I recently spent two weeks in Cuba with other staff and students from Weimar Academy. Our team split into three groups, each going to a different town to conduct evangelistic meetings in partnership with a local Bible worker family. I went with two students, Jonathan and Joey, to the town of Pilotos in the Pinar del Rio province.
I could elaborate on many themes from the two-week experience: seeing firsthand the effects of decades of communism; trying to resurrect my high school Spanish enough to understand at least some of the conversation around me—and occasionally surprise people by saying something—all while fighting the urge to revert to the last foreign language I learned; enjoying delicious (and technically illegally obtained) food; comparing Cuban climate, culture, and cuisine with that of the Philippines; contrasting the warm hearts of the people with the dreary state of their government and economy; seeing the value of the trip in spite of my own cynicism about short-term missions. But the focus of this post will be on how we got to witness God at work in Pilotos, even in the face of our human hesitation.
Starting from our first full day in Pilotos, our team gathered each morning for united prayer. We prayed for our nightly meetings, both for presenters and attendees—we were getting around 20 adult visitors every night, plus 30 or so children. We prayed for the visitations we made during the day, and for specific people and situations we knew about. As the days progressed, we saw our prayers answered through God's work in the lives of the people we were praying for.
But not everyone was satisfied. One evening as we were preparing for bed, Joey shared something that had been weighing on his mind. "I think our prayers are too small," he said. "Are we limiting God by asking for too little?" He was referring to our prayers for decisions to be made for Christ, particularly during the baptismal appeals later in the series. While we had prayed earnestly for souls, we had not set a specific number to ask for. Joey suggested that we do so, and that we set the number high.
"How about we pray for 20 people to make decisions for baptism by the end of the series?"
"Why only 20?" Jonathan asked. "Why not 30?"
"Sure," Joey agreed, "Let's ask for 30."
I agreed that our requests should be big. Joey and I both recalled the account given in 2 Kings 13 of the limited victory Joash obtained because "he smote thrice, and stayed." But the kind of prayer Joey was suggesting was not one I was used to. I often pray specific prayers for individuals or for groups, but rarely do I make quantitative requests like this. But I couldn't think of any good reason not to, and so, not wanting to dampen their enthusiasm, I supported the idea.
The next morning while the entire team was gathered, we presented our suggestion. Jesús, one of our translators, relayed it to the Cuban team members. To our surprise, they seemed skeptical. They seemed to think that asking for thirty decisions was far beyond what was reasonable. Looking back, the reaction may have been at least partly a function of something being lost in translation. Nonetheless, we came away from the meeting with the idea that setting such a goal was not something the Cuban team was ready to get behind.
That afternoon, Joey approached me again. He had spent all day thinking about the situation, and couldn't shake the idea that we should be praying for a specific goal. We began to discuss the various issues involved. Of course a request of 30 decisions was not realistic, but then that was the point. A miracle is by definition unrealistic. We decided to draw a distinction between possible, realistic, and appropriate for the purposes of our discussion: "all things are possible" with God, and some things are unrealistic without God, but some requests might be not only unrealistic but inappropriate—we wouldn't ask, for example, for a million residents of Pilotos to be baptized, as not that many people live there. But where would we find the balance between a goal high enough to be unrealistic (i.e., something beyond what could be ascribed to our own effort alone) and yet not so high as to be inappropriate to the situation? (These are the kinds of things discussed when two highly analytical people have a conversation like this.) Also at issue was the question of free will. Of course God would not forcibly compel anyone to stand up and request baptism. And if we asked for 30 and didn't see results of that magnitude because not enough people chose to respond to the Spirit's promptings, what would we say then about the power of prayer?
At one point I remarked that someone listening in on our conversation might think we didn't have much faith. And maybe we didn't. But we prayed for God to show us what to pray for, and continued talking about the Biblical principles involved and how they should be applied. After over two hours, we had covered a lot of theory but had not come much closer to an answer (again, two analyticals being too analytical). We finally concluded that whatever we chose to ask for, the entire team should be united on it. We decided to try talking with the rest of the group again and see if we could reach a consensus.
We called Jesús over and explained our thoughts again. He seemed to have a clearer picture of what we meant than he had that morning, and we sensed he was more on board with the idea. We gathered the rest of the team together and Jesús summarized our conversation for them.
The response stood in stark contrast to that of the morning. Wilfredo, the local pastor/Bible worker, suggested that even 30 was too small. By the end of the meeting, the entire team had agreed that we would pray for at least 30 people to make decisions for baptism by the end of the series.
So we did. In both our private and corporate prayers, we added the request for at least 30 to the petitions we had already been bringing. As the days passed, we saw God touching hearts through each night's presentation. Still, it was sometimes hard to see how the goal could be reached. But we kept praying for it anyway, right up until the night when the topic presented was baptism.
It was Joey's turn to speak. As he presented the message from the Word, I prayed for the attendees and for their decisions. Then came time for the appeal. Before Joey had even finished asking for those who wanted to make a commitment for baptism, people were already streaming forward. And though I couldn't see it at the moment, there was also a response to Jonathan's appeal in the children's meetings. Altogether, 39 people that night expressed a desire to be baptized.
"O ye of little faith," I could almost hear Christ saying. How easily He seemed to accomplish what we had spent the better part of an afternoon wavering over. Would it have weakened my faith not to have seen the results we prayed for? No, because my faith is not based on signs and wonders. But the experience served as a reminder that we must not be afraid to present our requests to God, no matter how unreasonable they may seem, no matter what theoretical considerations might make us question the outcome.
The story is not over yet. Wilfredo and his family will be busy over the next several months studying with those 39, preparing them for baptism, and baptizing them—and continuing the work in the rest of the town. I look forward to seeing what other prayers God will answer.
Read more stories from the trip:
Most of the photos below were taken, and all were edited, by Joey Shiu. I am sharing them here with his permission.