Miami pastor first spoke out, then gained ministry to Gonzalez family

by David Lema Jr., posted Tuesday, April 25, 2000 (19 years ago)

MIAMI (BP)--Perhaps it was because Misael Castillo came to the United States from Cuba when he was 6 years old as a political refugee or perhaps because he is a father with a 6-year-old at home and knows exactly what his child needs the most -- whatever the reason, the Miami Baptist pastor has identified with the cause of the little "balserito" ("rafter") Elian Gonzalez.

Castillo's involvement in the 6-year-old Cuban boy's situation developed gradually.

First came the total immersion of the city of Miami in the controversy. It is impossible to live in Miami and not be affected in some way by the controversy and not have some type of passive or active response, Castillo said. He chose the latter after hearing in the news the declarations of Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches that she spoke for 56 million Christians who favor sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba.

Castillo, pastor of the Iglesia Bautista Jerusalen, a growing Hispanic Southern Baptist church in Miami's Allapatah neighborhood, felt he was not among those to whom the NCC leader was referring, but because of his silence many in Miami would assume otherwise. So, after meeting with some other evangelical pastors who felt the same way, Castillo decided it was time to act and make a public manifestation against Campbell's statements.

Castillo went public in a measured manner. The first step was through a February news conference at the Cuban Patriotic Board headquarters, when several evangelical pastors went on record as being against what Campbell was saying in her statements in front of television cameras from all of Miami's main stations. With no pastors in Miami having protested Campbell's statements, Castillo said he felt the city was waiting for someone to speak out.

For two months Castillo did not do anything else except closely follow the issue in the news.

Then Manuel Salabarria, a retired Presbyterian minister, invited Castillo to visit the house where Elian Gonzalez was staying and minister to boy and his relatives.

After this initial contact, Castillo visited the home several times and got to know many of the family members. On April 13, when federal authorities announced they were going to get the child, Castillo and his wife, Wilma, spent the whole day ministering to the Gonzalez family and providing spiritual support.

No crisis erupted that day but the Castillos were able to pray and share the gospel with family members during the tense moments and get to know them in a personal way.

Castillo subsequently spent a great deal of time ministering to the family. He talked with them, listened to their most profound hurts and prayed with them individually. Castillo also joined in prayer with other pastors who were in and out at different times.

Asked how the Gonzalez family reacted to this ministry and how they felt, Castillo said they have not only felt the support of a community that feels that Elian should stay in the United States, but they also have sensed that their greatest need is a spiritual one and the answer to their plight must come from God.

However, Castillo said he is saddened that the wide diversity of religious manifestations at the scene from many of those involved in the heart of the controversy have left the family very confused spiritually -- and in continued need of the church's closeness and ministry.

When asked the sensitive question of whether Elian Gonzalez should stay in the United States or go back to Cuba, Castillo is unequivocal: "Elian should stay in the United States. The boy has legal grounds on which to stay."

Castillo said he believes Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is under the control of Fidel Castro's regime and has not been allowed to speak and act freely.

"The people in the United States believe that the child would continue a normal life once he is back in Cuba but this is not so," Castillo continued, countering, "In communist Cuba, a father has no rights over his child. The state is in total control of the life of the individual in Cuba, and this includes all children.

"This child deserves the freedom that his mother died to give him," the pastor said.

Castillo said he wonders why so many Americans, especially Christians, do not understand that the main issue is not the rights of the father, as popular opinion loudly declares, but rather the freedom of an individual.

Christians must respond to a situation that is very complex but is begging for Christian intervention, Castillo said. "This is spiritual warfare. We must respond with fervent prayer for God to glorify himself in this situation whatever the outcome. Many are crying out for justice in this situation, others are crying out for peace, others are crying out for unity in this community and in our country. We pray for God's will be done and for us to have the wisdom to

see it."

Castillo said he expects the church to be present at the point of need whatever and wherever that may be. "We need to be publicly involved in this affair since it involves our community. We need to offer our resources and demonstrate our love."

Meanwhile, Castillo said, "The people in the United States must be fully informed so that they can understand the facts and make the correct judgment. Most people are totally misinformed or simply ignorant of the facts underlying this case."

When asked how he saw the situation shifting in the aftermath of U.S. marshals taking Elian by force from his Miami home early Saturday morning, April 22, Castillo said he felt heartbroken and sad.

"I believe that as Christians we are commanded to respect the authorities that govern us," Castillo said. "However, we are saddened by the decisions that were made, and in particular how they were executed.

"We are teaching our children that brute force and violence will always solve all the problems in the end," Castillo said, "and this is not good."

Castillo said he is amazed by how this crisis has polarized a community that has worked so much for unity and peace. Nevertheless, Castillo said he believes the hope and power of the resurrection of Jesus will once again prove sufficient to meet the needs of the situation.

Having grown up in the home of a Baptist pastor who served both in Cuba and also for many years in the United States, it is obvious to anyone, after speaking with Castillo for just a few minutes, that he has inherited a pastor's heart that overflows with compassion for the lost. In fact, Iglesia Bautista Jerusalen is in one of Miami's most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods.

Recently the church sponsored an evangelistic outreach program to the many members of youth gangs in the neighborhood. By midnight nearly 250 youth had come to the activity and many of them made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

During Easter week the church participated with three other neighborhood churches in an open-air tent revival in a park in the heart of a tough neighborhood in Miami where more than 500 people were present each night to hear the gospel and where many made professions of faith each night.

Lema, of Miami, was 6 years old when his parents were exiled from Cuba because of his father's Christian beliefs. Lema is director of Hispanic and international ministries for the Miami Baptist Association and a missionary with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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