Churches thrive in partnership missions

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Maria Wetzel was born ten days after her parents left Cuba in search of a better life. Settling in the Atlanta area, the family found a new life for eternity when an exiled Cuban missionary led them to faith in Jesus Christ.

Now nearly 50 years later, the Florida Baptist pastor’s wife returns often to her parents’ homeland, deeply committed to sharing the gospel and strengthening struggling churches.

“We take the Great Commission seriously,” said Wetzel, wife of Mike Wetzel who serves the Island Baptist Church in Tierra Verde. “There is such a real need and hunger in Cuba. Many have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.”

In early March Wetzel and a team from the church traveled to Punta de Maisí, a municipality and town in the Guantánamo Province in Eastern Cuba—the least developed region in the nation. The remote area had been closed off to outsiders for decades.

The Iglesias Estella de Belen in Sabana de Maisí had been started by an American Baptist missionary 106 years ago. For the majority of the people, “we were the first Americans they had ever seen,” said Wetzel. “They didn’t know what to expect. But we built a wonderful bond. They embraced us and loved us.”

The Tierra Verde team led women conferences, a children’s Bible club and undertook construction projects for the church. Pastor Wetzel preached four times on the joy of Christian living. At the end of the week, he and the pastor of the church baptized 19 people.

The Wetzels have taken their small congregation to Cuba eight times through the Florida Baptist Convention’s Partnership Missions. Maria Wetzel, fluent in Spanish, was recently named as one of the Convention’s volunteer coordinators for Cuba and will be leading mission teams from other churches to the island nation.

Florida Baptists have had a long history of developing mission partnerships with other countries and states. For the past two decades, the Florida Convention has partnered with churches in Cuba and Haiti. A long-term partnership with Brazil will end this year. Nationally, Florida has maintained a partnership with churches in West Virginia and Nevada, which ended in 2015.

These mission partnerships bear fruit as Florida Baptist churches and members travel to the areas to undergird and support local churches, using members’ gifts and talents to meet unmet needs.

During the past year 143 Florida Baptist churches took 2,134 members to participate on a Convention-sponsored mission trip. Their destinations were Haiti, 48; Cuba, 39; West Virginia, 39; Brazil, 14, and Nevada, 3.

“Partnership missions is the avenue God used to get us on the mission field,” said Jeff Howell, pastor of Church on the Rock in Plant City, who has led his congregation to take 12 trips to Haiti, 7 to Guatemala, and one each to Honduras and Mexico during the past six years.

He originally went to Haiti in 2009 with Craig Culbreth, lead catalyst for the Convention’s Missions and Ministries Team, with plans to return with a team from his church in 2010. When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010 and damaged the Convention’s Mission House in Port-au-Prince, the team was forced to bypass the house that would launch the trip and go directly to the field in Mirabelle. While the inexperienced team considered changing plans, “God stuck His foot in the door and said ‘you guys are going,’” said Howell.

The experience was “phenomenal” said the pastor. The church built ongoing relationships investing in pastors, Sunday school teachers, pastors’ wives and children. And they helped congregations construct a more permanent building.

One team member developed a relationship with a local voodoo priest, sharing the “EvangeCube” witnessing tool with him, before he died.

Howell believes the outward, Great Commission focus spurred his congregation toward growth, from the 200 in worship in 2010 to 300 today; from a predominately white-haired congregation to one in need of children’s workers to minister to the influx of families that resemble the diversity of the neighborhood. The congregation supports three morning worships—two contemporary in English and a joint worship service in both English and Spanish.

Since that original trip, “God had this church on an anvil, and brought us into submission.”

Bill Tyler, pastor of Cedar Bay Baptist Church in Jacksonville, has led his congregation to establish long-term partnerships with churches in West Virginia. Taking three trips to the state, members have surveyed neighborhoods, led vacation Bible schools and leadership training.

The church with 250 resident members has also taken 16 mission trips to Honduras in the past 14 years, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere next to Haiti; as well as one each to Ecuador, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Tyler is passionate about the needs that exist in West Virginia, saying as he traveled in the state, he was struck by the “pockets in Appalachia that are as poor, if not poorer than even Honduras. It broke my heart that in this country, there is this type of need.”

Mission involvement “helps us see beyond the walls of our churches, from our Jerusalem located within 10 miles of the church to a global perspective,” he said. It also identified and developed new leaders from within the congregation.

“God saved us to serve Him and to the engage the lost to bring them to Christ.”


By Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention, March 24, 2016

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