EDITOR's NOTE: This story has been translated into Spanish by David Raúl Lema, Jr.
“Their sacrifices were incredible,” said Ezell, president of the SBC North American Mission Board (formerly the Home Mission Board) as he reflected upon the missionaries’ ordeal in the years following the Castro-led Revolution. The two men remained as prisoners until their release in 1969.
Ezell’s March 21-23 visit—on the eve of Pope Benedict’s official stopover on the Caribbean island nation—marked the first time an HMB president had visited Cuba since William Tanner traveled there in 1978, nearly four decades ago.
The NAMB president was in Cuba as a guest of the Florida Baptist Convention to attend the WCBC’s annual meeting at historic Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Havana. The building located around the block from the country’s capital building was originally purchased through Annie Armstrong Mission Offering funds.
Traveling with Ezell were John Sullivan, Florida’s executive director-treasurer, who preached during the annual meeting, Carlos Ferrer, NAMB vice president and chief financial officer, and state convention staff members Craig Culbreth and Dennis Wilbanks.
The Florida Baptist Convention has partnered with the WCBC since 1996 and funds 51 percent of its annual operating budget, earmarking more than $1.8 million for the past 15 years to underwrite pastoral salary assistance, theological education and leader training.
For Ezell and Ferrer the trip was the opportunity to see the foundation established by the HMB when it first sent missionaries to the country in 1886. The WCBC, organized in 1905, flourished under the HMB support. Through a letter writing campaign by home missionary Annie Armstrong, the Board purchased the Calvary Church in 1888, as well as the seminary and a retirement home for senior adults to further the Cuban Baptists’ mission.
Then in 1959 after the Cuban Revolution, WCBC churches were persecuted as Cuba was declared an atheistic country until 1992 when it was formally changed to “secularist.”
The Communist Party’s initial crackdown on the spread of Christianity drew the Cuban Baptists together as they sought to survive in a hostile regime.
Despite such adversity, in recent years the work of the WCBC grew as leaders functioned under the government’s regulations and restrictions by focusing on evangelism and church planting. While much freer to worship, the government will not allow Baptists to purchase new buildings for churches or ministries.
So it was the foresight of the HMB and Cuban Baptists in purchasing buildings before the 1960s that enabled the WCBC to prosper today.
Ezell said it was “inspiring to see the passion and the vision of Annie Armstrong and others to purchase such property. They did then what they cannot do now,” he said.
Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Annie Armstrong offering a century ago “gave them credibility and a sense of permanence that exists today,” he said.
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