The SBC through a Latin lens
By EVA WOLEVER
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Their usually stoic pastor, Eliel Matos, occasionally let out a loud chuckle, showing the laugh lines behind his thick moustache. His wife, Ismari, laughed and gestured as she set off ahead of the group.
“It was a very emotional experience. I’ve always dreamed of coming into the heart of the Baptists and seeing how it worked,” said Eliel about going to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in San Antonio.
Although staunch Southern Baptists, the two Cuban couples had never been to the annual meeting or related events. David Lema, associate director for theological and distance learning of the Florida Baptist Convention, said native Cubans are often not used to the layers of organizations in the American denomination. However, they are used to the format of the annual meetings, the segments of business, worship and preaching, Lema said.
“They are branded Southern Baptist. They are branded in the doctrine; they are branded in the polity; they are branded in the heritage,” Lema told Florida Baptist Witness. “They aren’t your typical first-timers. They’re overwhelmed by the size but not the activities.”
The group understood more English than they spoke, but had little trouble finding people to translate for them when necessary, said Enrique, president of the Fellowship of Latin Churches (Confraternidad de Iglesias Latinas) in the Miami Baptist Association.
“Depending on what state they come from, their English can be clear and refined, but there are others whose words escape and we can’t understand,” said Enrique, who has lived in the U.S. with his wife for 19 years.
Attending the meetings with each other made it easier, Ismari said with a ready laugh. They would try to piece together the message, knowing the “power of the Lord was there,” she added. She and Eliel have lived in the U.S. for five years.
Enrique was particularly impressed with Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page.
“His vision is for all the Baptists to be of one kind,” Enrique said of Page. “He understands the task in front of him is hard, but he will continue in his efforts.”
Eliel said he wished for more Hispanic participation in the annual meetings, including peripheral opportunities such as the exhibit hall and worship times. It seemed as if the different ethnic groups viewed themselves as separate from the rest of the convention, participating more in their own conferences prior to the annual meetings, he said.
The two couples greeted their friends at the 2007 National Hispanic Celebration with hugs, kissing the air next to their cheeks.
Enrique recognized one of those honored, Oscar Romo, and said he was a legend in Cuban missions. Augusto Valverde, pastor of the Iglesia Bautista Resurreccion in Miami and president of the National Hispanic Fellowship of Southern Baptist Churches, recognized Romo at the celebration with a plaque on behalf of the fellowship for his faithful service at the Baptist General Convention of Texas and later the Home Mission Board.
“He was one of the people that broke the barrier in Cuba between the Baptists and exterior world,” Enrique said of Roma. “It was a great honor to see him again.”
The two couples are a product of foreign missions, Lema said.
“These men have inherited their Southern Baptist heritage from missionaries and pastors outside the United States,” Lema said. “This is what missions does — that people from so many countries can identify with the Southern Baptist Convention without ever having been here, and I think that’s cool.”
The experience of attending the convention was “beautiful,” said Lidia, a quiet woman with small features and shy smile.
“I’ve been moved,” Enrique said of the music and messages at the annual meetings. “The Spirit was in it.”
Eliel agreed, speaking in a low, deep voice.
“Back in Cuba we would always see from afar the Southern Baptist Convention,” Eliel said. “We saw it afar because we didn’t know how to get there and we didn’t know the English to speak.”
“It seems to be a dream,” Eliel continued. “I’ve always thought of the Baptists as the strongest foundation out of all Christianity because we as disciples have come together and we have decided to embark on this journey together and decide all our doctrine together as a group, believing all as one.”
Translation provided by David “Davi” Lema Jr.
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