If at first you don’t succeed . . .

try, try, try, try again

Signing agreement with EliseoTrip #54 was one of the most memorable ever. Not only because of what was accomplished in Cuba, but because of how many tries it took us to actually get there! If you have been praying for us during the past several weeks, thank you! We have needed your prayers more than ever.

Celia and I had tickets to travel on May 16th, and our itinerary had us scheduled at important ACTION- sponsored events such a the Elim Bible Institute and the Leadership degree program. However, just hours before leaving for the airport Celia had a severe medical issue that required immediate attention, which postponed our trip. She felt better over the next couple of days, so by faith we re-booked our trip for May 20th. Unfortunately, Celia had a relapse and we canceled that trip. As she gained strength, she encouraged me to travel to Cuba by myself, to at least make it there in time for the final event. I bought tickets for May 28th, but then my head cold turned into a bad case of bronchitis and I could not go.

That was “strike three” and we decided to spend a a couple of weeks resting, seeking medical treatment, and getting healthy. Regaining our strength and trusting that “the fourth time’s the charm,” Celia and I then re-booked our tickets to travel to Cuba on the evening of June 15th. We took our kids out for lunch that day but at the restaurant

I had a terrible coughing spell that made me weak and dizzy. Our son Alex drove us home and I headed straight to bed. We missed our flight that day, as well.

At this point we had canceled the trip four times and had racked up over $2,000 dollars in ticket change fees. We didn’t feel any pressure to keep trying, nor were we embarrassed to keep notifying our team of our cancellations. It just all felt a bit surreal, to the point of being absurd. I didn’t sense any confirmation that God was closing the door, so after resting for a couple more days, Celia and I finally boarded a plane for Cuba on Father’s Day June 18th — our fifth try. We arrived in Havana more than a month later than scheduled, but the important thing was we made it!

At this point we were only able to stay for a week, but what a week it was! We spent quality time with each of our national team members individually, had a four-hour team meeting, signed an important agreement with a partner denomination (pictured above), delivered project funds and needed supplies, met with several pastors in order to confirm our September 2017 and January-February 2018 plans, and celebrated a good friend’s birthday.

Thank you again for praying for us. It made the difference in us finally getting there!

“Back to Baracoa” a success!

Thank you for helping hurricane victims

20170429_094004Thank you for praying — the “Back to Baracoa” project ended up reaching even more churches than we had planned! ACTION Cuba’s team of five led by Ayán Zamora had hoped to visit 20 congregations, but things went so smoothly they were able to increase that to 25. Churches from the following denominations were blessed: Baptist, Christian Pentecostal, Methodist, Assemblies of God, and Pinos Nuevos (New Pines).

Both the truck and the jeep made it through all the checkpoints and challenging terrain with no problem, and all the materials were delivered, which included 20 bikes, 500 Bibles, 500 sets of 8 devotional and Bible-study books, about 15,000 Eternal Answers tracts, clothing, shoes, and reading glasses.

Please praise God with us; this is no small accomplishment. We are so grateful to be able to serve His people in this way.

Ayán wrote, “We arrived unexpectedly at one pastor’s home and he could not believe we were going to give him a bike for his ministry. He said that in the 21 years he has been a pastor no one had ever given him a gift like that. All these years he has been traveling on foot to visit all the families in the church.”

Ayán also commented, “Perhaps, if funds are available, we could return in the summer and host special appreciation luncheons for the pastors in each of these towns. That would be a great encouragement to the churches.”

Thank you for giving and praying to make this possible!

Refreshing generosity

Imagine you are on a hike on a hot and dry day. There are no trees for shade, so as you press forward on the dusty path the blazing sun stings your shoulders and the back of your neck. It is approaching mid-afternoon and you have already been on the trail for a few hours. Your throat is starting to close and your lips are a bit parched. You feel dry, and you feel exhausted.

Just then, as you around a bend on the path, a friend is waiting for you with a smile and some encouraging words. “Great hike so far! Keep at it, you’re doing great!” But your friend offers you more than a welcome pep talk. He hands you a tall, cold glass of water. With a pat on the back and a quick prayer, your friend sends you on your way again, but now you notice a new bounce in your step, almost like when the hike began.

This image comes to mind as I attempt to create a word picture to describe the impact of your generosity toward our Cuban brethren. It is a depiction of what you are accomplishing in real life when refresh pastors and church leaders in Cuba through your giving, prayer, and encouragement.

Your generosity to those who serve Christ is never small, never simply a drop in the bucket of overwhelming need. No! It is a source of refreshment and encouragement to a real person whom the Lord loves and calls his own. As such, your generosity is eternally memorialized by Christ Himself in the form of future blessings, for he says in the last verse of Matthew 10, “Whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.”

Allow me to give you a practical example. This month our Bikes for Pastors project received a $6,000 gift from the USA and a $15 gift from Botswana. Both are treasured by the Lord and both givers will receive their reward from Him! Any act of kindness to a hard-working servant of the Lord accomplishes much on the earth and additionally makes a deposit for future withdrawal in Heaven. A double blessing!

This is not meant to be a fundraising message. Rather, this is a thank you for your refreshing generosity, and a reminder to not grow weary in doing good, not in Cuba nor in all the other places God has connected you to.

Back in the midfield again

The changing nature of our ministry

20170127_172503_resizedI took the picture as I was leaving the soccer field after 2 hours and 20 minutes of playing 4 vs 4 with a group of guys young enough to be my children. My legs were sore for three days afterward, but I scored a couple of goals and consoled myself with the fact that I was 22 years older than the next youngest person on the field.

I enjoyed playing competitive soccer for 17 years, from the age of six until my first son was born. I always played as a midfielder. In the midfield, you’re not only looking to make a quick pass forward in order to send one of the strikers in on goal, but you’re always moving into open spaces in order to support those forwards in case they get into trouble and need to pass the ball backwards to you. I remember always scanning the field in front me to see whether I should push up or stay back. Above all I needed to be constantly moving into an open position so that if anyone needed to find me with a pass I would be available to help and then move the ball forward myself.

Right now, after 16 years in Cuba and 53 trips, I would describe my ministry position with regards to Pastoral Leadership Development as being back in the midfield. There is a lot going on in the field these days and I am scanning the position of all the other players so that I can move into the spot that is most advantageous for my team.

What I mean by that is that in the year 2000 when I made my first trip, I arrived in cities where I was one of the first American visitors to the church in many years. The church had been isolated for decades and it was clear to me that we should host very large conferences in order to respond to their needs and desires. The majority of the conferences and discipleship camps we did in the early part of our ministry were for between 300 and 500 people. ACTION had a crucial role to play in those years when it took great perseverance and effort to arrange such large and edifying events for a church hungry for theological training.

After 16 years, though, the church has received a great deal of theological training and now I am seeing many large groups, primarily from United States, rushing into Cuba in order to host the same sort of very large conferences that we were doing 16 years ago. As I look over the field and see what position our team should be in to be the best support possible, I definitely feel that as other groups are going large we should be going small.

Our strategy has definitely changed over the years, especially as we have developed very strong relationships with many groups. Most often we are now holding interactive training sessions for between 20 and 75 pastors and leaders. We are reaching fewer people but for a greater length of time and having a deeper impact. And our event budgets have dropped from perhaps an average of $5000 to closer to $900.

I must admit that I am quite concerned that many large groups are flooding into Cuba and loading all the denominations up it with all sorts of programs and projects. It is very hard for the Cuban church to say “no,” but American involvement in the Cuban church may be quickly reaching a point of saturation in some areas of ministry. And every one of these projects comes with the American church’s logo and the American church’s songs and the American church’s curriculum. Perhaps there is a lack of recognition for the history of the Cuban church and what their actual needs are at the present moment.

I praise God that most of my best friends live in Cuba and there’s plenty to do alongside them and their valuable ministries. But ACTION Cuba has definitely have moved from a large work to a smaller and deeper type of ministry.

On my most recent trip, we had 75 students at the Elim Bible Institute and 23 students at the new one-year Leadership degree program. Then we had 60 university students for a weekend discipleship retreat, about 65 pastors for a three-day conference, and 26 chaplains for a two-day workshop.

This is our team’s game plan for victory and I’m glad to be wearing the captain’s armband and patrolling the midfield to see how I can best support our team. Thank you so much for not staying on the sidelines but being right here with us so that we can give the practical and needed help that these very godly men and women leading the Cuban church have requested. Trust me, if God gave you the privilege of knowing them like I do, you would do whatever was in your power to take care of them. Since you haven’t met them, I thank you for being willing to proceed by faith through me and the ACTION Cuba team.

— Brian Stewart, Director

PS. Speaking of soccer: God blessed me in an amazing way by allowing me to meet Spanish soccer great David Villa in the Miami airport on my way home. David was very nice and even had the patience to show me how to take a selfie; this was my first ever!

With David Villa in the Miami airport

With David Villa in the Miami airport

“Leggo my ego”

Are you familiar with that slogan from Eggo brand frozen waffles, “Leggo my Eggo”? Well, in recent days I have been asking the Lord to help me “let go my ego.” Let me explain.

The moment I became a follower of Jesus years ago was when I was reading the Bible and I 1) I believed He was God in the flesh and 2) believed that He washed His disciples’ feet on the evening preceding His death.

That was it for me. I realized He was the God and Leader I had been looking for. I remember that part of my thinking was, He is a leader I will follow because He is the ultimate hero but He doesn’t act like a hero. There can be a heroic aspect to martyrdom, something gloriously self-sacrificial in dying on the cross in the place of others. But there is nothing heroic or glorious in performing menial tasks for others. Nontheless the washing of feet, behind closed doors, out of the public eye, was the example He gave to His inner circle. And it was the example He specifically asked them to repeat in their dealings with one another. (Wash, dry, repeat… sounds like laundry instructions more than discipleship, but you get the idea.)

Author Jan Hettinga says in his excellent book The Safe King, which we are getting ready to publish in Cuba:

Jesus is the one safe leader because He has no ego entwined in His love for us . . .
[it’s as though He says to us] “I have your best interest at heart. I will not take advantage
of you because I’m stronger or smarter than you are.”

However, it is truly a challenge to follow this example of our Lord! One would think that after 20 years of missionary service I would be more truly humble in the innermost recesses of my heart, but it seems that my ego has been down there secretly popping steroid pills all this time. To paraphrase Scripture, “The spirit is willing, but the ego is too strong.” Too strong and too desirous of being right, of being thanked, of being recognized.

I was reflecting on these things last month during our ACTION Cuba team retreat. Our family had the privilege of traveling down with Randy Alcorn and his wife, Nanci. We had a great time with them at the retreat and then Randy spoke at a Bible School and at a Purity Rally for about 700 people. I was really paying attention to how Randy interacted with people (at least, when he wasn’t underwater, because during free time each day he would go snorkeling for hours!)

Randy is someone who has authored a million-seller and also a book that sold two million copies. Some of his friends are professional athletes and nationally-known celebrities, and Randy is sort of a celebrity in his own right. But if you didn’t know that you would never guess it.

I was prepared for someone of his stature to be a Bible expert and to teach with authority. And I anticipated that he would be one of the best speakers I had ever taken down to Cuba. But I had not expected him to spend so much quality time with my kids, as though they were NFL quarterbacks and movie stars! Randy was eager to chat with whoever the Lord put in his path and was intentional about reaching out to people.

I am thankful that we not only have the Lord’s example to follow, but that of mature Christians like Randy as well. For those of us who are still trying to “leggo of their ego” it is a helpful challenge for us to be around people who are “someone” but who truly act like “the servant of all.” May the Lord help all of us to reflect His example of ego-less love.

Give a pastor a bike for only $169

Bikes for delivery in JuneWould you spend a year’s salary on a car?

Depending on what you make in a year, it may be that you would. After all, transportation is an essential part of our family and work life. Where my wife and I live, for example, public transportation just doesn’t get us everywhere we need to go.

But would you spend a years’ salary on a bike?

Unless you are a professional rider gearing up for the Tour de France I assume you would not!

Amazingly, in Cuba a pastor or church-planter in a rural area would have to do exactly that. In order to purchase a bicycle he would have to save up an amount equivalent to his annual income.

Though I have been to Cuba 51 times, it is still hard to believe that families can live on $10 or $12 or $15 per month. Though pastors of larger churches now make as much as $40 or $50 per month, smaller, newly-formed, and rural churches can only afford to pay their pastors a small amount. For many of these pastors, buying a bike is way beyond their means. Though spiritually they have abundant life in Christ, financially speaking their families are always on survival mode.

In response to this need, several years ago ACTION missionaries Keith & Marilyn Kaynor began giving out bikes during their annual trips to the island. The project began slowly, but now that we have three Cuban families working with us full-time the number of bikes being delivered to pastors and church planters is amazing. In just the last 30 days our team has delivered 30 bikes!

As this project has grown, thankfully our costs have declined. We used to purchase bikes one or two at a time. Recently, however, as the picture at the top of this letter shows, we have been buying several at a time. It now costs us only $169 to purchase a bike and deliver it to a needy pastor.

You and I may think of bikes as recreational accessories, but for the recipients in Cuba they are basic transportation. Their lives are so different from ours that it is hard for me to explain the importance of this, so I will let the pastors speak for themselves. On the next page are some pictures and testimonies that will touch your heart. This is a life-changing gift you can make to a dedicated servant of Christ.

Please click here to donate.

Thank you and God bless you!

Thank you for praying for us

Svein prayingPrayer is such a crucial part of any ministry that seeks to extend the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ!

You may recall how in the Old Testament Daniel prayed to God for wisdom, a request that was heard “since the first day.”

Yet Daniel had to keep praying and seeking God for three weeks until a full response came, because, according to an angelic messenger, “the prince. . . resisted me 21 days.”

Though I am certainly no Daniel, nor are my requests as historically important as his, I gather from this passage that sometimes even God’s granting of our prayers is delayed due to enemy opposition. One must keep praying, keep seeking, keep fighting.

What an encouragement, then, to know that our ACTION Cuba team is not alone, and you are joining us in prayer! Thank you for standing alongside us in the spiritual battle. Your prayers are valuable ammunition on behalf of these struggles of ours to extend God’s kingdom.

Your prayers make a difference when the good things we ask for are delayed by wicked beings who, though maintaining some power in the current age, will eventually be punished before your eyes. Until that time, let us believe that our Champion has descended into the valley and defeated their champion, and that now we can, like the Israelites after David held up Goliath’s head, “surge forward with a shout” as the enemy flees. For us that shout, that battlecry, is prayer. Thank you again for being part of the battlecry for Cuba.

The photo above shows team member Svein Bjorge praying alongside the students and faculty of the Elim Bible Institute during our trip last month. His arm rests on the shoulders of one of the students who had just completed a 60-day missions trip to Brazil. For some years now, Cuba has been sending pastors out of the country on missions trips; the problem has been that most of them never came back. As the church matures, from time to time we now meet zealous young men who see their country not as a prison to be escaped but rather a spiritual home base from which to be launched.

The battlecry of the church has long been “Cuba para Cristo” (Cuba for Christ). Now it is blossoming into what I might describe as “Cuba para Cristo; Cristo para el Mundo” (Cuba for Christ; Christ for the World).

As we continue to serve alongside the church, please continue to pray for us, and for them, that we would all experience victory as we extend God’s kingdom anywhere and everywhere He leads.

Will you pray for my little friend Kendry?

IMG_1624Celia and I met Kendry during our October trip. Though we meet and pray for numerous children on each hospital visit, that time there was an immediate rapport with a young boy named Kendry and his mom because he and I look like we could be related. There are not many blonde, blue-eyed boys in Cuba!

Hospital staff noticed the bond that was created and they wrote me emails to keep me updated. The Hope of Life team noticed as well, and as soon as each one greeted me last week their next comment was, “Tu amiguito Kendry no está bien.” One dear sister on the team even said, “prepare yourself to see Kendry in the final phase of his life.”

When we did get to see Kendry last week, he had been moved from his regular room and was now in one of the two very large rooms at the end of the hall. These rooms are not an upgrade. These are the palliative care rooms, the “we’ve done all we can and we will just try to keep your child as pain-free as we can” rooms.

The cancer had distorted Kendry’s appearance to such an extent that he looked like an alien. His head was very swollen and his eyes seemed to be pushed forward. He had lost his hair, and all the veins in his head were very pronounced, as if someone had drawn blue lines on his pale skin. His limbs were stretched out, disproportionately long for his tiny torso.

The day we visited his pain level was tolerable. Dr. Juan Carlos had increased the morphine shots to every 4 hours, so Kendry was no longer biting his arm or hitting his head against the wall, trying to stop the pain. Still, Kendry did not make much eye contact with us or really react to our presence in the room. Until Celia brought out the cars.

We had purchased some Matchbox cars in Miami and Celia pulled a few out of a zip-lock bag. “Would you like a little car?” Kendry extended his hand and took one and looked at it. “Kendry, you can have as many as you want.” Kendry grabbed another one and a broad smile swept across his face, not unlike how an adult would react at winning the lottery. He had a sparkle in his eyes as he grabbed another car, and then a fourth one. Kendry left the fifth one in Celia’s hand because, you know, it wouldn’t be right to take ALL the cars.

Kendry was in his mother’s arms and Celia went around behind the chair to gently stroke his head. I was seated on the bed right next to him. “What can we bring you?” Celia asked him. No reply. “Is there something special we can bring you?” One might think a dying child would ask for something big, maybe even something impossible. “Mango juice,” Kendry croaked in reply. Pastor José hurried out of the room to bring him some.

I asked pastor Eliseo to pray and he knelt down to share the Gospel with Kendry but he did so in a way that I knew he was really speaking to all the adults in the room, including several hospital staff. Eliseo placed his hands on Kendry’s arms and I placed mine on his chest in such a way that I could feel his little heartbeat as Eliseo prayed. “Lord, let this little heart keep beating,” I whispered.

His mother, a Christian, was grateful for our visit and for the supplies the team brought her. She had been with Kendry in the hospital for four months. She did not look tired or weepy. She looked strong. The dad, however, though affable and friendly, showed the strain he was going through. He would smile and hug us, and the tears would well up in his eyes right to the limit of spilling over onto his cheeks. What they were going through seemed unbearably hard. Then we found out about the pigs.

Kendry’s family survives through farming in a remote area. The dad had not been staying with Kendry at the hospital due to his responsibilities at their farm; it’s all they have. Then about a week prior to our visit the dad received the dreaded call, “You need to come right away. There might not be much time left.” It was not the first time he had left the farm to go see his dying son but it was the first time he stayed overnight. And that night someone crept onto his property and stole the family’s 19 pigs.

Later that day as I reflected on the hospital visit, I considered how the time with Kendry put my convictions to the test. When a little boy I care about is dying, platitudes and catchy bumper-sticker sayings — even Christian ones that I generally like — are scrutinized due to my proximity to his suffering. The living room debates about certain theological points are literally thousands of miles away as I come face to face with Kendry’s misshapen head and pained expression. I believe my convictions passed the Kendry test; nonetheless I felt a powerlessness that continues to gnaw at me.

I take comfort in the fact that you and I know the One who has both the power that cures and also the power to rejoice if no cure comes. But first things first: will you join me in asking the Father to heal Kendry? God’s direct intervention is the only thing that can extend his earthly life, and I would really like to see Kendry again on my next trip.

Thank you and God bless you,

Brian

Meeting urgent needs, with your help

IMG_3246In addition to distributing bicycles and books to pastors in remote areas, the ACTION Cuba team also distributes about $500 per month to individuals and families who are facing some sort of crisis. We emphasize assistance to pastors, single mothers, and the elderly.

Following are some examples of the use of our Benevolence Fund over the first four months of the year:

$15 to a pastor whose daughter got dengue fever while doing her military service
$25 to a pastor and his wife who just had their first child
$25 to a pastor who had to travel to Havana for surgery
$25 to a pastor who is caring for his sick father
$25 to a church-planter who is recovering from an operation due to fluid in his lungs
$25 to a pastor who has to travel from Moa to Havana to get medical attention for his son
$60 worth of construction materials for a family in need
$20 worth of food for a family whose dad is in jail
$25 to an elderly woman who is caring for her developmentally disabled son
$35 to a young man who had his leg amputated due to cancer in his knee
$25 to a mother whose child has cancer in his eye
$75 of food for six men going through the alcoholism recovery program with the Salvation Army
$12 to purchase sheets for a bed-ridden person
$15 to help an elderly woman purchase her medicines
$17 to purchase crutches for an elderly man recovering from surgery
$20 to purchase clothing for a child in need
$25 to buy shoes for a child of a single mother
$15 to a pastor whose son is recovering from appendicitis

As you can see, Cuba’s economy is such that relatively small gifts can make a major impact in the life of an individual or family. The average monthly income in Cuba has remained the same for years at about $25 per month, and I know many pastors and church-planters who make less. When an emergency arises, many families simply have no way of facing the financial consequences of the crisis without outside help.

THANK YOU for giving so that our team can come alongside those who are in need and — in the name of Jesus — alleviate some of their suffering. We are grateful that you help us, so that we can help them!

Click here to donate online to our Benevolence Fund.