(Written May 30 from Santiago de Cuba, with a 12-person mission team sponsored by Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex, working through North Carolina Baptist Men’s partnership with the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba.)

The sand crew celebrated success in moving sand … then started on a pile of gravel.As Tuesday morning rolled around, we returned to the tasks of moving sand, breaking up waste concrete, and painting wrought iron railings. Wielding worn-out shovels and pushing ramshackle wheelbarrows, we sweated royally under the tropical sun, doing our best to stay hydrated, and occasionally stopping to sample mangoes from a nearby tree. Quitting time was 11:30 a.m., and we were glad to see it arrive.

Phyllis Lane and Pat Barker find a shady spot for painting.After lunch and a welcome siesta, we climbed into two aging vehicles for a muggy five-hour tour of house churches and mission points in the Oasis area, near the coast southeast of Santiago.

A series of visits gave us insight into the typical life cycle of a Baptist church in Cuba. We first visited Jerusalem Baptist Church, located only a few blocks from the ocean. Benches made from boards and bricks provided seating in a downstairs open-air sanctuary on the first level, while the pastor and his family lived upstairs.

Team leader Evelyn DeRoche walks past a leaning outhouse, still in use. Behind the shed, local leaders show other team members the foundation for a new church building.Other churches are in less fortunate locations, without adequate space for worship. Visiting the Hope of Life Baptist Church (Iglesia Bautista Esperanza de Vida), for example,  required three stops. First, we were led through a narrow path between dilapidated homes to reach a rectangular foundation sandwiched between a leaning outhouse and the shell of an ancient bus. That would be the future sanctuary, we were told.

We stopped next at the pastor’s home, on the second floor of a multi-housing unit. He introduced us to his family and pointed out a leak in the roof (estimated repair cost, $250) before we piled back into the vehicles to visit the hilltop location where the church currently meets in a small covered shelter built beside the home of a woman who started the church as a cell group, with two other families, in 1996. Now the church has a missionary pastor and 35 or more in attendance on Sundays. It sponsors another mission church, and has several “houses of prayer” in the surrounding community.

Team members visit the current meeting place for the Hope of Life Baptist Church.To be constituted as an independent church, we were told, churches must have a minimum number of members, at least two “departments” (such as a men’s and women’s organization), and be able to pay at least half of the pastor’s salary. Pastors generally make 350-400 Cuban pesos per month, about $20 U.S. The convention provides limited financial assistance for new church starts, decreasing funding as the church grows.

In the Sevilla community we met Alexi Garcia and his wife, Yoandra. Alexi is pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church, and also works with the convention in a role similar to an area director of missions in the U.S.

Outside the small house he hopes to rebuild as a church, pastor Alexi Garcia introduces leaders of the Maranatha church in Sevilla. Most Baptist church leaders in eastern Cuba are women, including a few who are pastors. The Maranatha church currently meets in a large shed built onto the side of a member’s home. The church has about 80 members and recently baptized 19 new believers, but none of them have Bibles, Garcia said. That church sponsors two missions and has 17 cell groups. When the small groups gather for a monthly meeting, more than 140 are often in attendance, and spill into the yard surrounding the garage.

Proudly showing us pictures on a laptop computer, Garcia explained that each month, he meets with cell group leaders, outlines an emphasis for the month, and leads them in a related Bible study. Group leaders then replicate the study in their homes so the monthly emphasis (family, evangelism, support for the senior center, for example) spreads through the church.

Team members Paul Bartlett, Phyllis Lane, Pat Barker, and Bob Barker listen as translator Jose Rodriguez, Alexi Garcia, and Yoandra Garcia describe their vision for Maranatha Baptist Church. Yoandra Garcia (right, in the picture at right) is a medical doctor. Currently, their family lives in an apartment above the medical clinic in Sevilla, but they hope she can soon give up the medical practice to devote more time to working with the church. That won’t be easy: after providing a free education, the Cuban government requires that doctors practice in Cuba for a minimum amount of time. Although Yoandra has completed the minimum time, there could still be trouble, Alexi said. The church has purchased a plot of land containing a small decrepit house (photo above). They have drawn plans and are praying for help to construct a church building with an apartment in the back so they can live and work on site.

We returned tired and sore, but considerably impressed with the faith and fortitude of the people we had met. From “houses of prayer” to house churches to the occasional free-standing building, Baptist churches in eastern Cuba are alive and well and growing. They believe God has given them a special opportunity in a special time, and despite significant obstacles, they are working sacrificially to see it through.

We watched, and learned.

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