Thank you for praying us through!

IMG_2803Thank you for praying for the latest trip. Believe me, our team needed it! Just looking at what happened over a three-day period summarizes the type of battle we were in. And if you prayed, you helped us in that battle and should enjoy the victory with us!

January 15, in Miami: I arrive at the Miami airport along with Joe Owen of Answers in Genesis and Bruce and Lisa Burkholder of Independent Baptist Press. The charter airline has not received copies of our religious worker’s visas. This has never happened to me before. We are told we cannot board without an email from an office in Havana. I begin making phone calls to Cuba. The email finally comes.

However, a storm also comes. We board the plane a couple hours late due to bad weather between Miami and Cuba. We spend a long time on the runway before being cleared for take-off. As we finally land in Holguín, the pilot mentions to us that he was five minutes away from canceling the flight. Keith and Marilyn Kaynor, Debbie Naz, and our ACTION Cuba team have been waiting at the Holguín airport several hours for us. Keith had already had a long afternoon; his luggage was detained by customs for a couple of hours. But at least we are all finally together, all finally in Cuba.

Meanwhile, in Seattle: I arrive in Cuba to find out that my wife has had a severe headache all day, which is very worrisome since she had a stroke just ten weeks prior.

January 16, in Bayamo: With little sleep, Joe and Bruce begin their morning of teaching. The Kaynor team is running smoothly. After lunch I begin the 4-hour drive to Casa Esperanza. I am as excited as a little boy on Christmas Eve. On the way to Camaguey, though, I am notified that Celia’s headache has not dissipated, that she has been vomiting, and that the kids are taking her to the hospital. She is given medication intravenously and the kids take her back home.

January 17: We awake to news that there have been a dozen earthquakes overnight in Santiago measuring between 3 and 5 on the Richter scale. The government evacuates people from their homes and tells them to sleep in parks and in the Revolutionary Plaza. One of the families sleeping outdoors is that of pastor Javier Herrera, who is hosting our team for a Creationism conference the following day. I contact him and ask if he wants to cancel the event. He says no. The ACTION team travels from Bayamo to Santiago. A few of them tell me they were not able to sleep well due to nerves, since there were a couple more tremors that evening.

Victory: The conference started as scheduled, although with a lower attendance. The ground in Santiago settled down and the conference went well. Celia began to feel better. Alternán and I began purchasing things we needed in order to open Casa Esperanza. As the itinerary progressed we began to see many victories in different areas. Thank you for praying us forward through the battle!

New partnership with ShoesforTwo

Brian Celia and Shoes - revisedOur good friends the Renfroes of Austin, Texas, have launched a new organization that collects good quality pre-owned basketball shoes that have usually been “out grown” but have another season or two left in them.

The shoes are cleaned, disinfected and distributed at no charge to boys and girls who need a good pair of athletic shoes. For the kids, it’s like getting a brand new pair of shoes.

In January we received our first shipment of 18 pairs from the Renfroes and they look great!

Our team will be taking these down with us in January and we are already anticipating the smiles as we give them out.

Please check out the ShoesForTwo website: www.shoesfortwo.org

Fathers, sons, and 90 miles of water

1101000117_400The most famous name in Cuba is obviously “Fidel.” But do you know what the second-most famous name is? That would be “Elián,” the name of the little boy who was found floating alone in the sea in 1999 after his mother and 12 others tried unsuccessfully to reach Florida in a small boat. His mother, stepfather, and 7 other passengers perished but somehow little Elián, only 5 years old, survived, was found by fishermen and brought to Florida. Every single person in Cuba knows the name “Elián” and it’s not simply because he was miraculously protected out in the open sea.

What happened in his life afterward became a dramatic milestone in the already dramatic history between Cuba and the United States. Once rescued and given into the custody of his relatives on his mother’s side, his father, still in Cuba, publicly proclaimed that he wanted his son returned to him in Cuba. The relatives in Miami refused. This set off a firestorm that lasted several months.

I remember the details of this international incident so vividly because they occurred just two months after I made my first Cuban friend by email. This drama surrounding Elián captured the interest of both countries, as the press and the public debated politics vs. parental rights. All the animosity toward Fidel Castro came out, sometimes in ugly ways, and he was accused of manipulating the dad. The relatives in Miami, also vilified by some, were accused of valuing Disney World over Dad in little Elián’s life. America had a passionate national conversation as to whether it is better for a young, traumatized Cuban boy to grow up in Miami and have the luxuries of American life or be returned to his father to resume a meager life in Cuba. There were debates on American television and massive marches held in Havana.

EG 10 NewThe ordeal culminated in the amazing act of the US government sending in a SWAT team to pluck the boy from his relatives’ home in Miami in order to deliver him to the father, who traveled to the the States to claim his son.

I had not thought about Elián in a number of years because although everyone in Cuba knows his name he is no longer in the public eye. He is a college student who, although he will never escape his fame, has basically returned to a regular pattern of living.

On the last day of our team retreat, however, I found myself thinking very much about this young boy. We all went to a very beautiful park in order to have a devotional time together and the members of the team informed me that Elián’s father works at the small snack shop there. I was sort of stunned to hear that, because you would think that the dad, who is also a nationally known figure, would not be working in such a low-end position after being in the public eye so intensely.

emn285gonprt58omAfter our team had worshipped the Lord and prayed together, I walked over to the snack shop to see if it was true. I then had the pleasure of meeting Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián’s father.

Juan Miguel is a very friendly and gracious person who is obviously accustomed to having strangers, both Cuban and foreigners, come up to him and initiate conversations about his son. I was careful not to make any political comments regarding what happened fifteen years ago, but I did express to him what was really in my heart. I shared with him that I recall vividly everything he and his son lived through during those times. “I remember all your interviews on TV, including the one on 60 Minutes, and I feel you did very well considering you were thrown into impossible circumstances.”

He appreciated that sentiment and even invited Celia and me to return to the park later in the week so we could meet Elián. We unfortunately had to decline because our itinerary had us leaving the area the next day.

Me with Juan Miguel GonzalezThe question that was so hotly debated during the time of Elián’s rescue and his eventual return to his father in Cuba is still very pertinent today. That question is: is it better for fathers and sons to stay together in spite of poverty and lack of opportunity? Or might the cruel reality be that it is better for the sons in the long run to be separated from their fathers for a time so that eventually they can enjoy the benefits of American life?

I have been contemplating this question regularly over the past two months since a dear friend and close colleague surprisingly left Cuba with his wife, leaving their two young sons in the care of the grandparents. It will be at least 18 months before the parents will be able to see the sons again, and will be longer than that for the children to be authorized to join their parents in the United States. That seems like a long time to be separated from your children especially when they’re in their early teens, but I am sure the parents have done it with the intention of establishing a new life of opportunity. They would probably say that a couple of years apart will be a small price to pay for their children to go to college in the USA and live their adult lives here.

I’m saddened and disappointed by the parents’ decision but I cannot and do not judge them because I have never really lived in Cuba as a Cuban. Though I have been to the country 48 times and on many trips have stayed in private homes, I am aware that my knowledge of what real life is like for the average Cuban is nonetheless limited. Although I know how long it takes them every day to find food for their families, even when they have money available, I’ve never actually had to live through that for an extended period. Though I have had some challenges as a foreigner ministering within the system, I’ve never had to deal with that for months and years in a row and I’ve always had the option of simply going back home. I’m in no position to judge, but I can tell you how disappointed I am that over the last three years our team has lost three important colleagues who have left the country, each one leaving their children behind with the hope of bringing them to America.

So far, none of them have accomplished it.

“Retreating” in order to advance

Team picture - cropped
Though I have been ministering in Cuba for fifteen years, it was only in 2013 that we organized a full-time team of regional leaders who would dedicate themselves to ACTION’s vision, projects, and partnerships. Working with these godly and gifted men and their families the past two years has been an amazing blessing to me. Through their diligent efforts our ministry has grown greatly (both in quality and quantity) and I have been freed up from many administrative and logistical concerns.

In celebration of what God has done to knit us together in ministry, we held our first team retreat in mid-October. We traveled from Seattle, Bayamo, Camaguey, Artemisa and Caimito to spend three days together on one of the beautiful beaches of Varadero. Pictured from left to right in the image above are: the Gomero family (Jamie, David, Yaíma and Grace); the Zamora family (Liliana, Ayán, Litsandra, Litsari); Eliseo Navarro and his wife, Marelis; Celia and me; and the Claro family (Arelis, Alternán, Bety, Daner, and Moisés).

Of course, we did it “Cuban style” by renting out three adajcent houses for only $100 per night total and cooking our own meals. It was an unforgettable time of team-building. Or should I say creating family, because we really feel like family. We played volleyball and “keep away” in the water, shared meals, walked around town, rode a roller coaster together, went bowling (many for the first time!) and had structured meeting time in the evenings. This relaxed retreat helped us prepare for what appears to be an amazingly busy 2016 and we made a number of important decisions to clarify our focus.

Thank you for allowing our team to be your bridge to what God is doing in Cuba. We love working together for the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and count it a privilege to have your support.

When trouble comes

Nelson Reed and David Gomero - smallThe common phrase is that “trouble comes in threes. “That stands as a warning to us that bad things happen in bunches. But what to do when trouble, due to its contentious nature, refuses to abide by that limit? We are currently experiencing a season like that.

For us it started with our daughter experiencing a dark presence in her room at night that made her afraid. We dealt with that in the power of the name of Jesus. The next Monday, Celia was moving a heavy box and decided to drop it to the floor from about waist height. It bounced off the ground strangely and hit her in the ankle, causing it to swell to the size of a baseball. (It has now been several weeks and even after medical attention she is unable to bear any weight on it without severe pain.)

Four days later our youngest son made an ill-advised left turn and was T-boned. We are grateful that he is okay, though the car was totaled. 48 hours later our other car died as I was driving it on the freeway; the transmission gave out.

I thought at this point we had filled our quota of trouble, but there was more heartbreak coming.

Last Monday I was informed that the founder and leader of our Hope of Life hospital ministry had left Cuba along with his wife, leaving behind their two teenage sons. They planned this secretly and it came as a disheartening betrayal to all of us who had ongoing ministry plans with them.

Then on Wednesday night we received a phone call that split us into pieces. The 29-year-old son of our good friends Nelson and Linda Reed, ACTION’s International Directors, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Stephen was living at home as he pursued business and philanthropic ventures, so was with his parents daily. I can’t imagine the pain the Reeds are going through. I’ve worked alongside Nelson (pictured at the top of this post) almost every day for several years and I love and admire him. The sudden loss of Stephen has brought heartbreak to the whole ACTION family, as he was also the nephew of ACTION’s Founders, Doug and Margi Nichols.

So, as Paul Simon wrote in one of his songs, “What is the point of this story? What information pertains?”These things are certainly not written by me to garner sympathy or to give the impression we have it worse than anyone else. Everyone faces challenging seasons of life. (As the sign in the dentist’s office says: spit happens.) Our observation, though, is that the “trouble comes in threes” is a gross understatement. The Lord teaches us exactly this, and in fact He might rephrase our common saying to “trouble comes in 365’s.”

His precise statement is, “Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Every day of life has the potential to degenerate into a pitching machine that sends fastballs at you faster than you can possibly swing your bat.

The key is that although troubles come, we are not to let them trouble us. There is great personal victory and great glory to God when in the midst of it all we do not let our hearts become troubled or fearful (John 14:27). Good luck trying that without Jesus because our human strategies are insufficient for 365 days of trouble — think “coping mechanisms” and such. But with the Lord Jesus we can face the fastballs of life without losing our faith or losing our temper. His peace is real. Celia and I are seeing that reality right now in the lives of Linda and Nelson Reed and we are learning that ourselves.

The Lord is good, but not in the sense that He causes our Christian lives to be trouble-free. That is coming at some point for us, but it’s not how He manifests His goodness today. Rather, He is good because He is with us in the midst of trouble and because His empathy is based on real-life experience. (He might even have a T-shirt in His closet that says: Planet earth — been there, done that.) Jesus knows experientially about spiritual attacks, about physical pain, about betrayal, and about losing someone close to Him. He knows and He cares, and at the right moment, when His overarching purposes have been accomplished, He will cause all trouble to cease.

For now let us take comfort in what the prophet Nahum writes: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him.”

May you be blessed in Him today.

Give a pastor a bike for only $169

Bikes for delivery in JuneWould you spend a year’s salary on a car?

Depending on what you make in a year, it may be that you would. After all, transportation is an essential part of our family and work life. Where my wife and I live, for example, public transportation just doesn’t get us everywhere we need to go.

But would you spend a years’ salary on a bike?

Unless you are a professional rider gearing up for the Tour de France I assume you would not!

Amazingly, in Cuba a pastor or church-planter in a rural area would have to do exactly that. In order to purchase a bicycle he would have to save up an amount equivalent to his annual income.

God never takes a vacation

IMG_20150818_160406As featured in last month’s snail-mail newsletter, our Bikes for Pastors ministry has been blessed with many generous donations this year. Our team absolutely loves this project but as donations increased we encountered a problem: we were unable to find enough bikes to purchase!

Ayán Zamora, our representative in the eastern part of the island, recently wrote me the following: “I am sorry to tell you there are no bikes in any of the eastern provinces. My wife has the phone numbers of stores in all the major cities and she calls them every week to see if they have bikes available.” I was hearing the same thing from David Gomero in the west and Alternán Claro in the central region. Keep in mind this is Cuba and this is just how things are.

ACTION celebrates 40 years of ministry

Jubilee Logo- croppedIn July ACTION missionaries gathered in Three Hills, Alberta, to participate in a weeklong Jubilee celebration to commemorate the mission’s 40 years of service.

It was a wonderful time of seeking the Lord and rejoicing over four decades of ministry completed in over two dozen countries by hundreds of Christian workers. The event was hosted by missionaries and staff from the ACTION Canada office in Calgary, and attendance was a bit under 200. All regions of our mission were represented from across the globe.

Held on the campus of Prairie College, the alma mater of many of ACTION’s founders and leaders, the Jubilee included times of worship and teaching led by Calgary pastors Ashwin Ramani and Ian Trigg. There were also excursions to Banff, the Calgary Stampede, the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, and the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

Expressions of gratitude

One of my most pleasant tasks as Director of ACTION Cuba is to translate into English the thank-you notes we receive from men who have been blessed by our Bikes for Pastors project. I translate them and send them to each donor, along with a picture of the pastor with his bicycle. Here are some expressions of gratitude we have received recently:

CalixtoCalixto Chala González, Methodist pastor:
I thank our Lord Jesus Christ and the ACTION ministry and all the donors for their love and for blessing us with this bicycle. This will help me keep serving the work of the Lord with all my heart. I bless you and have no words to express my gratitude. I hardly believed it when brother Ayán told me the good news and I was so excited that I just had to kneel down to thank God for this gift. God bless you!

 

MiltonMilton Cadet Brown, Baptist pastor:
God bless your ministry. You have been a channel of blessing to us. The bicycle will be used to visit the brethren and disciple them, and to evangelize others. That work is almost impossible to do without a bicycle. We thank all those who were involved in such a blessing. God bless you, and we will be praying for you.