When I awoke on the morning of December 23rd, I didn’t have much on my mind besides Christmas and Christmas shopping. That changed the instant I opened my email. Three of my closest colleagues in Cuba had written me to pass along the sad news that our mutual friend Rafael Columbié (affectionately known as Fello) had passed away of a massive heart attack.
My mind raced to make sense of it all. Could I have misunderstood the Spanish? But the last line of one of the emails took away any glint of hope: “Fello will be buried tomorrow at 4:00.”
Without warning, without any time to say goodbye, Fello passed into the presence of the Lord he loves. Perhaps God needed him in Heaven in time for Christmas.
For sixteen years Rafael Columbié was the President of the Christian Pentecostal Church of Cuba. He was also a professor at the Elim Bible Institute, an ardent supporter of interdenominational ministries and projects, and for many years was a board member of the Cuban Bible Commission.
When I met him ten years ago I was only 33 and a brand new missionary, but he always treated me with great respect. As our friendship and partnership grew, Fello was considered by the Cuban government as the official representative of ACTION’s ministries on the island. In fact, as I made my “rookie mistakes” he was called on many times to defend my ministry to the Cuban government so that ACTION could continue working in the country.
He was a true colleague in the work of the kingdom. I would have been kicked out of Cuba long ago if it had not been for his efforts on my behalf.
Celia and I had the great pleasure of hosting Fello and his wife in our home last year. I remember how much he enjoyed visiting Mount Rainier with us; he said he had never seen trees so big.
Fello and I exchanged emails quite often. His spelling was awful but his love and sense of humor were great.
As president of his denomination he was given the privilege of owning a vehicle. It was a white Toyota van that was constantly breaking down and leaving him stranded. It’s hard to believe that his “lemon” of a car has now outlived its owner. On his visit last year, I took him out in our family van and it broke down and Fello had to help me push it to the side of the road. He thought that kind of thing only happened in Cuba so he got a big kick out of that and never let me live it down.
The last time I spoke to him was at the end of November, by cell phone. I was in Cuba and he was in the USA. He had been selected to be part of a delegation of church leaders to visit New York and Washington, DC, and he told me over the phone that they had toured the White House and also met with some members of Congress.
Upon returning to Cuba in early December, he was able to visit his family in Baracoa. He returned to his home in Caimito on the afternoon of the 22nd and within 12 hours he departed for his heavenly home.
Fello was 61 and is survived by his wife, Noelia, and their four children.
Life and ministry will go on without him, though I’m not sure how. It will never be quite the same.