“Life-changing,” “humbling” and “hunger-inducing” were the repeated sentiments of some of the participants of the Care for Cuba study tour, when asked to sum up their experience in one or two words.
On March 15, 27 Master of Divinity (MDiv) students and their sponsors traveled victoriously after fighting their way to Santiago, Cuba, for the seventh annual Care for Cuba Evangelistic Study Tour. Care for Cuba, since its inception in 2013, has equipped hundreds of pastors and churches in Cuba with ministry resources like bicycles, computers, and tablets, involving 150 MDiv students for 10-day evangelistic campaigns and baptizing more than 1800 new believers into the Kingdom.
It was a journey that its leaders, organizers and participants fought fervently to bring to fruition. Three huge setbacks threatened to stop the mission in its tracks. First, as if to pay homage to challenges faced in previous years, the team’s flight was canceled just 36 hours before their scheduled departure due to the grounding of Boeing 737 Max planes. After fervent prayers and multiple calls, all 31 tickets were rebooked. While that provided enough excitement, it was not the end. The arena frequently used on the final weekend for a mass gathering was cancelled before their arrival. But Heaven had different plans and permission to use the arena was granted days before the actual event. The third attempt by the enemy to halt this mission was that, just a week before departure, the Cuban government abruptly canceled all “group trips” to Cuba. Mysteriously, a clerical error showing the group’s arrival 10 days earlier cleared their entrance. Definitely not a clerical error but a providential act! Dr. Fernando Ortiz, program director and Care for Cuba study tour leader, points out: “Every time we go to Cuba, we face hurdles. But, time after time, we also see God in action, going before us, parting the seas! As Paul said: What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?(Romans 8:31).”
The ten days spent in Santiago de Cuba saw the MDiv students working shoulder to shoulder with Bible workers, pastors and lay people. They went into churches, communities and homes, using creative evangelism to witness to the Cuban community. Students creatively ministered using street soccer, free haircuts and haircut training, and the distribution of reading and sun glasses. One lady shared with MDiv student, Joshua Ward, of her pleas to God to be able to read the Bible. Her joy was evident as she pointed to her new reading glasses that would now allow her to do so. Residents of Cuba also were ministered to through the use of photography when they were given the chance to be photographed by professional photographer, Eric Perry, receiving free prints of their photos when they came to evangelistic meetings. Most memorable and heart-warming of all, was Pepe the Puppet, a sensational hit with the children! Chants of his name erupted as children eagerly awaited the stories of Jesus that he shared with them. This year’s group of students used every tool in their arsenal to reach the hearts of the Cuban people.
Amidst the many stories told about their time in Cuba, the students spoke about one of the churches, Fomento, that had a profound effect on them. At this church, there was a special group of people called the “Prayer Warriors.” Jonathan Picon recounted that this group didn’t just pray in the way we think of prayer in our church, but that they prayed in surprising ways. They would pray in a back room before worship started until well after the appeal had been made and the final prayer completed. Most impactful was the practice of three ladies who took on the task of walking around the church building during the sermon in prayer and song. They prayed fervent, militant prayers. Jonathan shared that “they were claiming that place as the Lord’s place; there was a spiritual barrier being claimed.” This experience was one that he will carry for the rest of his life.
While reflecting on this trip, Dr. Ortiz shared that the Care for Cuba study tour’s goals were to train and inspire seminary students into evangelism and total church involvement, equip the local church with much needed ministry resources and invite the local community to follow Jesus by sharing the everlasting gospel.
He told of the many gifts with which God blessed this group during their time there. However, they all paled in comparison to the most important gift of all. It wasn’t health or safe passage to a communist country or the five churches in which they were able to minister. It wasn’t the resolution of every obstacle that threatened its success, and it wasn’t quite the distribution of 30 bikes, 25 computers, 25 tablets and phones distributed that were pre-loaded with valuable tools for ministry. But, rather, it was God’s hand evident in the 341 souls won for Him through baptism. Only eternity will tell the scope and impact of their efforts. Speaking of their observed impact, Conference president, Jenaro Jiminez, said “You need to know that when you get to heaven, you all will have little Cuban stars on your crown.” To this, the only thing that can be said is, “To God be the glory.”