The memories came flooding back to me as we sat at table together. A week ago I had dinner with Rev. Omar Correa Suárez, the pastor of the Herradura Methodist Church in Cuba. I was taken back to 1996 when First UMC, Grand Rapids, initiated a sister church relationship with the Herradura Methodist Church. After having adopted an inner city school in Grand Rapids a few years before, the Missions Commission at First Church dreamed of replicating that type of ongoing relationship in another country.
After an initial scouting trip in 1996 to find the right church (with the help of the Methodist bishop in Cuba), I and my two daughters, Talitha and Sarah, ages 9 and 14, were part of our first annual mission trip to Herradura in 1997. Little did I know that 13 years later, Sarah would be a Spanish teacher, Talitha would be fluent in Spanish and have traveled to Cuba 4 times, and the bonds with our sister church would remain strong and spirit-filled. Over the years, both congregations have given themselves to each other in reckless abandon.
What does First UMC offer to their sister church in Cuba?
- First UMC has contributed over $200,000 to the church in Herradura in cash, medicines, clothing and other needed equipment and supplies. A few years ago a First Church family of modest means was so supportive of our Cuba partnership that they made a sacrificial gift of $6,000 to purchase a car for the pastor of the Herradura Methodist Church.
- Yes, the people in the small town of Herradura are extremely poor, and they need so much. But the simple and consistent presence of United Methodists from Grand Rapids means more to them than all of the things we bring. The highlight of their year is First UMC’s annual spring break trip.
- Because of the tenuous relationship between the United States and Cuba, the mission teams are not allowed to be “work teams.” Therefore, they spend time building relationships, hanging out, playing baseball, worshipping and visiting the many small missions established by the mother church.
- First UMC makes it a priority to include children and youth in their mission trips. Youth serve as translators, do devotions and learn how to become future mission team leaders. They also connect well with Cuban youth through sports, games and outings.
- The people of First UMC give the people of the Herradura Methodist Church hope for a world where we are all one in Christ Jesus.
What do the people of the Herradura Methodist Church offer to First UMC?
- They offer glimpses of a joy in Christ that transcends the depths of their poverty.
- They model a passion for evangelism. The Herradura Methodist Church is continually starting missions by training and sending out lay people to witness and pastor. Once the missions grow to a certain size, they become independent churches, and new missions are started.
- Their intense spirit-filled worship engages all of the senses and is contagious.
- They demonstrate extravagant generosity. The children in Herradura own almost nothing: no toys, no clothes, not even paper and pencils for writing. One year, a little Cuban girl was so intent on expressing gratitude for her new American friends that she gave her only possession, a doll, to a teen in our church. That doll remains a treasured possession for this now young adult.
- The people of Herradura offer to the people of First UMC hope for a world where all of God’s people will one day experience shalom.
A few weeks ago Pastor Omar was allowed to leave Cuba for the first time ever to visit his Methodist brothers and sisters in Michigan. He took his first plane ride, stayed in a hotel room for the first time, had his first experience with snow, ate his first Big Mac (he wasn’t impressed) and was blown away by wandering around Meijer. Because the mission of the Grand Rapids District is to connect and support vital ministries of Jesus Christ, I will introduce Pastor Omar during the business session at our District Conference this Sunday at Northlawn UMC.
Knowing that many of our smaller churches do not have the human and financial resources to initiate an extensive partner church ministry, I want to give you the opportunity to meet Omar and ponder whether God might be calling your congregation to adopt a sister church in Cuba. Part of that “adoption” could include underwriting the salary of the pastor of a mission church for just $30 a month ($360 a year). You could also send some folks from your church to visit your sister church by linking up with First Church mission teams. If you would like more information about any of these opportunities, please contact Tim Zeller, Cuba mission team leader at First Church, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you involved in mission initiatives in your congregation where other churches might also be able to participate? Let me know, and I’ll get the word out.
Twelve years ago, I wrote, “On the Friday night before we left Cuba, we stayed at the Methodist Center in Havana, a former school converted into a dormitory and conference center for Methodists in Cuba. As I lay on the top bunk trying to keep cool, an open window just inches away, I suddenly felt a gentle breeze blow over me.
“At that moment, I knew it was the wind of the Holy Spirit. For along with the breeze came an inexpressible feeling of joy, gratitude and thankfulness for our trip. I don’t think we will ever be able to explain the love we felt from the people of the Methodist Church in Herradura. From the first night when we hesitantly gave our Spanish testimonies in church, to the last night, when the pastor at Herradura gave us a moving send-off and the people sang ‘Michigan for Christ,’ rather than the traditional ‘Cuba for Christ,’ we felt utterly loved and accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Lying on that bunk, listening to the sounds of a busy Friday night in Havana, feeling the wind of the Spirit, and trying to take it all in, I thought to myself, ‘This must be heaven. There is no place on this earth I’d rather be than right here right now. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God meant for us to adopt Herradura as our sister church.’”
Mission is transformative. Mission is life-giving.
Mission opens our eyes, hearts and wallets. Mission calls us to look beyond ourselves.
You won’t want to miss the District Conference this Sunday from 3 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. You’ll get to meet Pastor Omar, plus be inspired by Dr. James Salley tell the story of Africa University. Who knows? You may end up giving yourself in reckless abandon on a mission team to Zimbabwe or Cuba some day! If you do, it will be one more glimpse of the kingdom of heaven in our midst.