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.

Building a bridge between Michigan and Cuba

Child receiving a drawingOur ministry team performs many functions but one of the main things we do is act as a bridge that reaches from warm-hearted Christians in North America to people in need down in Cuba. It is a great privilege that God has given us this role.

The pictures on this page are examples of our “bridge” ministry. A homeschooling group in Lansing, Michigan, made notes of encouragement for the children battling cancer in Camaguey.

Cassie, the organizer of this project, sent me the drawings and I forwarded them to my friend Pat for him to carry down to Bayamo in April. Then our team member Ayán delivered them to pastor Yoán and in May the Hope of Life team handed the notes out during their visit to the hospital.

Thank you all for your love and effort!

Free “Man of Faith” books for your church or group

Man of Faith book stack


Author Lim Kou of Singapore clears up many misconceptions about faith

 

Dear Friends,

It delights the heart of God when His children learn to walk by faith.

But misconceptions abound regarding the nature of true faith and what it means for the believer to live by faith.

What is biblical faith?

Where does faith come from and how does it grow?

How can we exercise faith when we feel spiritually dry and God seems far away?

ACTION ministry partner Lim Kou of Singapore addresses these and other questions in his book “Man of Faith.”

I highly recommend this book to you (you can read my complete review below) and would like to offer it to you for free. Brother Kou is someone whose teaching I trust and I think you will be edified by his approach to the subject of faith. You may even want multiple copies to give out to your church or Bible study group.

You can evaluate it for yourself by downloading the entire book as a PDF file by clicking here.

Then if you would like the book in paperback format, please use the button below to request either one free copy for only $2.60 postage or a box of 80 free copies for only $19 postage. The link will allow you to reimburse me for shipping via credit card or PayPal account.

I can only mail these books to USA addresses. You may also arrange to pick up books from our office in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, at no cost. You are welcome to distribute the book overseas if you are traveling on a missions trip.

I trust this book will be as much of a blessing to you as it has been to me and to thousands of pastors in Cuba.

Yours in Christ,

Brian Stewart
Director, ACTION Cuba


Select number of copies:



Author Lim Kou has made these books available at no charge (except for postage) for careful distribution to those who intend to read them.

Here is my full review of the book:

In the Scriptures the concept of faith seems to be fairly simple and rather straightforward. But in everyday life we Christians tend to complicate the matter by developing man-made definitions of what faith is and then attempting to live our lives by those false standards. Many a believer has found himself sad and disillusioned not because the Lord has failed him in some way, but because the believer had false expectations that were not met. These are hard lessons to learn (I speak from experience!) but they are necessary in order to truly live a life of faith that pleases God.

“Man of Faith” by Lim Kou helps the reader clearly see the false concepts of faith that are common in our churches today. The small section at the beginning of the book on the misconceptions about faith is an expert diagnosis of where many believers have been misguided in their thinking. And the rest of this excellent book teaches us what faith truly is and what the normal outworking of our faith should look like in our daily lives. For this reason, “Man of Faith” is a book worthy of the attention of every believer.

Here is a video of pastors in Cuba receiving free copies of Kou’s books in Spanish:

False teachers will flood into Cuba soon

Pastor preaching - from LightstockOur ministry really needs a strong base of prayer support for all that we do, especially with the enormous changes that are about to wash over Cuba and the Church there, as the relations between our two countries normalize.

Changes are indeed coming and ACTION Cuba and the Cuban Church in general need your prayer for wisdom. It seems to me that more businessmen and politicians have been to Cuba in the past four weeks than in the past 50 years. Guess who also wants to be part of this new “opening” of Cuba? All the false religions and crackpots you can imagine. Cuba has been so hard to minister in over these years that very few of us have made it our life’s work, and boy, has it been work!

Now that people have the impression it may be easier, I am receiving emails every week from groups that want my help to travel down and teach in Cuba. When I check them out on the internet I find their material to be way far out there — and not in the laid-back John Denver “faaar out” of the 1970’s. No, these groups have dangerous, far-out teachings about God that clash dangerously with His true eternal attributes that are clearly demonstrated to humanity through creation, conscience, and Christ on the cross. These pseudo-Christian groups are headed to Cuba one way or another and I am not sure the Church there is ready for the battle.

Please pray!