HAVANA — Preparing for the first Caribbean Lectureship on the island of Cuba, Ken Dye did a lot of praying. He prayed for permission from the Cuban and U.S. governments. He prayed for visas, hotels, speakers and transportation.
He forgot to pray for the weather.
On Friday, July 8, about 48 hours before the conference was scheduled to begin, Hurricane Dennis slammed into central Cuba, killing 16 people and shutting down the international airport in Havana.
Dye and a contingent of church members from the United States and the Bahamas spent Saturday in the Nassau airport waiting for a flight that never left the ground. Others were stranded in Jamaica and Miami.
The Category 4 storm delayed many of the lectureship’s participants, but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Cuban church members, many of whom met their Caribbean counterparts for the first time.
“It’s great, even though the language is kind of a barrier,” said Guillermo Monguia, a minister in the Cuban town of Ciego de Auila.
Monguia, who taught himself English, served as a translator during the conference. He occasionally struggled with the speakers’ Caribbean dialects, but said the experience drew him closer to church members on neighboring islands.
“Sometimes we look at the map and we see this tiny little speck of an island,” he said. “We don’t think there are any people living there. But here we find out that there are Christians (on these islands) worshipping the Lord.”
COMPLETING THE PRAYER CIRCLE
Dye, now involvement and counseling minister for the West End church, Nashville, Tenn., launched the lectureship in 1971 while serving as a missionary in Kingston, Jamaica. At first most of the attendees were from the United States, but today more than 90 percent are natives of the Caribbean, Dye said.
He turned director duties over to Jamaican minister Francis Yorke two years ago. An international committee plans the lectureships, and each event has ended with participants joining hands and praying “that one day the Caribbean would be united and Cuba would become a part of our lectureship,” Dye said.
Ammiel Perez, minister for the 10th of October church in Havana, attended the 2003 lectureship in Nassau, Bahamas, and invited the attendees to Cuba. The Cuban government requires all religious groups to register and recognizes Perez as president of the churches of Christ in his country.
Perez and fellow church members secured their government’s permission for the conference. Speakers obtained religious visas from Cuba for the event. Attendees from the United States had to secure special permission for the trip from the U.S. Treasury Department. The United States has enforced an economic embargo on Cuba since 1962.
“We were faced with one challenge after another,” said Terrance Baptiste, minister in Granville, Grenada. “Even after the challenges … nature gave us one more.”
Many participants missed the opening ceremonies as they waited out the hurricane on nearby islands. That proved to be a blessing for a group from the island of Dominica stranded in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic.
Lectureship participants have had little contact with the Spanish-speaking nation, said minister Lewis Romain, but the delay allowed them to meet local church members and invite them to future events. Romain said he was impressed by the number of churches in the Dominican Republic and their dedication.
When they finally arrived in Havana late Sunday or early Monday, attendees found the city largely undamaged by the storm.
Organizing the event also was a challenge, said Cuban minister Luis Diaz. Today there are about 120 churches of Christ across the island, each with memberships between 15 and 70. About 400 Cuban church leaders attend an annual conference in Havana each March, and for many years the attendees have dreamed that someday they could meet with fellow church members throughout the Caribbean, Diaz said.
At the conference, differences between Cuban and Caribbean church members created some misunderstandings.
“We have two different cultures, no matter how good Christians we are,” Diaz said. “The (differences) may create, artificially, stresses and pressures. (But) the conference is our common goal. It’s as simple as that.”
The Cuban church members found translators for all of the sessions because “we don’t want our brethren from the Caribbean to miss anything,” Diaz said.
“For our church it’s a great challenge – from the organizational point of view – in terms of logistics. But for the first time in 35 years, the circle of praise is complete. The credit (goes to) God.”
REACHING THE CARIBBEAN
Carlton Ramsubhag, part of the group from Dominica, arrived in Havana at 5 a.m. July 11 and delivered his first lecture a mere four hours later.
“It’s been difficult, but we are here,” he said.
Ramsubhag saluted churches in the United States that have, through the years, invested resources in Caribbean evangelism, but was critical of Caribbean churches that have not displayed an evangelistic spirit.
“We are still not reaching the Caribbean,” he said, citing a “lack of vision on behalf of the leaders. The church has not been taught to be evangelistic. Many still depend on America after 40 years.
“The question is, when will we become senders in the area of evangelism?”
Some Caribbean churches have become sending churches, Ramsubhag said, including the church in San Fernando, Trinidad and the church on the island of St. Thomas, which supports Ramsubhag and his wife, Joslyn, as missionaries to Dominica.
The couple is originally from the island of Trinidad. Joslyn Ramsubhag helped coordinate the women’s program at the lectureship.
Karla Hernandez, a member of the Hialeah, Fla., church, flew to Havana on a chartered plane from Miami, but the hurricane delayed the flight by nearly two days. She arrived in time to teach a class on making puppets and other materials for children’s classes using everyday items.
Hernandez said she was impressed by the resourcefulness of the Cuban women. Teachers in the United States take for granted the availability of “google eyes,” the plastic blisters with small black circles inside that move when shaken. In Cuba, where the government has rationed supplies due in part to the U.S. embargo, google eyes are impossible to find.
One Cuban teacher suggested improvising by using discarded blister packs for various pills and putting a small seed inside to serve at the “eye,” Hernandez said.
Rex and Brenda Morgan, of Miami Spanish for Christ, gathered Cuban ministers during the lectureship and showed them an excerpt from an episode of “Con La Biblia Abierta” (“The Open Bible”) a Spanish-language television program produced by Rex Morgan.
Cuban ministers have used tapes of the episodes for several years, and said that they are effective in reaching lost souls. After viewing clips from the episode, which addressed questions relating to the creation of the world, one minister said that the program is “good for people who were raised on atheism, mired in materialism.”
The Morgans distributed videos to ministers across the island during the lectureship.
Manuel Manrique, an 80-year-old minister from Matanzas, Cuba, said the lectureship was “the answer to many dreams – in the middle of a storm.”
After the hurricane “Cuba (was feeling) so low. We needed this so much. (Now) everybody is feeling higher and higher.”
Manrique, who began preaching shortly after his baptism in 1943, said that the coming together of Caribbean and Cuban believers proved to him that “there’s no end, no boundaries. This was the whole purpose of Christ.”
Manrique’s 17-year-old grandson, Dajan, is an aspiring preacher. The lectureship “is great for the young people,” he said, “to see that the Word is continuing, to see other people sharing their faith.”