Churches partnering with churches

For the last four years, the University Church of Christ in Abilene has been partnering with a congregation in Cuba to aid them in the outreach efforts. It’s something I’m very proud of, largely because I think it’s the type of mission effort that we need to see more of going forward.

We’re used to a model where a church in the United States supports an individual, typically a preacher. At one time, these were mainly missionaries from the United States. Now I’d guess that more locals are supported than foreigners. I think that, as we come to recognize the maturation of churches outside the United States, in many cases the best course of action will be supporting a congregation rather than an individual.

In this case, UCC partners with the Versalles Church of Christ in Matanzas. This congregation was started by Tony Fernández and his parents, and Tony continues to lead the church today. Over the last 10 years, the Versalles church has planted over 40 other congregations. They also have their own missionaries working in other provinces.

They have the know how. They have the manpower. They lack the material resources to continue to expand this church-planting ministry. UCC has the funds (thanks to a generous donor) and shares them with the Versalles church, no strings attached. We visit them, participate with them, listen to reports about what they are doing, but do not control their efforts. The church leadership makes the decisions about how to best use the funds they receive, and they’ve done a much better job of that than any outside church could have done.

Tony works fulltime for Hope For Life, a ministry of Herald of Truth. All of his funds, personal and work funds, come from this ministry. I’m in a funny middle position. Sometimes I carry funds to him from Hope For Life. Sometimes I carry funds to him from UCC. Sometimes I have both.

Tony makes a clear distinction between the funds. Those that are brought for the church are given directly to the church leadership. If possible, Tony doesn’t even touch them. The funds from Hope For Life go to Tony, for he has directed the Hope For Life efforts in Cuba since 1991. He, like me, responds to the board of directors of Hope For Life for the use of those funds. But in Cuba, he is responsible for the administration of those funds.

A lot of people at UCC have the mistaken idea that we somehow support Tony. I hate that, because I think they are missing out on the fact that we are part of something unusual and highly significant. Direct partnership between two congregations is an exciting prospect not only in Cuba but around the world. Our experiences over the last four years lead me to encourage other churches to do the same. In places where the church has already been established, don’t fund an individual; fund a church. Come alongside your brothers in Christ and say, “Here are the resources you need. Go do God’s work.” And put no other strings on the money.

I think you’ll be amazed at what God can do.

Visit to Cuba after the hurricane

Preacher's home in Maisí where the church is currently meeting

Preacher’s home in Maisí where the church is currently meeting

I’ve made about two dozen trips to Cuba, but last week’s trip was special. First off, it was somewhat spontaneous; Tony Fernández asked me to come after Hurricane Matthew blew through the eastern part of the island.

Hurricane's effects

Hurricane’s effects

Everything came together to make it work:

  • American Airlines now flies direct to Cuba, directly to Holguin on the eastern side of the island.
  • My travel for Hope For Life (Herald of Truth) ended early this year. Normally I travel into November and even December; travel ended in October this year.
  • My family agreed to fund the trip, keeping me from having to use ministry money or church money.

I left Abilene at 5:30 a.m. October 24 and arrived in Holguin at 4:30 that afternoon. We made stops in Dallas and Miami along the way, which is fairly common when going to Latin America. There were only 12 of us passengers on a 737 going from Miami to Holguin; because I fly with American a lot, they even moved me up to business class, where I was alone.

Devastation

Devastation

Immigration took longer than usual since I was on a tourist visa when I’m usually on a religious visa. When I assured them that I wouldn’t be there on a Sunday nor hold any church meetings, they accepted that it wasn’t a “religious” trip. (I hope I’m “religious” every day, but I understand the definition they use)

Chunk of bridge that fell off during Tony and Ammiel's trip

Chunk of bridge that fell off during Tony and Ammiel’s trip

Tony had advised me not to bring much, so I only had carryon bags. I was still able to bring some very important supplies like water purification devices, diarrhea medicine, and the like. I breezed through customs (“They didn’t give you a form? That’s okay; go ahead”) and found Tony waiting for me. We drove to a private home (bed and breakfast) in Holguin. The roads are in bad shape, and there’s a lot of loose livestock on the road, so Tony didn’t want to travel at night.

Washed out bridge

Washed out bridge

The next morning we made our way to Guantanamo, staying in private homes there. Then the next day we headed out for Punta de Maisí, the Cuban town hardest hit by the storm. My relationship with Maisí goes back to early 2010 when we started broadcasting on Transworld Radio. They quickly formed a “listeners club” in that town, gathering to listen to my program each Saturday. That’s one of the reasons Tony thought it would be very significant for them if I visited their town to let them know Christians in the States haven’t forgotten them in their time of need.

Maisí

Maisí

The roads were bad, but not as bad as Tony had led me to believe; they weren’t nearly as bad as they had been on the two trips he’d made the previous weeks. We were stopped neither by police checkpoints nor road congestion and arrived fairly early in Maisí, making the trip from Guantanamo in about 4 and a half hours. Since there’s no place to stay there in town, we couldn’t be there long.

Tony F. with Diosmedes, evangelist in the Maisí area

Tony F. with Diosmedes, evangelist in the Maisí area

The Christians there were very appreciative of everything we brought them. Tony had loaded his car with food, water, clothes, and tools. One developmentally challenged woman in the church in Matanzas had selected some of her dolls to send to the children in Maisí; that was very special.

Supplies delivered in Maisí

Supplies delivered in Maisí

We saw the town, met with the people, then headed back to Guantanamo. The next morning, Tony took me to Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, then we made our way back to Holguin. I flew out on Friday and headed back to another world. On Saturday, we were serving a funeral meal at church, with mounds of brisket and all the trimming. I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with what I’d lived the previous days.

Church leader shows us his damaged home

Church leader shows us his damaged home

Pray for the church in Cuba. Pray for the suffering in Punta de Maisí. Pray for godly men like Tony Fernández who are continually serving in difficult situations with neither fanfare nor fame to accompany them.


Family Tony gave aide to

Family Tony gave aide to

Tony brought baby clothes for infant born right before hurricane

Tony brought baby clothes for infant born right before hurricane

Family that Tony brought aide to

Family that Tony brought aide to

Contributing to the conversion process

baptismWhile doing research for the book A History of Churches of Christ in Cuba, I ran across an article written in the 1950s that had addresses for the church in Cuba. I sent the list to Tony Fernández, my co-author and Herald of Truth representative in Cuba, to see if it might prove useful.

Tony noticed one of the addresses was for a church in Agramonte, a town where there was no longer a Church of Christ. Tony traveled to Agramonte and went to that address. The property owner was suspicious at first, thinking that Tony was wanting to lay claim to the house. When he realized that Tony was merely seeking former church members, the owner directed Tony to several of them.

If you know Tony Fernández at all, you’ll not be surprised to learn that there was soon a growing, active congregation in Agramonte.

When we were in Matanzas several weeks ago, a man was baptized. His wife had been baptized in Agramonte 60 years before. It was a wonderful continuation to the story.

In Church Inside Out, I talk about all the different ways you can contribute to someone’s coming to Christ, noting that conversion is a process, not an event. Last month I saw that even library research can play a small part in reaching someone who needs God.

2016 Cuba Men’s Conference

Men's conferenceAs part of my work with Hope For Life (Herald of Truth), I get to go once or twice a year to Cuba. I usually get to go at the time of the national men’s conference, which was held last week in Varadero. In some ways, the conference is an excuse; that’s how we get the religious visas that allow us to freely teach and preach. (And yes, despite what you may have heard, you can freely teach and preach in Cuba, within certain limits)

The conference brings together church leaders from across the island(s), with somewhere between 250 and 300 men attending. I got to deliver two keynotes, as well as teaching a class.

Our main purpose is to visit Tony Fernández, Herald of Truth’s representative in Cuba. He continues to do amazing work, planting churches and ministering to those in existing churches. Our radio programs generate hundreds of responses every month; Tony follows up by mail, phone, and personal visits. No media outreach can be successful without consistent follow-up on the ground. We’re blessed to have people like Tony and his team.

Spiritual hunger in Cuba

tonyOne of the great things about working at Hope For Life / Herald of Truth is the fact that I get to work with some amazing people in other countries. One of them is Tony Fernández, who continues to inspire with stories of his work in Cuba. I’ve shared the following in several places, but wanted to share it here as well:

Neat story from Tony Fernandez in Cuba. He was coming back from Havana, and several other drivers warned him of a police control on an upcoming bridge. Sure enough, as Tony approached, the policeman was waving him over. Tony started getting his papers ready, but the policeman said, “Please, put your documents away. I just want to know if you can get me a Bible. That’s always been my dream, but I’ve never been able to get one.”
Tony didn’t have any with him, but told him where to hear the Herald of Truth radio program and gave him the post office box number so he could write in.
Reminds me that the thousands Herald of Truth raises every year for Bibles in Cuba are going to good use. And reminds me that we have faithful brethren around the world working hard to spread the message every day.