Turning the world upside down for 30 years

by Paula Clayton Dempsey

In Acts 17, the religious establishment of the day charged the early church with “turning the world upside down." During its 30-year history, the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba (FIBAC) has been similarly charged. With courage and boldness, its churches and leaders have shaped a Baptist witness that has often upset the religious powers that be.

Formed in 1989 by three congregations that were ousted from the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba, FIBAC is now home to 42 congregations that span the island. The 174 delegates who filled the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana in February for FIBAC's 30th anniversary meeting were but a small part of a larger Spirit-led body whose goal is to make their churches, their communities and their country more like the reign of God.

Proclaimers and panelists on the 30th anniversary program articulated the numerous contributions and distinctives of FIBAC, including the following.

• FIBAC is a changing denomination committed to working within an evolving political and governmental environment. Since its inception, FIBAC has had a commitment to teaching inside the church—and beyond it. Initially led by women like Clara Rodés, FIBAC's prophetic voices have resonated with governmental leaders, providing the opportunity to work together on issues of local and national importance.
• Women, both lay and clergy, continue to shape FIBAC’s vision and ministry. Their leadership has instilled in FIBAC congregations the values of patience, perseverance, forgiveness and a commitment to collaborative work. Today, approximately half of the churches in FIBAC are served by women pastors who embrace a commitment to working side by side with God to renew their churches, their communities and their societies.
• FIBAC is committed to a sensitive, non-confrontational evangelical witness that addresses the issues and concerns of people in their communities and in their context. For this reason, there are almost as many FIBAC missions and preaching points meeting in homes and outdoor structures as there are constituted congregations. Within these churches and missions, liturgy reflects the deep theological resonance of God’s story within the Cuban context. 
• In response to the rigid denominationalism from which they emerged, FIBAC was formed with a commitment to ecumenism and today provides leadership for approximately half of the projects coordinated through the Cuban Council of Churches.
• Because of FIBAC's commitment to communal learning, the participatory popular reading of the Bible, based on Paulo Freire’s teaching, has played a foundational role in the organization's faith formation.
• FIBAC models a ministry to and with people who suffer and with those who are marginalized. Its commitment is to interreligious dialogue, full welcome of differently-abled persons and to pioneering work in theology related to gender.

During its February assembly, FIBAC celebrated its 30-year partnerships with the Alliance of Baptists and with the Baptist Peace Fellowship (Bautistas Por la Paz). Stan Hastey, former executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, preached the closing sermon and was honored for his extensive collaboration with the early leaders of FIBAC, his role in the development of the FIBAC-Alliance partnership and his unending advocacy on behalf of the Cuban people.

Now, in addition to the Alliance of Baptists, other denominational bodies also are sharing the journey with FIBAC. These include Canadian Baptist Ministries and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

FIBAC has contributed to the Alliance of Baptists' understanding of partnerships as an effective approach to mission and ministry. During the FIBAC meeting, partnership contributions were highlighted by Stan Dotson, member of an Alliance church in North Carolina. Stan and his wife Kim Christman are ministers and musicians who practice partnership on a daily basis. Responding to God's call, they now live and serve in multiple volunteer capacities in Matanzas, Cuba.

Stan’s presentation (see front page of connections) addresses the potential for the unfolding paradigm for missions, as well as complicating factors in the Alliance-FIBAC partnership, for example, the unequal relationship between two economically diverse communities. 

“So, when we come to Cuba and encounter the risen Christ in a different context," Stan says, and find our ears are opened to his radical call, some of us might respond like the father in the gospel story: 'I believe, help my unbelief.' Or, some of us might respond like King Agrippa did to Paul: 'You almost persuaded me to be a follower of Jesus' (Acts 26:24-30). Still others might hear the call to be liberated from our addiction to material goods so that we can follow Jesus fully and freely—and we will go away sorrowful, like the rich young ruler, because we have many possessions.”

In his presentation, Stan speaks of the potential for the partnership between FIBAC and the Alliance to engender real transformation: “From my vantage point," Stan says, "the most important contribution of FIBAC to the churches of North America over these 30 years of unequal relationships has been to create the conditions for real transformation. You (FIBAC) have sparked hope for a radical, profound change in the church in the U.S.”

The potential for real transformation is found in the wisdom, courage, commitment and boldness of FIBAC's churches and leaders who are following the Way of Jesus. For 30 years they have been shaping a Baptist witness that has the potential to "turn the world upside down."

The Alliance celebrates the wisdom and work of our Cuban siblings and partners. Because of our partnership, we have had the opportunity to be transformed by their revolutionary love and ministry.

Paula Clayton Dempsey is the director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists.

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