Today's From the States features items from:
Kentucky Baptist Convention
Florida Baptist Witness
Arkansas Baptist News
Pastor: Hunger for God brings
Polly Ann Baptist back to life
By David Roach
EUBANK, Ky. (Kentucky Baptist Convention) -- Less than a year ago, Polly Ann Baptist Church was in trouble.
It was pastorless, had declined to 19 in worship and collected offerings of just $500 per week.
But that was last year.
Church members and pastor Terry Holt say nothing short of a supernatural revitalization has occurred within the Eubank, Ky., congregation.
After calling Holt as pastor in January, attendance grew to around 70 in worship with weekly offerings of between $1,200 and $1,400.
Best of all, Polly Ann has baptized more than 20 new believers this year. In contrast, one in five Kentucky Baptist churches reported zero baptisms in 2011 according to Annual Church Profile.
Holt says each of the new believers has demonstrated a growing faithfulness and commitment to the Lord and the church.
The revival "has nothing to do with Terry Holt," the pastor said. "It has nothing to do with the people down here other than that we love God and we want to work for God. We want to be a part of God's Kingdom work, and God responds to that."
When Holt started supply preaching for the congregation in November, he sensed something special about it. By his third visit, he said he had an intense desire to be with the people.
God placed a reciprocal feeling in the church's heart. It called him as pastor in December and he began Jan. 1. Though not receiving full-time pay, he devoted full-time hours to the work and challenged Polly Ann to exercise more corporate faith.
For instance, Holt knew there were many families nearby who did not attend church regularly. A van ministry, he decided, would be a great way to introduce the congregation to the community while giving children the opportunity to learn about Christ through Sunday School.
He asked the congregation to pray for a vehicle specifically to pick up kids -- even though no children attended the church at the time.
In response, some members suggested buying a vehicle.
Holt replied, "I don't think you understand. I think God wants to give us a van." Church members "were shocked," he said, because "the normal thing to do is go find a van and buy it."
Nonetheless, they prayed and three months later a sister church gave them a van for free. Soon 20 children were attending each Sunday.
It was among the first of many answers to prayer.
Another sign of revival came when an unusual number of senior adults in the community were responding to the Gospel.
The first was a wealthy man in his 70s who had been witnessed to many times but never responded. His wife, who attended Polly Ann, told Holt that her husband was probably not saved, and the pastor went to a local restaurant to find him.
"Within an hour the man was out on the front porch praying a sinner's prayer asking the Lord to forgive him of his sins," Holt said.
In the weeks to come, the man's two brothers and two nephews also committed their lives to Christ.
"There's just been tons of them that are above 70 years old give their hearts to Christ -- people that nobody could reach for years," Holt said.
In August, a team from Florida helped Polly Ann hold Vacation Bible School. Forty-five children attended -- a huge jump from the previous year's attendance of eight.
Three children professed faith in Christ. During VBS, Polly Ann's members visited 300 homes in Eubank, extending invitations to church. A month later, the church was still experiencing a steady stream of visitors because of that outreach effort.
Holt said the congregation's revitalization may be attributed to its hunger for God and desire to see Him work.
Even when attendance dwindled, "the people who were left in the church were a people of faith and they did have an eagerness to serve the Lord," he said, adding that they prayed for revival.
Norma Jean Combs was among those praying members. A member since 1969, she said she asked God for a year or more to rejuvenate it, expecting Him to answer.
Combs said the events of recent months have made her more excited about the Lord, and credits Holt as a major factor in the turnaround.
"He's actually brought (the church) out of nowhere into just doing great things for God," she said.
Holt is confident that the congregation will continue to see God at work. Holt himself sees signs of great things to come.
With too many people for its present building, the church needs more space. So he has been praying for a 30-foot by 60-foot multi-purpose building.
God hasn't answered yet, but not long ago, a church in South Carolina donated a baptistery to Polly Ann.
Strangely, it won't fit in their present building.
"Why would God give us baptistery that won't fit in our building unless He's going to give us a building?" the pastor asked.
David Roach, a writer in Shelbyville, Ky., wrote this article for Kentucky Baptist Communications. The KBC website is www.kybaptist.org or find "Kentucky Baptist Convention" on Facebook or follow "kentuckybaptist" on Twitter.
Fishing for souls
in Cuba's waters
By Barbara Denman
MARIEL, Cuba (Florida Baptist Convention) -- The youngsters perched on a wall overlooking the azure waters of Mariel Bay, Cuba, playfully listened to their teacher tell of Jesus' promise to Peter, "I will make you fishers of men." As if on cue, a sun weathered fisherman passed along the harbor, pushing a rugged wheelbarrow brimming with fishing nets, illustrating the claims of Christ and the persistence of men and women in the Western Cuba Baptist Convention.
From this port more than three decades ago 125,000 Cuban exiles boarded a flotilla of 1,700 boats to escape the hardships and religious persecution pressed upon them by Fidel Castro's communist government. Despite such turbulent times, Baptist congregations across the western half of the nation have remained steadfast in their commitment to follow Christ as 'fishers of men' among their people.
As a result, these Cuban brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing spiritual revival and leading a modern church planting movement. Nearly 1,600 people were led to the Lord in 2011; 2,632 were baptized. The Baptist community grew to 65,000 believers and 25 new churches were planted, increasing the government sanctioned churches to 328. Another 2,000 missions, house churches, houses of prayer and cell churches persevered to share the word of God in their communities.
Alberto Gonzales and his son David Gonzales have dedicated their lives as evangelistic fishermen in Cuba. Long time pastor Alberto Gonzales was imprisoned after the Castro-government accused the beloved pastor along with dozens of his fellow pastors, of spying for the U.S government. But despite opportunities to leave his homeland in search of a prosperous life in the U.S., Gonzales chose to remain in the country to reach his people for Christ. Having served in numerous WCBC roles, he continues today to guide a new generation of leaders born after the Communist takeover.
David Gonzales wears many hats with the WCBC -- volunteer, coordinator, publishing director and Florida Baptists' partnership missionary. He is intentional in developing a church planting strategy by identifying sites for foreign volunteer mission groups to help establish new churches.
One of those mission teams in 2012 worked in Mariel, alongside members of the Mariel Baptist Church -- and the spirited children at the wall.
Living in Cuba is filled with restrictions for Cuban families. Alberto, his wife Miriam, and David, his wife Clara, and their three children, Angelica, 6, Reuben, 7, and Dario 12, all live together in a second floor, three-bedroom apartment, located above a shop in downtown Havana. Smells from a storefront bakery permeate the non air-conditioned apartment that captures blowing winds, sounds of traffic and even a crowing rooster.
The family lives on food rations provided by the Cuban government. Because the younger Gonzales has not received permission by the government to purchase a car, the family relies on the grandfather's automobile for transportation. Each day Clara walks their children to school, and on Thursdays leads a Bible study for other mothers.
Life is especially challenging for pastors and their families, said Dennis Wilbanks, strategist for the Florida Baptist Convention Partnership Missions Team. He oversees the partnership with the WCBC and has traveled to the nation numerous times.
"In a place like Cuba which has been under Communist rule for over half a century, and where atheism is prevalent, Christians are looked upon with disdain and pastors are viewed as weak men, 'living off the people.' Consequently Christians can feel isolated and beaten down for their faith in Christ," said Wilbanks.
"Sometimes they develop an Elijah complex believing 'I am the only one' he continued. "Through the presence of Florida Baptists, they are encouraged when they realize they are not alone."
Even though only 90 miles separates the tip of Key West to the shores of Cuba, Florida Baptists have played a critical role fishing for souls in the nation.
In 1885, Florida Baptists sent the first American missionaries to Cuba. Then, nearly a century later in 1994, Florida Baptists developed a partnership with the WCBC that would include financial assistance—providing 51 percent of the WCBC's operating budget—and sending volunteers to help rebuild churches which had fallen into disrepair because of the government restrictions.
"We also encourage them by helping them rebuild their dilapidated buildings that have been neglected for over 50 years," said Wilbanks. "A construction project that might seem small to many of our churches is an impossible feat when you have nothing. With the hands, feet and funds of Florida Baptists, God is doing the impossible for the Cuban believers."
The partnership funded by gifts from Florida Baptists to the Maguire State Mission Offering, has also been one of compassion as Florida provided roofing supplies and food after hurricanes, suits for seminary students and a home for aging pastors.
The timing of the partnership in 1994 coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union, which for years had subsidized Cuba's economy and led to widespread poverty and hunger.
In a time when other mission partners were reducing funding for the WCBC, "the most sure and helpful partners to us been Florida Baptists," said the elder Gonzales. "I don't know how we would have survived at that time without Florida," he said.
"Florida Baptists have been the hand of God to supply our need in a time when others did not."
Through the Maguire State Mission Offering, Florida Baptists have joined Cuban Baptists fishing for lives and souls in the sea of hopelessness found in Cuba.
This article appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention. Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.
Sparkman pastor leads
'Never Thirst' charge
By Jennifer Bryant
SPARKMAN, Ark. (Arkansas Baptist News) -- Imagine an infant desperately needing water. Think about being that infant's parent and the only water you have is contaminated from a recent natural disaster. What would you do? This is a reality for parents in areas hit by natural disasters.
Jacob Ricker, pastor of Smead Community Church of Sparkman, was reading news articles concerning the devastation from the earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 when this question hit home to him.
"As I read this, I thought about my little girl, who was 8 weeks old at the time," shared Ricker. "I wondered what I would do if I had to make a choice of giving my little girl contaminated water or nothing? It broke my heart. I wanted to do something but didn't think I could make a difference."
During his sermon that week, he used the illustration that if each person were to buy a case of water, then they could make a difference.
"I was using this as a theoretical example, with no intent of actually doing it," Ricker stated.
But God had other plans.
"I woke up Monday morning with this idea consuming me," he shared. "I felt that the Lord was telling me to do something about it. I prayed, and I started asking people if they would take part in this effort, and the results were overwhelming."
Never Thirst is a faith-based nonprofit organization Ricker began after he felt the Lord's leading. The mission is to provide bottled water to areas that have been hit by natural disasters and to provide hope to those in need through the "life-changing message of Jesus Christ," he stated.
This ministry also allows any willing person to participate in missions because "it is easy to pass out a bottle of water," said Ricker. Some people who are interested in participating in mission opportunities aren't able to do construction work or work with children, but "anyone can pass out a bottle of water," he said.
"We talk with people as (we) hand them water and offer encouragement," he added.
One of the organization's goals is to go back to these disaster areas during rebuilding to deliver more water and share Jesus.
During disasters, people are caught up in what they have lost and are overwhelmed, said Ricker. They just need encouragement at that time, but if the group can go back during rebuilding when things have calmed down, Ricker feels there could be greater witnessing opportunities at that point.
Ricker is overwhelmed and excited by the support that has already been given to this ministry. A college friend of his contacted him and shared that a friend of hers wanted to hold an online auction off her Facebook page to raise money for Never Thirst. Another friend joined the auction, as well, and they raised $125 for the organization.
"Another way God has moved," said Ricker, "was when Wesley Lewis and the band belair. called … and wanted to help promote Never Thirst at their concerts."
"After talking with Wesley and seeing his desire to help us, I knew God had brought them to Never Thirst," stated Ricker. The band started their "Goodbye Catastrophe" Tour last summer, and it was presented by Never Thirst.
"How awesome is that," stressed Ricker. "All of their promotional material (had) Never Thirst on it. God rocks!"
Immanuel Baptist Church of Magnolia's 4:12 Student Ministry also wanted to help Never Thirst, so they decided to donate profits from their annual Mud Bowl to the organization. This year's Mud Bowl was held in August.
Ricker also shared how he spoke at two churches one Sunday and "the Lord blessed us with almost $600" being donated to the organization.
"What happened before I spoke at (one church) will always stick with me," Ricker shared. He had stopped by two homes where Never Thirst had provided water at one time. He wanted to visit with the families and see how they were doing.
One of the men shared with Ricker how much the water meant to him and his family.
"You don't know how much each bottle of water means to each of us," he said.
"I stood in awe by the power of Jesus Christ," said Ricker. He said it was amazing "that He could use Never Thirst to touch this man's life."
Later that evening, Ricker saw that the man had found Never Thirst's Facebook page and left a message.
"My wife and I received a surprise visit from Pastor Jacob Ricker this afternoon," the message said. "He asked if I remembered who he was and looked very shocked when I called out … the Never Thirst ministry.
"There are two things in life I may never forget," the message continued. "The first is that there is nothing more refreshing than a cold bottle of water, and second, is that the selfless acts of those who would drive three hours to help people clean up after a disaster is worth more than they will ever know in this life."
"This (message) touched my heart in a big way," shared Ricker. "This is the reason why Never Thirst exists, to share the love and hope found in Christ Jesus. It is such a huge blessing to us at Never Thirst to know that we have touched someone's life."
To date, Never Thirst has passed out about 25,000 bottles of water to disaster areas including, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky, in just over a year's time.
More information about the Never Thirst ministry is available at www.neverthirst4.com or on the ministry's Facebook page.
This article appeared in the Arkansas Baptist News (arkansasbaptist.org), newsjournal of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. Jennifer Bryant is the southeast correspondent for the Arkansas Baptist News.
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net