Cuban Baptists rally to aid Sandy's victims

SANTIAGO, Cuba (BP) -- Hurricane Sandy's torrential rains and 105 mph winds slammed eastern Cuba Oct. 25, killing 11 people, among them a couple from First Baptist Church in the hard-hit coastal city of Santiago.

The Baptist couple, whose names were not released, died when a wall collapsed in their home during the storm.

Hurricane Sandy devastated their city of Santiago, affecting nearly 70 percent of the area, news reports said. The storm destroyed 15,000 homes and damaged some 115,000 others.

Many of the 150 churches and 200 house churches affiliated with the Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba were damaged; some were destroyed. The convention's seminary and home for the elderly sustained damage.

Despite their losses, Cuban Baptists in Santiago are reaching out to the community, according to International Mission Board representatives and area pastors.

"The great thing is even in the midst of all the challenges and difficulties that are being faced right now, a lot of the pastors we've been able to speak to and the members of their churches just immediately began to step up to the plate," said an IMB representative who travels frequently to Cuba. "Even though they themselves had had a lot of loss and a lot of damage, they've been coming together to try to help people in the community."

The storm's intensity caught many people unprepared, reports said. Debris, fallen trees and downed electrical poles now block most of the area's roads, making it difficult to deliver aid supplies by vehicle. The storm also caused a citywide power outage predicted to last several more weeks.

To meet the pressing needs for food and water, local Baptist churches have begun setting up the first of 35 planned soup kitchens throughout Santiago and other locations ravaged by the storm.

"As a church, we have proposed to invest all our efforts and resources to help the needy," one local pastor wrote in a letter to the president of the Baptist Convention of Eastern Cuba. "Today we began to prepare food. Early in the morning we only had a little bit of rice, but thanks to God, with the contributions of various members, we were able to feed 60 people. Tomorrow we will cook for 100. We know this is insufficient, but we have already begun. God will continue to provide."

Local Cuban Baptists also are gathering clothing and other supplies for people in need. Fourth Baptist Church of Santiago has made their generator available daily so locals can charge cell phones and batteries and watch the television news.

As local Baptists met immediate needs, Cuban Baptists from the western side of the island quickly stepped in to help.

"As soon as the hurricane had passed," said the IMB representative, "[leaders from the Baptist Convention of Western Cuba] discovered what some needs were, and they immediately loaded a truck with a lot of rice that they had stored for a hurricane and sent it with other foodstuffs and purified water and other things they felt would be needed."

In addition to meeting physical needs, Cuban Baptists are using the opportunity to reach out to their neighbors spiritually, the IMB worker said.

"Our brothers and sisters [in Cuba] are recognizing that this terrible situation is an amazing opportunity to share the love of Christ in very real and tangible ways," he said. "They take the call to share the Gospel very seriously at all times. But in the midst of their own suffering, that actually draws the church together and it helps them to focus on finding the real needs of their neighbors and demonstrating the love of Christ."

The disaster has motivated Cuban Baptists to intensify efforts in meeting their national goal of seeing 1 million new believers in Cuba by the year 2020, known as the "20/20 Vision," the IMB representative said.

"Cuban Baptists from both the Eastern and Western Baptist conventions are very strong, mission-minded, Great Commission Christians," he said. "And I think, as tragic as this is, this is an opportunity to be a part of seeing a million new believers by 2020. That's an amazing perspective on things, just recognizing in the midst of this tragedy, God is going to do something amazing for those who love Him."

In the wake of the disaster, Baptist Global Response released $5,000 in emergency funds and anticipates soon providing more funds for relief efforts, said a BGR official. In addition, the Florida Baptist Convention has contributed $5,000 in aid and other state Baptist conventions are planning assistance.


Emily Pearson is an International Mission Board writer living in the Americas.