by Greg Ketteman
The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary in Cuba was established in 1944 by pioneer Free Will Baptist missionary Thomas H. “Pop” Willey. Its goal was to train Cuban ministers for churches planted in the island nation. Sixteen years later, due to government restrictions and austere economic conditions, the seminary was shuttered from 1960 through the late 1980s. By 1989, when the seminary reopened, the need for trained ministers and church workers in Cuban Free Will Baptist churches was greater than ever. As conditions in Cuba changed, and with the help of American Free Will Baptists, the seminary built new facilities to accommodate students who came to study.
The FWBBC-Cuba Connection
Free Will Baptist Bible College has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with the seminary. In 2009 we committed our support to Dean Ariel Alfaro in a letter to the Cuban government confirming our educational relationship with the institution. We promised to send teachers to the campus periodically to teach upper level and graduate courses. Two FWBBC professors have already been to the seminary to teach—Missions Program Coordinator Ron Callaway and President Matt Pinson. The college also sponsored courses taught by North Carolina pastor and educator Eddie Moody and by Tom Willey, Jr., son of the seminary’s founder.
When I met Dean Alfaro at FWBBC in 2009, he asked me to come to Cuba and teach a course in school administration. Arrangements were made for me to travel to the seminary in October 2011. Veteran missionary Ron Callaway accompanied me as guide and translator. We left Nashville October 21 and returned October 30.
Arriving in Havana, I saw coconut palms and picturesque mountains along the northeastern coast of the island. We drove from Havana to Pinar del Rio, past large tracts of land where sugar cane processing cooperatives operate and starkly-designed government buildings house state-owned universities. Vintage American automobiles from the 1950s roam the streets (one of my favorite things, sort of like attending an antique car show, except these cars were used as regular transportation). Small homes are built entirely of poured concrete, framed by crumbling sidewalks and long-neglected streets with serious potholes.
Horse-drawn, two-wheeled carts and old dump trucks provided transportation for many people. Crowds stood on the side of streets in Havana and Pinar, walking or with Cuban pesos in hand signaling that they would pay for a ride. We saw many people alongside the main road from Havana to Pinar.
They Found a Way
The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary occupies seven acres of Cuban farmland, a beautiful oasis of Christian faith and hope in a nation that has experienced spiritual and political oppression for decades. A large worship center, dining hall and classroom complex, and several dormitories accommodate the needs of a growing student body. The chaplain, academic dean, and seminary director live in modest 1950s-era campus housing.
My gracious hosts were Ariel and Yamilis Alfaro. Ariel has an insatiable desire to grasp scriptural theology and has developed into one of the most capable Free Will Baptist theologians. He has a passionate vision for the seminary to grow and meet the spiritual needs of the people of Cuba. Yamilis is mother to all the seminary students. The students came to their home at all hours and obviously look to the couple as role models and second parents.
We found a joyous, indomitable spirit among Cuban Christians who worship in tidy churches packed with people. They have learned to work hard and creatively to make the most of their resources. Their vision is to raise a generation of educated, well-prepared Christian leaders who are salt and light in a society heavily influenced by agnosticism, atheism, and socialism.
We attended the church led by Pastor Orlando Gigato on Sunday. The service was encouraging, the singing enthusiastic, and the Word of God read and quoted skillfully. As I spoke through translator Ron Callaway, I observed the congregation’s response and was humbled at how graciously and attentively they received my words. That night, we returned to an evangelistic service where the church youth had a major role providing music prior to Brother Callaway’s sermon. Although the service was in Spanish, I was moved by the responses.
Hungry to Know
I found it remarkable that the college students are so hungry to learn. Twenty-five people attended the school administration course I taught at the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary, sitting four hours a day on wooden benches. Many of them went to additional seminary courses, which meant another four hours on the same wooden benches. I wish all students were as attentive and eager to learn as these. It was rewarding to see how they responded to the ideas and concepts we discussed, and how they engaged in discussions about the topics presented.
My class included seminary administrators, a veterinarian, two chemists, and several teachers, one of whom who taught Spanish at the university. Local Free Will Baptist pastors came for the class as well as seminary interns who had already finished their programs. They enjoyed reading the articles I had asked Mr. Callaway to translate for the course, and these sparked vigorous discussions that led to teaching opportunities.
We attended chapel Thursday night, and distributed gifts sent from the WAC group at Cross Timbers FWB Church (Nashville) to seminary students. Needles, thread, personal shampoo and soap, small items of jewelry, and other items were divided and wrapped for distribution to students. This was quite meaningful to them, and the student body president rose to express thanks on behalf of the students. Half the gifts sent by the Cross Timbers WAC were delivered to women in Havana working to establish a ministry to prostitutes. The sewing supplies and other products will be used to provide training for women desperate to escape sin’s bondage.
Mr. Callaway and I left for Havana to return to the U.S. on Friday afternoon. We stayed in the home of long-time Cuban Christians, Miguel and Nora. Nora, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, was recovering from her first chemotherapy treatment. She and her husband insisted that Ron and I sleep in the only air-conditioned room the night before we left for the Havana airport. Miguel, a physics professor, enjoyed our lengthy conversation about the use of statistical data in research and biblical creationism. Brother Callaway patiently and skillfully translated the professional jargon for us.
Five Lessons Learned
We headed to the airport at 4:30 the next morning. The flight from Havana to Miami departed late, and we missed our scheduled flight in Miami. Later that night, we experienced weather delays but finally arrived in Nashville at 1:00 a.m. At one point, Brother Callaway prayed, “Lord, we didn’t want it, but you’ve provided us with lessons in patience, and we thank you.”
Ron Callaway Impact. My experience in Cuba made a major impression on my understanding in several areas. First, I saw the impact of Ron Callaway’s missionary ministry. He is a vital link to the past, the present, and the future in the Cuban work. I’m thankful for Ron’s willingness to invest his life in ministry to Spanish-speaking people, and for the way God has blessed Ron’s investment with the trust and respect of our Cuban brothers and sisters.
Translation Frustration. Second, I understood first-hand, the isolation, frustration, and helplessness of people who do not speak the native language. Without my babysitter, Ron Callaway, I couldn’t even carry on a simple conversation about the family’s pet or the good meal. Although Ron was very patient, I regret that he had to spend his time helping me with every interaction.
Cuban Determination. Third, I was amazed at the joy of Cuban believers and their determination to press on in spite of difficulty. I was humbled by their willingness to accept me unconditionally (knowing only that I was Brother Ron’s friend and coworker). I am challenged to be more thankful for the resources and circumstances He grants in my life.
Transforming Gospel Power. Fourth, I couldn’t get away from the great need for the transforming power of the gospel in Cuba. The people and the entire country are in serious need of an “extreme makeover” that can only come from the power of the gospel and Christian values that the Holy Spirit brings to the hearts of men.
Prayer Awareness. Fifth, I am praying with newfound awareness for Cuban Free Will Baptist leaders to have the wisdom, courage, and understanding to maximize their resources and opportunities. These sincere men of God want to see the gospel transform Cuba, one heart at a time. I intend to do what I can to help as they seek to honor Him in this great task.
About the Writer: Greg Ketteman is provost at Free Will Baptist Bible College. Learn more at www.fwbbc.edu.