“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,


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.

Thank you for praying us through!

IMG_2803Thank you for praying for the latest trip. Believe me, our team needed it! Just looking at what happened over a three-day period summarizes the type of battle we were in. And if you prayed, you helped us in that battle and should enjoy the victory with us!

January 15, in Miami: I arrive at the Miami airport along with Joe Owen of Answers in Genesis and Bruce and Lisa Burkholder of Independent Baptist Press. The charter airline has not received copies of our religious worker’s visas. This has never happened to me before. We are told we cannot board without an email from an office in Havana. I begin making phone calls to Cuba. The email finally comes.

However, a storm also comes. We board the plane a couple hours late due to bad weather between Miami and Cuba. We spend a long time on the runway before being cleared for take-off. As we finally land in Holguín, the pilot mentions to us that he was five minutes away from canceling the flight. Keith and Marilyn Kaynor, Debbie Naz, and our ACTION Cuba team have been waiting at the Holguín airport several hours for us. Keith had already had a long afternoon; his luggage was detained by customs for a couple of hours. But at least we are all finally together, all finally in Cuba.

Meanwhile, in Seattle: I arrive in Cuba to find out that my wife has had a severe headache all day, which is very worrisome since she had a stroke just ten weeks prior.

January 16, in Bayamo: With little sleep, Joe and Bruce begin their morning of teaching. The Kaynor team is running smoothly. After lunch I begin the 4-hour drive to Casa Esperanza. I am as excited as a little boy on Christmas Eve. On the way to Camaguey, though, I am notified that Celia’s headache has not dissipated, that she has been vomiting, and that the kids are taking her to the hospital. She is given medication intravenously and the kids take her back home.

January 17: We awake to news that there have been a dozen earthquakes overnight in Santiago measuring between 3 and 5 on the Richter scale. The government evacuates people from their homes and tells them to sleep in parks and in the Revolutionary Plaza. One of the families sleeping outdoors is that of pastor Javier Herrera, who is hosting our team for a Creationism conference the following day. I contact him and ask if he wants to cancel the event. He says no. The ACTION team travels from Bayamo to Santiago. A few of them tell me they were not able to sleep well due to nerves, since there were a couple more tremors that evening.

Victory: The conference started as scheduled, although with a lower attendance. The ground in Santiago settled down and the conference went well. Celia began to feel better. Alternán and I began purchasing things we needed in order to open Casa Esperanza. As the itinerary progressed we began to see many victories in different areas. Thank you for praying us forward through the battle!

New partnership with ShoesforTwo

Brian Celia and Shoes - revisedOur good friends the Renfroes of Austin, Texas, have launched a new organization that collects good quality pre-owned basketball shoes that have usually been “out grown” but have another season or two left in them.

The shoes are cleaned, disinfected and distributed at no charge to boys and girls who need a good pair of athletic shoes. For the kids, it’s like getting a brand new pair of shoes.

In January we received our first shipment of 18 pairs from the Renfroes and they look great!

Our team will be taking these down with us in January and we are already anticipating the smiles as we give them out.

Please check out the ShoesForTwo website: www.shoesfortwo.org

Fathers, sons, and 90 miles of water

1101000117_400The most famous name in Cuba is obviously “Fidel.” But do you know what the second-most famous name is? That would be “Elián,” the name of the little boy who was found floating alone in the sea in 1999 after his mother and 12 others tried unsuccessfully to reach Florida in a small boat. His mother, stepfather, and 7 other passengers perished but somehow little Elián, only 5 years old, survived, was found by fishermen and brought to Florida. Every single person in Cuba knows the name “Elián” and it’s not simply because he was miraculously protected out in the open sea.

What happened in his life afterward became a dramatic milestone in the already dramatic history between Cuba and the United States. Once rescued and given into the custody of his relatives on his mother’s side, his father, still in Cuba, publicly proclaimed that he wanted his son returned to him in Cuba. The relatives in Miami refused. This set off a firestorm that lasted several months.

I remember the details of this international incident so vividly because they occurred just two months after I made my first Cuban friend by email. This drama surrounding Elián captured the interest of both countries, as the press and the public debated politics vs. parental rights. All the animosity toward Fidel Castro came out, sometimes in ugly ways, and he was accused of manipulating the dad. The relatives in Miami, also vilified by some, were accused of valuing Disney World over Dad in little Elián’s life. America had a passionate national conversation as to whether it is better for a young, traumatized Cuban boy to grow up in Miami and have the luxuries of American life or be returned to his father to resume a meager life in Cuba. There were debates on American television and massive marches held in Havana.

EG 10 NewThe ordeal culminated in the amazing act of the US government sending in a SWAT team to pluck the boy from his relatives’ home in Miami in order to deliver him to the father, who traveled to the the States to claim his son.

I had not thought about Elián in a number of years because although everyone in Cuba knows his name he is no longer in the public eye. He is a college student who, although he will never escape his fame, has basically returned to a regular pattern of living.

On the last day of our team retreat, however, I found myself thinking very much about this young boy. We all went to a very beautiful park in order to have a devotional time together and the members of the team informed me that Elián’s father works at the small snack shop there. I was sort of stunned to hear that, because you would think that the dad, who is also a nationally known figure, would not be working in such a low-end position after being in the public eye so intensely.

emn285gonprt58omAfter our team had worshipped the Lord and prayed together, I walked over to the snack shop to see if it was true. I then had the pleasure of meeting Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián’s father.

Juan Miguel is a very friendly and gracious person who is obviously accustomed to having strangers, both Cuban and foreigners, come up to him and initiate conversations about his son. I was careful not to make any political comments regarding what happened fifteen years ago, but I did express to him what was really in my heart. I shared with him that I recall vividly everything he and his son lived through during those times. “I remember all your interviews on TV, including the one on 60 Minutes, and I feel you did very well considering you were thrown into impossible circumstances.”

He appreciated that sentiment and even invited Celia and me to return to the park later in the week so we could meet Elián. We unfortunately had to decline because our itinerary had us leaving the area the next day.

Me with Juan Miguel GonzalezThe question that was so hotly debated during the time of Elián’s rescue and his eventual return to his father in Cuba is still very pertinent today. That question is: is it better for fathers and sons to stay together in spite of poverty and lack of opportunity? Or might the cruel reality be that it is better for the sons in the long run to be separated from their fathers for a time so that eventually they can enjoy the benefits of American life?

I have been contemplating this question regularly over the past two months since a dear friend and close colleague surprisingly left Cuba with his wife, leaving their two young sons in the care of the grandparents. It will be at least 18 months before the parents will be able to see the sons again, and will be longer than that for the children to be authorized to join their parents in the United States. That seems like a long time to be separated from your children especially when they’re in their early teens, but I am sure the parents have done it with the intention of establishing a new life of opportunity. They would probably say that a couple of years apart will be a small price to pay for their children to go to college in the USA and live their adult lives here.

I’m saddened and disappointed by the parents’ decision but I cannot and do not judge them because I have never really lived in Cuba as a Cuban. Though I have been to the country 48 times and on many trips have stayed in private homes, I am aware that my knowledge of what real life is like for the average Cuban is nonetheless limited. Although I know how long it takes them every day to find food for their families, even when they have money available, I’ve never actually had to live through that for an extended period. Though I have had some challenges as a foreigner ministering within the system, I’ve never had to deal with that for months and years in a row and I’ve always had the option of simply going back home. I’m in no position to judge, but I can tell you how disappointed I am that over the last three years our team has lost three important colleagues who have left the country, each one leaving their children behind with the hope of bringing them to America.

So far, none of them have accomplished it.

“Retreating” in order to advance

Team picture - cropped
Though I have been ministering in Cuba for fifteen years, it was only in 2013 that we organized a full-time team of regional leaders who would dedicate themselves to ACTION’s vision, projects, and partnerships. Working with these godly and gifted men and their families the past two years has been an amazing blessing to me. Through their diligent efforts our ministry has grown greatly (both in quality and quantity) and I have been freed up from many administrative and logistical concerns.

In celebration of what God has done to knit us together in ministry, we held our first team retreat in mid-October. We traveled from Seattle, Bayamo, Camaguey, Artemisa and Caimito to spend three days together on one of the beautiful beaches of Varadero. Pictured from left to right in the image above are: the Gomero family (Jamie, David, Yaíma and Grace); the Zamora family (Liliana, Ayán, Litsandra, Litsari); Eliseo Navarro and his wife, Marelis; Celia and me; and the Claro family (Arelis, Alternán, Bety, Daner, and Moisés).

Of course, we did it “Cuban style” by renting out three adajcent houses for only $100 per night total and cooking our own meals. It was an unforgettable time of team-building. Or should I say creating family, because we really feel like family. We played volleyball and “keep away” in the water, shared meals, walked around town, rode a roller coaster together, went bowling (many for the first time!) and had structured meeting time in the evenings. This relaxed retreat helped us prepare for what appears to be an amazingly busy 2016 and we made a number of important decisions to clarify our focus.

Thank you for allowing our team to be your bridge to what God is doing in Cuba. We love working together for the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and count it a privilege to have your support.