August 28, 2012
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 who were 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 has 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.