(Written from Santiago de Cuba, as part of a 12-person team sponsored by Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex, working through North Carolina Baptist Men’s partnership with the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba. Blogs are being posted after the fact, as no Internet service was available there.)
Sunday May 27 began with a baptism service. Churches in Cuba are rarely elaborate enough to have indoor baptisteries, and a church from the town of El Cobre had come to use one of the outdoor pools at the senior center. Fifteen persons were baptized, some by the local pastor, others by members of the team from Mississippi.
A small ladder was lowered into the rock-lined pool. Yesterday, a worker drained the pool and scrubbed algae from the rocks, then refilled it with water from a nearby creek. Candidates climbed in and out, inevitably smiling. A hundred or so people were gathered around. A young man with a guitar led them in a praise chorus after each baptism.
Following the baptism service, we crossed a narrow bridge over the creek to the convention’s seminary campus, where a local congregation from La Caoba joined the El Cobre church for a service in a rustic gym built into the steep hillside. We paused for fellowship beneath the shade of fruit-laden mango trees before entering. Nearly 200 Cuban Baptists piled into concrete bleachers or stood in the back, while visitors were directed to two rows of plastic chairs that had been set up on the gym’s concrete floor.
The two-hour service included a lengthy introduction by one of the local pastors, 30-40 minutes of praise singing led by three enthusiastic women and a guitarist, and then a three-point triply alliterated sermon by a former Southern Baptist pastor from the states whose Calvinism led him to join the Presbyterians, but he still came along with a team of Baptists from Mississippi who are lodging at the seminary while working on a church building and evangelizing.
For believers, he said, Christ must have no rival, there must be no refusal of Christ’s call, and there can be no retreat from one’s commitment; Christ should be not just present or prominent, but preeminent in one’s life; and there should be no tiring of following, no trifling with things that distract, and no turning back from one’s commitment. An interpreter translated, but the English alliteration did not always carry over into Spanish.
A second sermon by a member of the Mississippi team set up a communion service, in which women helped serve and the little cups contained a brown liquid that turned out to be real homemade wine from local grapes. I think that might have been a surprise to the speaker, who made several references to the juice in our cups.
A lay speaker from the Mississippi team said he wanted a chance to witness of his faith in Christ. He talked about Paul striving to reach the goal of a Christlike life as those who had been baptized earlier lined up behind him, each with a sponsor. They were presented baptism certificates and a Spanish Bible, then knelt as their sponsors laid hands on them and we all prayed.
Two good meals, a strategy session, and a siesta later, we crammed into a small blue Toyota van and an ancient Pathfinder, both of which belched clouds of black smoke on every uphill climb, and neither of which had seat belts or air conditioning. We traveled to El Christo, about 30 km away, on the eastern side of Salvador. The small church, crammed between two other buildings, was celebrating “Men’s Week.” As electric fans hummed from the walls, the pastor welcomed our team, then called us to stand at the front and introduce ourselves. When he learned I had been a pastor, he asked if I would like to offer some words of encouragement to the men and the church. The only proper answer was “Certainly!”
I had brought sketchy notes for three different sermons in the event of such an invitation, but none of them were really appropriate for “Men’s Day.” Fortunately, David as a “man after God’s own heart” came to mind, so I talked about that text, David’s example, and what it could mean for men and women today to live a life patterned on God’s heart.
The service began at 8:00 p.m. and lasted until around 9:30, all in Spanish. Two men played “At the Cross” on harmonicas – all five verses. Some of us sang along on the chorus. A men’s choir sang two songs to taped accompaniment, and a visiting speaker talked about being the kind of man Christ wants.
As at the morning service, team members were asked to exit first and form a line so the congregants could come by and speak to us. Conversations were short, since most of us speak little Spanish. We knew how to say “Hola” (hello) or “Dios tu bendiga” (God bless you), though – and as we did so, we were the ones feeling blessed.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.