as well as academic training and represents our view that Jesus Christ is Lord in every area of life. Our students returned home energized and excited, having seen the power of God demonstrated in their lives."
Parton added, "There were 28 of us on the mission trip and we all loved each other, teased each other, supported each other and prayed for each other. Steve made all the arrangements for travel, lodging, meals, camps, and games. He is gifted and is the perfect mission's pastor and leader of college students. The students loved him.
"I had the privilege of serving as the Shorter organizer - making sure everyone had their passports, were fed, safe, and got where they needed to be. Dr. and Mrs. Dowless and Dr. Hattaway (pastor of Tabernacle Church and vice president of the Shorter trustees) helped wherever needed. All of us took turns giving morning (7:30 a.m.) and evening (11 p.m.) devotions to the group."
The primary objective of the mission trip was to use basketball as a tool for sharing Jesus with the lost on Saint Vincent's and Union Island, a smaller island about a 4½-hour catamaran ride south of the big island. Interestingly, Shorter's men's basketball team finished third in the nation in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the women's team made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Thankfully, the teams' prowess on the basketball court was matched by their passion for Christ in the Grenadines.
Since the basketball games became the primary venue for presenting the Gospel, the entire mission team spent a lot of time inviting the Islanders to the games.
Parton remarked, "We went up to fruit stands and talked to owners. We walked through towns and rural areas and invited everyone we saw to our ballgames. Steve McCombs and two Shorter basketball players, Chelsea Matthews and DeVance Harris, shared their testimonies to the elementary school and middle school students on Union Island.
"At basketball camp, the mission team walked and prayed over the basketball courts before the camp and before the night games. At halftime of each game one of the players would share a testimony and devotion.
"While the women's team played their game, the men's team, Dr. and Mrs. Dowless, and the Tabernacle team worked the audience in the stands and those standing around the courts. We passed out embroidery threads of three colors in sandwich bags to children and would help them make bracelets, necklaces and also let them braid our hair as we talked about Jesus and God's Word.
"When the men's team played we did the same thing. We didn't just sit and watch the teams; we worked the crowd for Jesus. Tabernacle supplied an electronic scoreboard for the games and left the scoreboard there on the island for them to use after we left.
"After the games were over, our men's team gave their basketball shoes and shirts to the Island players to keep.
Vic Mitchell, Shorter University women's basketball head coach, remarked, "The trip was everything we thought it would be and more. We had one player accept Christ and get baptized during the week and I believe we all got closer to Christ. As a team we were able to bond together in a remarkable way and I have no doubt that camaraderie will carry over with our team this upcoming season."
Parton added, "The reason we took the men's and women's basketball teams was to give them the opportunity to conduct a basketball camp for all ages, play island teams in basketball games at night, and speak in the elementary and middle schools.
"Through these avenues, we shared devotions, testimonies, and evangelistic services with the players and islanders. We walked through the towns and villages each day and invited people to attended.
"We each had personalized cards that we gave to the islanders each night. These contained our pictures, testimonies, favorite Bible verses, physical birthdays, the date of our new birth in Jesus, hobbies, and email addresses.
"I have taught many of the students that went on this trip," explained Parton. "I had the great pleasure of seeing Shelby Farrar, a student of mine for two years and a women's basketball player, ask Christ into her heart and want to be baptized. Dr. Hattaway baptized her on Friday in the Caribbean ocean off Union Island."
Hattaway added, "The Shorter students did a phenomenal job of ministering to the people of Saint Vincent and Union Island. Their loving outreach impacted people of all ages. Watching them interact in the schools, on the courts, and in the streets was a blessing beyond description.
"I was equally excited to hear Dr. Dowless preach a powerful Gospel message at Kingstown Baptist Church. Georgia Baptists can celebrate what God is doing at and through Shorter University."
Jay Davis, Shorter basketball player, stated, "Going on the trip to Saint Vincent helped me to realize that Shorter is a caring university and the caring stretches far beyond the city of Rome."
Tabernacle has been going to the island for almost four years now to engage in various mission projects. The continuing relationship is significant. Parton explained, "The islanders were happy to see Steve and Dr. Hattaway again. Dr. Hattaway could point to different people and tell the story of how he introduced him or her to Christ. They remembered him and it was like lost friends seeing each other again.
"The islanders are used to people popping in for a week, leaving, and never coming back. So they take less interest in their message. But, because Tabernacle has been going to the island for almost four years now to host Vacation Bible Schools and other initiatives, the people were most receptive us. We had instant credibility. They begged us to come back."
Parton concluded, "There were three truths made evident as a result of this trip. First, we discovered anew that God will equip you for the task. The trip was physically demanding, especially for the players.
"The mission trip included lengthy and difficult travel, a scarcity of water, long hours, extreme heat, and even seasickness, but none of that deterred us. God gave us energy and enthusiasm for spreading His Word among the people.
"Second, we also learned that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Regardless of what we had or didn't have God gave us joy. The fact that there was no television, no social media and no Internet didn't dampen our spirits. Although some were stung by sea urchins and others got blisters and we all got plenty sweaty, we sang all the time. We forgot about everything but sharing Jesus and loving each other.
"Finally, we learned that to love Jesus is to desire to tell others about His wonderful grace. Our team found out experientially what it means to be Acts 1:8 Christians.
"DeVance Harris, nicknamed 'Big D' because he is so tall he can dunk a basketball, wants to go on another mission trip. Shelby Farrar, who was baptized, wants to learn more about how to study the Bible. Eric Nix wants to travel the world using basketball as his tool for sharing Jesus.
"Courtney Trippe is going back in August to do her missions internship by helping associational missionary David Franklin with SPLASH St. Vincent. Blake Selland had little girls rubbing their hands through his hair and putting it in pigtails as he shared the message of Christ with them. Karisma Boykin had a following of little boys who fought to sit with her and on her lap while they watched the men's team play.
"Teresa Dowless shared with children how much Jesus loves them and worked with them to make bracelets and necklaces. Drs. Dowless and Hattaway played ball and worked the crowds sharing Jesus.
"I am proud to work for a Christian university that is proud to share Jesus, and under the leadership of our new president, seeks to exalt the Lord. I'm grateful to be an administrator at a GBC university committed to Christ and academic excellence."
This article originally appeared in The Christian Index (christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index.
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