The theme of the meeting was exploring what it means to be a Baptist, guided by historical Baptist distinctives such as separation of church and state, religious liberty, liberty of conscience, and local church autonomy in the contemporary world. I was asked to lead a breakout session on liberty of conscience and asked the pastor of the host church if it was okay in a Communist/socialist country to speak freely of those themes. He assured me that it was and so I did. There was a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, head of the National Office of Attention to Religious Affairs, who also spoke to the gathering. She recognized the importance of living by Christian values for the well-being of the country.
One of the key figures from the 1959 revolution mentioned in the meeting and by this official was Frank Pais, the son of a Baptist pastor. Whereas Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the revolution in the mountains, Frank Pais was the key figure in the urban centers--especially Santiago. He was killed by police after being surrounded in what was supposedly a safe house, thereafter achieving the status of a revolutionary martyr. His favorite hymn was "Brighten the Corner where You Are" which we sang together.
We also later visited the Western Baptist Convention's seminary in Havana, meeting with its interim president and its rector, who explained the various degree programs and emphases of their theological training.
One of the unexpected sightings on the trip was a funnel cloud as we were returning to Havana from the COEBAC gathering in the city of Ciego de Avila. We watched it out the left side of the bus for some 30 minutes, catching glimpses of it through the almost constant line of trees that bordered the side of the highway.
Classic car enthusiasts would have a heyday in Cuba. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of 1950s model U.S. cars--Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Chryslers, Cadillacs, etc.
I got to ride in the blue Caddy with 3 friends for an hour or so tour of the city on the way to dinner one evening. It was quite the treat.
One of the lasting impressions I took away from the trip was the strong commitment of Cuban Baptists to reach their island nation for Christ with the gospel, while at the same time striving to improve the overall living conditions of their people. We heard a lot of concern for justice and economic issues as well as a healthy interest in caring for the world that God has given us as good stewards of it. These same Baptists also expressed a pronounced pride in their country and displayed patriotic fervor. The worship services we attended contained joyful singing and solid preaching. All in all, it was a memorable trip.