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Local mission team views life, acts of faith in Cuba
‘We always come back realizing how we take things for granted’
Mission team members included (from left) James Copenhaver, Judith Parady, Dorie Hanes, Janet Copenhaver, Keith Spangenberg, Betty Romero, Barbara Shrader, Garrett Van Nutt and Susan Spangenberg.
Friday, August 22, 2014
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
A group from Villa Heights Baptist Church recently helped conduct a vacation Bible school for three churches in Cuba and visited elderly residents of an assisted living facility there.
One highlight of the trip for the Rev. Keith Spangenberg, pastor of Villa Heights Baptist, was “to see the joy they have in worship. (It’s) a separation from what they go through day by day, a refuge, a time of gathering together to worship.”
He also was impressed by the generosity of the Cuban worshippers he met.
“They eat primarily beans, rice and a little pork, yet they don’t see themselves as poor as others,” he said.
During announcements during worship, Cubans were encouraging congregants to give to an organization working to combat poverty around the world, he said.
“We always come back (from the trip to Cuba) realizing how we take things for granted,” he said.
The group from Villa Heights helped conduct vacation Bible school for a total of about 40 children and youths from three churches at a single location — a “home” (or house) church led by Pastor Leandro. Spangenberg declined to give the pastor’s last name for fear of reprisal against him by Cuban authorities.
The “home” church is a three-sided sanctuary building attached to the home of Pastor Leandro and his family in the town of Guanabo (nearly 20 miles from Havana).
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 said of Cuba: “The constitution protects religious freedom, although government policies and practice restrict religious freedom. The government monitored religious groups, and the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), continued to control most aspects of religious life. The government harassed outspoken religious leaders, prevented human rights activists from attending religious services, and in some cases employed violence to prevent activists from engaging in public political protests when exiting religious services.”
“Most established religious groups, however, reported an increased ability of their members to meet, worship, travel abroad, recruit new members, and conduct charitable, educational and community service projects. They also reported fewer restrictions on religious expression and the importation of religious materials,” the report added.
At the vacation Bible school, Pastor Leandro’s wife told stories, Spangenberg’s wife, the Rev. Susan Spangenberg, translated, and participants sang and did crafts. Susan Spangenberg is the youth and children’s minister at Starling Avenue Baptist Church in Martinsville and the main translator for the mission team.
Some adults, including parents and grandparents, also took part in crafts at the VBS.
“There was an older gentleman that came every day and sat in the back,” recalled Janet Copenhaver, one of the Villa Heights mission team members. “He was trying to do a craft but another gentleman who could speak English asked if I would do their crafts for them. They told me their hands were old and rough because they had to work so hard all their lives. They asked me how I grew up in the USA and were very surprised when I told them I grew up on a dairy farm and had to work very hard each day doing chores on the farm. Their perception of Americans was that we all had an easy life and lived in cities.”
One member of the mission team, Garrett Van Nutt, played soccer on a beach with youth to have fun, build relationships and give him a chance to talk about his faith, Keith Spangenberg said. Van Nutt is a former member of Susan Spangenberg’s youth group. He played soccer in high school and now plays soccer in college.
In addition to helping conduct VBS, the mission team also visited residents at a Baptist senior assisted living facility in Cotorro, a suburb of Havana. Keith Spangenberg said team members had a devotion, played bingo and interacted with residents, “showing them love, giving them attention.” Team members also brought clothing items.
At the assisted living facility, Copenhaver said, “One of the ladies living there grabbed me and hugged me tight and said. ‘You came back!’ She remembered our visit from the year before. She held my hand very tight and I had to sit down beside her and try to communicate. Even though not many of our team speaks Spanish, language is not a barrier. Our pastor’s wife translates for us but it seems that we can work out what they are saying and want to tell us. Many of them speak a little English.”
Another touching moment was when Keith Spangenberg delivered the service at Cotorro Baptist Church, Copenhaver said.
“There was a 96-year-old man attending the church along with his wife. I found out later that he established the church. After the service, I was standing outside really hot and trying to keep in the shade, but he came up to me and held my hand and pulled me in the street to walk in the neighborhood and give out tracts. What an awesome moment to see him still walking and witnessing to neighbors,” Copenhaver said.
Nine people went on the trip. In addition to the Spangenbergs, Van Nutt and Copenhaver, the group included Copenhaver’s husband, James; Betty Romero; Barbara Shrader; Judith Parady; and Dorie Hanes of Virginia Beach whose husband, Billy, grew up attending Villa Heights Baptist.
Romero “gave generously” to the church’s missions scholarship fund, which covered most of the costs of the trip, Keith Spangenberg said,
The group left the United States on July 14 and returned home late July 22.