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.

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.

God never takes a vacation

IMG_20150818_160406As featured in last month’s snail-mail newsletter, our Bikes for Pastors ministry has been blessed with many generous donations this year. Our team absolutely loves this project but as donations increased we encountered a problem: we were unable to find enough bikes to purchase!

Ayán Zamora, our representative in the eastern part of the island, recently wrote me the following: “I am sorry to tell you there are no bikes in any of the eastern provinces. My wife has the phone numbers of stores in all the major cities and she calls them every week to see if they have bikes available.” I was hearing the same thing from David Gomero in the west and Alternán Claro in the central region. Keep in mind this is Cuba and this is just how things are.

ACTION celebrates 40 years of ministry

Jubilee Logo- croppedIn July ACTION missionaries gathered in Three Hills, Alberta, to participate in a weeklong Jubilee celebration to commemorate the mission’s 40 years of service.

It was a wonderful time of seeking the Lord and rejoicing over four decades of ministry completed in over two dozen countries by hundreds of Christian workers. The event was hosted by missionaries and staff from the ACTION Canada office in Calgary, and attendance was a bit under 200. All regions of our mission were represented from across the globe.

Held on the campus of Prairie College, the alma mater of many of ACTION’s founders and leaders, the Jubilee included times of worship and teaching led by Calgary pastors Ashwin Ramani and Ian Trigg. There were also excursions to Banff, the Calgary Stampede, the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, and the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

Expressions of gratitude

One of my most pleasant tasks as Director of ACTION Cuba is to translate into English the thank-you notes we receive from men who have been blessed by our Bikes for Pastors project. I translate them and send them to each donor, along with a picture of the pastor with his bicycle. Here are some expressions of gratitude we have received recently:

CalixtoCalixto Chala González, Methodist pastor:
I thank our Lord Jesus Christ and the ACTION ministry and all the donors for their love and for blessing us with this bicycle. This will help me keep serving the work of the Lord with all my heart. I bless you and have no words to express my gratitude. I hardly believed it when brother Ayán told me the good news and I was so excited that I just had to kneel down to thank God for this gift. God bless you!


MiltonMilton Cadet Brown, Baptist pastor:
God bless your ministry. You have been a channel of blessing to us. The bicycle will be used to visit the brethren and disciple them, and to evangelize others. That work is almost impossible to do without a bicycle. We thank all those who were involved in such a blessing. God bless you, and we will be praying for you.

Building a bridge between Michigan and Cuba

Child receiving a drawingOur ministry team performs many functions but one of the main things we do is act as a bridge that reaches from warm-hearted Christians in North America to people in need down in Cuba. It is a great privilege that God has given us this role.

The pictures on this page are examples of our “bridge” ministry. A homeschooling group in Lansing, Michigan, made notes of encouragement for the children battling cancer in Camaguey.

Cassie, the organizer of this project, sent me the drawings and I forwarded them to my friend Pat for him to carry down to Bayamo in April. Then our team member Ayán delivered them to pastor Yoán and in May the Hope of Life team handed the notes out during their visit to the hospital.

Thank you all for your love and effort!

False teachers will flood into Cuba soon

Pastor preaching - from LightstockOur ministry really needs a strong base of prayer support for all that we do, especially with the enormous changes that are about to wash over Cuba and the Church there, as the relations between our two countries normalize.

Changes are indeed coming and ACTION Cuba and the Cuban Church in general need your prayer for wisdom. It seems to me that more businessmen and politicians have been to Cuba in the past four weeks than in the past 50 years. Guess who also wants to be part of this new “opening” of Cuba? All the false religions and crackpots you can imagine. Cuba has been so hard to minister in over these years that very few of us have made it our life’s work, and boy, has it been work!

Now that people have the impression it may be easier, I am receiving emails every week from groups that want my help to travel down and teach in Cuba. When I check them out on the internet I find their material to be way far out there — and not in the laid-back John Denver “faaar out” of the 1970’s. No, these groups have dangerous, far-out teachings about God that clash dangerously with His true eternal attributes that are clearly demonstrated to humanity through creation, conscience, and Christ on the cross. These pseudo-Christian groups are headed to Cuba one way or another and I am not sure the Church there is ready for the battle.

Please pray!

Overcoming obstacles in western Cuba — learning how to “flex”

Conference in HavanaTo become a missionary with ACTION, one must complete a number of requirements, including an application, doctrinal statement, Bible quiz, Board interview, and a brief psychological evaluation.

I learned something about myself in that evaluation, which is meant to help missionaries understand their personality better in order to forecast challenges they might experience on the mission field.

One of the aspects evaluated was “rigid vs. flexible” with regards to plans and circumstances. I’ll never forget the counselor showing me my score. Compared to others, I was almost off-the-charts flexible. The little dot representing this aspect of my personality in comparison to other people was way down at the bottom of the “rigid vs. flexible” grid.

All I could say in response was, “Good thing I minister in Latin America.”

Case in point: In November I met with leaders of the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba along with my Cuban colleague and official ACTION representative David Gomero. We immediately began planing two Bible Training Workshops for April and very quickly we had two excellent conference speakers agree to travel down and teach.

These were significant plans in that they represented many “firsts” — first conferences with this denomination, first events David would organize on his own without me traveling down, first trip to Cuba by both of the speakers. Many, many hours were dedicated to the plans.

A sad goodbye to darling Helen

Celia y HelenThis week we received the sad news that a sweet little girl we know named Helen lost her battle with cancer. We had visited with Helen and her dad in November and then again in March, so we felt a connection with her. Her passing hit us hard.

Our first visit with her in the provincial hospital of Camaguey was memorable for a couple of reasons. When we handed out some stuffed toys, she was given a purple whale. We asked her if she was going to name her new toy and she said she would give the whale the name of one of the nurses, which provoked a good laugh from all the staff.

Also, when we invited Helen to come out to the common area for ice cream she said she didn’t like ice cream much. Celia asked her, “What do you like?” “Gum,” she replied. It just so happened that Celia had a pack of gum in her purse and Helen’s eyes lit up when it was given to her.

Every indication was that she was going to beat the cancer.