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Churches: Cuban pastor helps Pawleys Island Presbyterian build mission ties

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Spreading the word of God is a personal calling for Daniel Gonzalez. Not only is the will embedded in his soul, but it is also common to his practice as senior pastor of the M.N. McCall Baptist Church in Havana, Cuba.

With governmental policy forbidding large religious gatherings in public places, Gonzalez often relies on one-to-one sermons with members of his church and those he is trying to bring into his congregation. Practicing religion in this manner is a process, but the numbers reflected in M.N. McCall’s membership demonstrate Gonzalez’s faith and charisma, as the church has grown from just a few members to a congregation that would rival those in a small, American community church.

“I think evangelism can be very effective when it is done on a personal basis,” Gonzalez said. “It’s about spreading and sharing information. There is a strong desire to learn about the word of God and live a fuller life. The people who we speak to are very welcoming.”

Gonzalez brought his personal message to Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church last weekend. He attended a dinner on Saturday and spoke at both sermons and Sunday school the following day. That provided him the opportunity to share his message of faith and his continuing efforts to build his church with the congregation, several of whom have visited M.N. McCall.

“Daniel is amazing,” said Carroll Armstrong, who has visited Cuba five times. “His energy and enthusiasm are inspiring. The work he is doing in Cuba is vital. We want to help him as much as we can.”

Forging that spirit of kinship is what Jack Brakebill was hoping for when he arranged Gonzalez’s visit to Pawleys Island. A part-time area resident – he also has a home in Knoxville, Tenn. – Brakebill has attended Pawleys Island Presbyterian for many years. He has known Gonzalez for 10 years and has made 20 visits to Cuba.

“People were very impressed with Daniel and what he had to say,” Brakebill said. “They found him to be warm, genuine and caring, which is exactly the type of person he is.

“I wanted his message to be heard, but I also wanted to get people thinking about doing more mission work. The church is looking to expand its [mission] efforts and I thought by hearing and seeing Daniel, people would realize the importance of volunteering and all the good that comes from doing mission work.”

As with any grassroots movement, Gonzalez focuses a lot of his efforts on the youth. Capitalizing on Cuba’s passion for sports, he is reaching out to young people through activities such as basketball, soccer and volleyball. Not long ago the church playing field was a vacant hillside, but in just a few months time it was dug out and upgraded into a sufficient playing surface.

“In September of last year they had just had the bulldozer in clearing things out,” Armstrong said. “By October it was ready to host a concert. The work that was done in such a short amount of time was incredible.”

“The hillside was physically dug out,” Brakebill said. “The Cuban people love sports. Baseball, soccer and boxing have always been popular, and sports like basketball are growing. Using sports programs to create excitement and interest in the church is an excellent way to reach people, especially young adults.”

Since the early 1960s the United States policy toward Cuba has been one of isolationism, implemented by a host of economic sanctions. That policy has remained basically unchanged, though it is now possible to get a direct flight from the U.S. mainland to Cuba. Visitors face heavy governmental restrictions from both sides and travel must be for the purposes that were expressly intended.

In addition to working with Gonzalez, Pawleys Island Presbyterian has forged a relationship with the Camajuani Reformed Presbyterian Church, which acts as its sister church. Despite several economic changes created by the government of Raul Castro – who succeeded his brother, Fidel, as the Cuba’s ruler in 2006 – the island nation remains impoverished. Ownership of homes and cars are promised reforms, but the majority of citizens won’t be able to afford those luxuries. Currently, most can’t even afford basic items like cell phones.

Still, change is occurring.

“Cuba is changing,” Gonzalez said. “We are already seeing some differences. The fact that we are talking about people one day being able to own cars or homes is amazing. Many people are fearful that the changes will happen too fast. But every generation faces challenges. It will be up to our young people to face those challenges and handle the changes that are coming.”

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