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As restrictions ease, churches consider future in Cuba

Paul Schwiep was a teenager when he met his grandfather for the first time. In 1979 his family made a huge financial sacrifice to send him on the 90-mile trip from Miami to Cuba, the country they left behind in 1961.
“Those were the only seven days I ever spent with my grandfather,” said Schwiep, now a deacon and missions ministry leader for the Sunset Church of Christ in Miami.
Recent measures approved by U.S. President Barack Obama will make it easier for the 70 or so Cuban-American members of the Sunset church to visit and send money to their extended families living on the island nation.
Though the U.S. maintains its economic embargo on Cuba — in place since the year Schwiep’s family left the island — Congress voted to lift additional restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2004.
The eased restrictions likely will have little impact on church-supported ministries that send aid to Cuba, said Tim Archer, director of Spanish-speaking ministries for Abilene, Texas-based Herald of Truth.
“However, because many of our brothers in Cuba have relatives in the States, these changes should make it easier for them to receive much-needed aid, particularly in times of crisis such as last year’s hurricane season,” Archer said.
Archer and fellow Herald of Truth workers Steve Ridgell and Bill Brant visited Cuba recently and witnessed 21 baptisms at the Versalles Church of Christ in Matanzas, about 56 miles east of Havana. Tony Fernandez, the church’s minister, is Herald of Truth’s representative in Cuba.
Churches of Christ are registered with the Cuban government. At least 120 congregations meet on the island, with a combined membership of about 5,000. Many churches meet in the home of their minister.
Every time a church reaches its maximum capacity, “God gives us another place where we can meet,” Havana minister Roberto Pino told The Christian Chronicle in 2005, when churches on the island hosted the 35th Caribbean Lectureship, a regional meeting of church members.
The rapid growth of Cuban churches “elevates the need to prepare more evangelists,” Pino said.
Church-supported ministries in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean are working to meet that need:
For the past seven years the Atlantic International Bible Institute in Miami has sponsored ministry training efforts in Cuba, said Rudy Wray, a dean of ministry training for Lubbock, Texas-based Sunset International Bible Institute, which oversees the Miami school.
“In that time we have trained 52 Cuban preachers through biannual seminar classes and put three of them through the entire Sunset curriculum,” Wray said. “Those three men now form the faculty of their own ministry training program based in Havana.”
Cuban Christians also learn to be preachers through the Baxter Institute, a ministry training school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. More than 500 Cubans have graduated from Baxter’s Correspondence Course for Leaders and Workers of the Church, said Steve White, the school’s president.
“When they receive a Baxter diploma, they can register with the government to legally preach the gospel of Christ,” White said.
The school has one student from Cuba studying at its Tegucigalpa facility and plans to host at least two more.
Minister Julio Alfonso Abreu coordinates Baxter’s programs in Cuba.
The Jamaica School of Preaching operates an extension program in Cuba, said Gladwyn Kiddoe, director of the Kingston-based school.
Paul Blake, an instructor and member of the school’s administrative team, traveled to Cuba recently “to meet teachers and students, provide material assistance and see the progress of the 10-year-old program,” Kiddoe said.
Individual congregations, including the Mayfair and East Tallasee churches in Alabama, also have contributed to ministry in Cuba in recent years.
But leaders of the Sunset church in Miami “have shied away from being involved in mission work in Cuba,” Schwiep said.
Cuban-American Christians — even individual families — are divided on U.S. policy toward the communist nation. Nearly 10 years after Elian Gonzalez ignited an international custody battle in Miami, the subject of Cuba still elicits strong emotions.
“Opinions run the spectrum from ‘We should invade tomorrow’ to ‘We should lift the embargo tomorrow,’” Schwiep said.
The 650-member congregation represents at least 18 nationalities, said Jeff Hinson, one of the church’s elders. The church has sent mission teams to countries in Central America including Honduras and Nicaragua — but not Cuba.
“These decisions are emotional,” Schwiep said, and the church’s leaders have decided to treat the issue in the manner prescribed Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.”
That means “we’re not going to talk about it at church,” Schwiep said.
Jim Holway made seven preaching trips to Cuba before moving to Miami four years ago to coordinate the Latin American Mission Project, a church-planting effort for the Spanish-speaking world. Holway learned quickly not to mention those trips to older Cuban-Americans.
Cubans who fled the island after the 1959 revolution “arrived in Miami with nothing,” and many “feel they were robbed of their life, their culture,” Holway said.
Churches considering mission work in Cuba should be sensitive to the controversy, Holway said. He also recommended caution and coordination.
“I do believe that Churches of Christ need to work hard to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing,” Holway said. “I remember an open letter written by numerous missions and Bible professors that encouraged Churches of Christ to be cautious about their ministry in the Ukraine and other countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I think the same admonition is needed today regarding our ministry in Cuba.”
Hinson said that while he understands the sensitive nature of the debate in Miami, he views the easing of travel and money restrictions as beneficial for members of the Sunset church.
“Anything that will strengthen families and bring them closer together has to be looked at as a positive achievement,” he said.

Filed under: International

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