By Katieanne Rickwood and Derial Ogburn
Editor’s note: Nine United Methodists from South Carolina, led by Derial Ogburn, headed to Cuba Nov. 1-10 for a mission trip to do construction on a church in Mayari. The work project was to remove the A-frame on an existing building and replace it with a flat concrete roof. Through the hard work of the team and the congregation, the project was completed a day early. Another trip to Cuba is planned for this November.
The church in Cuba is vibrant. Church services are full, the members worship enthusiastically and they are generous with their time and resources. It is also growing by leaps and bounds every day. The best ways that I can think of to explain this are by telling you about the ministries of the church, house church planting and some of the stories of astounding individuals we met while we were there.
We spent 10 days in Mayarí in the province of Holguín in Cuba. We were the guests of the district superintendent, Pastor Isel. He has his own church because in the Cuban Methodist Church, the superintendents and the bishop all have their own churches to pastor in addition to their leadership duties.
We had the opportunity to worship at his church several times throughout the week. The church has grown from a church of 100 to almost 500 during the time he has been there. It also seemed to be a hub of activity all week long, from Saturday Seminary, to fasting and prayer gatherings, to extra church services, to the construction project we were doing.
On Sunday morning I began to discover the other ministries there: They have a rocking praise team led by a volunteer minister of music, Abelai. They have not one but three teams of praise dancers. They have a clown ministry to get more children involved in the church, and they have a flourishing Sunday school ministry, as well. There is a youth pastor named Yunior (also a volunteer) who often helps the youth lead church services, and he has worked very hard to form the last ministry on this list: a black light theater ministry where the youth act out verses or scenes from the Bible in the dark under blacklight accompanied by song.
This church has taken a very little and made it blossom. But there is more.
The house churches are the fascinating first step of the process used by the Cuban Methodist church for growth. We visited one our second night there. They meet in a church member’s house. It was a very neat, rather small living room. The regular members insisted on sitting on the floor so that the members of our team would have a place to sit. Pastor Isel told us there are thousands meeting every Thursday night across his district alone (to say nothing of house churches in other districts. They worship and study the Bible. Once a house church has about 20 or so members, it becomes a mission, and eventually that mission becomes a full-blown church.
Where is the leadership found for these mission churches? Well, remember the Saturday Seminary classes I mentioned? Those students are training to lead mission churches. If their leadership in those churches goes smoothly, they are sent to seminary in Havana to prepare to pastor a full church.
Now this is all very beautiful on paper, but the fact is that a lot of what makes things run the way they do—what made it an exciting trip for us and for our team—were the people. God has called some incredible people to work in his service in Cuba. The pastor, Isel, and his wife, Lisy, have grown the church and the district while dealing with their children’s health issues, searching for supplies to rebuild the sanctuary (which was in a shambles when they arrived) and training area leaders, not to mention checking on other churches after disasters like hurricanes. The driver/minister of music, Abelai, always smiles, organizes everything beautifully and then humbly sits in the background playing drums during church services while letting others take the forefront. The enthusiastic and charismatic youth pastor Yunior keeps the attention of the youth even though he is advocating a lifestyle much more difficult than that of their peers. He is teaching himself English, as well.
Pastor Isel and his wife both quit their studies for prestigious and coveted careers (he would have been a veterinarian and she would have been a doctor). They got married and attended seminary together. They have been moved all over Cuba since then in service of the church, partially because he has a reputation for being able to solve problems. He is humble and willing to do just about anything.
My first day I saw him mix cement in his good clothes to do a quick repair that would make the church yard safe for the children the next day. He would sometimes leave before dawn for meetings, come back and get groceries for our team and then get into construction clothes and help with the work on the building. He also worked on the church van when it broke down. If he is not out of town he prays with his children before school and then walks his son to school. He is a magnificent and respected preacher, but so is his wife. She serves as the pastor in his absence. The church has great respect for her and her preaching as well.
The mission project
The work project was to remove the A-frame on an existing building and replace it with a flat concrete roof. As always, there was a local skilled supervisor and several other workers. We also painted and installed doors on the church educational building. The temperature in the day was in the mid-80s, a little hot but tolerable. Removing the metal roof and wooden structures was not difficult and went rapidly.
We then moved to installing the wooden supports for the concrete roof. Next came the cutting and assembling of the rebar frame. The concrete mixer was bought in on Tuesday, but with no motor, which showed up on Wednesday morning. The motor was attached to the mixer with bungee cords and turned on. Fifteen men from the church also showed up on Wednesday. We started pouring concrete at 7 a.m., took a short lunch break, and finished the 14- by 30-foot roof by 2:30 p.m. We finished with a full day (Thursday) to spare.
One of the highlights of our mission was a visit to a church in the mountains. Pastor Rolando, his wife and two small children live in a small house next door to a beautiful church overlooking the town of Mayari. We rode on a metal trailer pulled by a huge tractor. The road was impassable by car. We enjoyed a wonderful meal under a big mango tree.
We were so impressed by Pastor Isel that we invited him to come visit us in the United States. He came in January, and we were highly blessed by the visit.
On Tuesday, Jan. 9, he toured Columbia, was presented in the State Senate and House of Representatives, met Hartsville District Suprintendent Dr. Robin Dease and attended a meeting of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission South Carolina. He was interviewed on an AM gospel radio station and had time to fellowship in the evening with the members of the UMVIM team and their families. On Thursday he had some rest, saw some of the countryside and attended a women’s basketball game at the University of South Carolina.
On Friday he spent quality time with several members of the St. Paul UMC, and Friday night they had a service and he preached. On Saturday, he accompanied some of the team to the zoo. He took the cold in stride and was particularly excited about feeding the giraffe.
On Sunday he had a whirlwind tour of Wesley UMC and two services at Lyttleton Street UMC with a stop off at a church that meets at Columbia Mall in between, but for me the highlight of the trip was the service that he preached at LSUMC that night. The worship team caught word that he could play the bongos, so both before and after he preached he hopped up on stage and played with the band. Then he preached a sermon on Lazarus. Using both humor and a keen command of the Scriptures, he talked about the ways we should ask God to speak power into our lives.
It was a great culmination to a week of sharing and fellowship, and I hope it is the beginning of a fresh move of the Holy Spirit in this country. In what ways can God newly multiply our vast resources if we let him speak power into our church as well?
Another team will return to Cuba in November to do more mission work. The team’s assignment is Camp Cannan near Santa Clara. Anyone interested in going can contact Ogburn at 803-237-3005 or email@example.com.
By Katieanne Rickwood and Derial Ogburn