1/3/2002 News media contact: Mike DuBose · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.
By Mike DuBose*
HOLGUIN, Cuba (UMNS) -- One after another, green Chinese bikes that can carry a passenger and 16-speed mountain bikes in a rainbow of hues were rolled to the altar, all of them answers to the prayers of Methodist lay pastors.
To the Americans who donated most of the $40,000 for the bicycles, the two-wheelers were a way to reach out to the growing Christian minority in one of the world's last communist countries. But to the missionary lay pastors who will ride them, the 402 bikes are a way to reach out to neighbors.
"A pastor on foot can go to one mission. One with a bicycle can go to two or three missions," said Bishop Ricardo Pereira Diaz of the Methodist Church in Cuba. "Those bicycles are like a seed, a seed that will bear much fruit, and we will have many missions as a result of that."
The bicycles were bought in Cuba in mid-December, courtesy of World Methodist Evangelism, a Nashville, Tenn.,-based unit of the World Methodist Council. The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, who heads the program, led a fund-raising effort after visiting Cuba in May and learning of the need.
Methodists around the world donated money, Fox said. "People I have never met read about missionary pastors in Cuba who needed wheels."
The program, dubbed "EvangeBicy," takes its name from the three-wheel "bicy taxis" common on the island.
"In Cuba, most classes of people cannot afford a car," Pereira said. "Bicycles are one of the main means of transportation."
Students in a Bible study class at Asbury United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, raised more than $1,100 after their pastor agreed to kiss a pig if they reached their goal of $800. "He kissed the pig," Fox said.
A note from one of the students reads: "Dear Cuba people, Have fun on your bike. Go very fast. Jesus loves you and me. (signed) Leah."
Fox visited churches in Havana and Holguin, presenting about 150 bikes in each location. The bikes were earmarked for about 200 lay pastors and 170 professional clergy in Cuba's Methodist Church.
About 100 of the bikes were shipped from Havana to J.W. Branscomb Methodist Church in Holguin, some 12 hours east of Havana by truck, to be used as the centerpiece for a service of consecration and sending forth of the lay pastors. Just hours before the service was to start, however, the bikes had not arrived.
Pereira had the waiting pastors begin a prayer vigil, seeking the safe arrival of the bicycles. Dozens of the missionaries, some of whom had traveled for two days to Holguin from their remote districts, knelt throughout the church.
The bikes arrived just a few hours after the vibrant and emotion-filled service ended near midnight. More than 700 people filled the church to overflowing. Curious onlookers peered through the open windows from outside.
The bishop personally invited several of the onlookers inside during an altar call that claimed about two dozen new Christians.
Using a token sample of bicycles already on hand, Fox and Pereira prayed over the two-wheelers that lined the altar. Eyes closed and arms raised, the pastors made their commitments to serve.
"I would like our missionary pastors to come forward," Fox said. "I want to give them wheels so they can go faster and do more for the Lord." He sent each pastor back down the aisle of the church astride a new bike.
"These are 'good news' bikes," Fox said. "They will be used to spread the Gospel. God has blessed a dream."
"Let us continue working here," the bishop said. "We're going to be here until all Cuba belongs to Jesus Christ. I have been asking for this, Lord. It makes us very happy."
In a country with about 600,000 worshipping Christians among a population of 11 million, Pereira's goal may take some time. But Fox points to membership growth in the Methodist Church that has doubled to 16,000 in the last two years.
Entire generations, born after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, grew up in an officially atheist state.
"I was 21 before I ever saw a Bible," said Omar Perez Garcell, a 30-year-old lay pastor in the Holguin district.
Perez, raised in an atheist family, studied English in school and got a job at a tourist hotel.
"I practiced speaking English at the resorts and met a Canadian pastor who introduced me to Jesus," Perez said. "When I took English, I didn't know what good it would be for."
"He asked me, 'Would you like to see a Bible?'" Perez said. "He talked to me for an hour about Jesus."
Omar made a profession of faith then, though he admits today, "I said it with my mouth first, but my heart didn't accept it."
"It took me almost a year and a half to really follow Jesus," Perez said. "It took me two years to have the courage to tell my parents. They saw a difference in me.
"That made them see how Jesus works. They're atheists, but it made them happy," the young lay pastor said. "It's not about me now, it's about God."
In 1991, changes in the Cuban Constitution made the country a secular state and eased some restrictions on religion, allowing Christians for the first time to join the Communist Party.
Fox hopes to encourage new Christians by providing 5,000 Spanish-language Faith-Sharing New Testaments to the Cuban church. The books will be printed in Mexico and shipped to Cuba at a cost of about $15,000.
Fox wants to return to Cuba someday and check on the bikes. "When we come back, we hope the tires have been worn down," he said. "We want these bikes to be on the move."
*DuBose is the photographer of United Methodist News Service, based in Nashville, Tenn.