Years of earnest prayer came to a happy ending for the 200 members of the Cardenas Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba, as they dedicated a new church building in a special ceremony on April 22.
Over 1,200 church leaders, members, government representatives and guests from across the island and other countries met for a special 3-hour dedication program of the new facilities that included uplifting music, inspiring testimonies, and a baptism.
The Cardenas project was entirely funded by Maranatha Volunteers International, a supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church with a worldwide presence. Its president, Don Noble, said he was happy to report that since 1994, Maranatha has completed over 200 projects in Cuba, including the building of the Cuba Adventist Theological Seminary near Havana. “We have a special working relationship with Cuba,” said Noble.
“When Maranatha first came to Cuba, we prepared a list of over 100 remodeling and construction projects on the island, but Cardenas was not part of the original list,” said Daniel Fontaine, then president of the Adventist Church in Cuba and now assistant to the president of the Church’s Inter-American region. “God, however, knew the time would come for Cardenas.”
National, provincial, and local government officers attended the dedication service of the new local church, the largest building project in Cardenas—a town located 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of Havana—in over 50 years. Officials attended to celebrate this important milestone in the history not only of the Adventist Church but also of religious liberty in Cuba.
“I am glad you are now able to enjoy a new, bigger, and more beautiful church building,” said Sonia García García, deputy secretary of Religious Affairs of Cuba. “It gives me pleasure to see you so happy.”
García, who said her office is working to make Cubans freer and happier, reiterated her government’s commitment to support the work of Seventh-day Adventists on the island. “My office doors are open,” she said. “You can count on us to promote and support the work you do.”
The president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cuba Aldo Pérez thanked the Cuban government for their support. “This new building is a living proof of the religious liberty we enjoy in Cuba,” said Pérez. He made clear that Seventh-day Adventists are eager to work towards the well-being and unity of Cuban society. “You need to know that Adventists are eager to make a positive contribution to our wonderful island,” he said.
A Long Love Story with Cuba
The new facilities carry the name of Melvin and Barbara Sickler, an American couple who served in the Antillean Adventist College from 1950-1956. His son Donald Sickler, who spent part of his childhood and teenage years in Cuba, attended the ceremony with his wife and adult sons. “It is with great emotion that I am here today as part of [the Maranatha] group,” said Sickler just before unveiling a plaque in honor of his parents.
A few years ago, Sickler, a retired neurosurgeon living now in the United States, had called Maranatha to offer his financial support for a project in Cardenas. At the time, however, the non-profit organization, known for building and remodeling churches and schools, as well as drilling water wells around the world, had just completed some projects and were ready to pull out of Cuba.
“For years Maranatha had tried to get the various authorizations to build a church in Cardenas, but to no avail,” said Sickler in an interview with Adventist Review on the sidelines of the event. “So when I called they told me, ‘It’s too late; we are leaving Cuba.’” A few months later, however, Sickler got an unexpected call from Maranatha President Don Noble. “Get ready; we are going to Cuba!” he said.
Sickler, Noble and others flew to Cuba, and a few days later they learned that the final authorization had been granted.
“It was an up-and-down journey, with roadblocks and complications,” said Pérez when tracing the story of the project. “But in His wisdom, God chose the right time for the church to be built in Cardenas.”
Eggs, Tomatoes and Prayer
Indeed, the Cardenas project had been on the mind of church members and leaders for decades. Years ago, the first dozen Adventist members in Cardenas began to pray, asking God to give them a new church building. The garage-sized run-down building was an eyesore in the neighborhood.
“People would walk by the building and throw eggs at us,” said Ismelia Aballi Segundo, a former deaconess and one of the founding members of the local congregation. “When eggs were not easily available, they would throw tomatoes.”
Segundo, who travels 90 minutes by bus every Sabbath to get to “her” church, as she calls it, recalled how Adventists were mocked and looked down on. “In a time when it was fashionable for girls to wear mini-skirts, they knew who of us were heading to church because we were the only ones wearing longer skirts, she said. “And so, we had to put up with all kinds of abuse.”
In spite of it all, the congregation grew and they very soon ran out of space. “Rain or shine, people would follow services from outside,” said Hilia Villafranca, a member of the Pinar del Río Church who visited the old church building in the past and now traveled over five hours to be present at the dedication. “When visitors came, members would give them their seats and go watch from outside.”
It was at that time that members began to pray for a new church building. Among them were María and her daughter Maritza Cevallos Piedra, who did their personal spiritual project of asking God to intercede on behalf of the Cardenas church. “Mom prayed and prayed,” said Maritza. “She prayed so hard and so much that she developed callouses in her knees.” Both Maritza and María, who is now 95, were present at the dedication to see first-hand the answer to their prayers.
For years, it seemed that it was not in God’s plan to grant the members’ wish. But members never stopped praying. Among those pleading to God, members fondly remember a 10-year-old girl, who would start her prayers by saying, “God, I thank You for the new church you are going to give us.” And in His divine wisdom, the Lord finally determined that the time for Cardenas had come. “Make no mistake about it, it was God’s initiative to build this church,” said Pérez. “This is God’s own doing.”
The New Facilities
Maranatha, which spent several years on the project, hired international volunteers and local workers to build the church. One of them is Lazaro Leal, a deacon of the Cardenas church turned construction contractor. “I am acquainted with every single wall of this building,” said Leal beaming, as he acknowledged that before being hired to work on the project, his experience in construction was rather limited. “I relived the experience of the people of God who built the wall of Jerusalem,” he said, referring to the story recorded in the book of Nehemiah in the Bible. “Against all the odds, I did my best, and God took care of the rest.”
The new sanctuary, which seats 500 people and has a second floor connected by closed-circuit TV screens with capacity for several hundred more, is now one of the largest Adventist church buildings in Cuba. The new facilities also include a kitchen on the upper floor, a state-of-the-art audiovisual system and an artistically appealing baptismal pool where two new members were baptized as part of the dedication ceremony.
“This will be a place to meet God every week,” said Pérez during his special dedication message. “Let’s make this place a place of peace, of hope, of worship. Let’s come here every Sabbath to give God the glory.”
The Adventist Church in Cuba also plans to use the facilities for special church convocations. “This building will be our meeting point, our hub for church workers and member gatherings and activities on the island,” said Pérez.
Tickets to Evangelistic Meetings
Church leaders and local members made clear, however, that their goal is not to keep the new building for themselves but to use it as a tool for outreach and evangelism.
“This building is to be shared,” said Pérez. “Let’s share this church building with other Christian denominations. Let’s share it with the community. Let’s share it with our brothers and sisters across the island.”
Church members and leaders are making sure that this is the case, as they planned an evangelistic series that was launched just a few hours after the dedication service. When meetings were advertised some weeks ago, however, they elicited such a positive response that organizers were forced to offer numbered tickets for the event.
“Tickets are free,” said the organizers, “but they are needed, so we make sure everyone has a place to sit.”
Don Kirkman, the architect behind many Maranatha construction projects in Cuba and around the world, said that while exciting, these developments are not uncommon. “Maranatha is a powerful mission tool,” he said. “After we dedicate a project and leave, membership usually doubles.”
Cardenas members do not want to be an exception. Indeed, every member who was asked by Adventist Review how he or she felt about the new building answered in almost identical words. “We are happy because it is a dream come true,” they said, though they instantly added: “Now it’s our challenge and duty to fill it up as soon as possible.”
Leal concurs. When asked what is he going to do now that the project is over, he gave a big smile. “From now on, I’ll be a fisher of men,” he said.