Juana García, a pioneer leader of the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, passed away on January 20, 2017 at age 93.
In the 1950s García worked alongside Howard and Pearl Wolgemuth, who served as Brethren in Christ missionaries in Cuba beginning in 1953.
In 1960, when Wolgemuths were advised to leave Cuba following the Cuban Revolution, García and Eduardo Llanes took over the responsibilities of the church. After Llanes left Cuba for the United States, she led the church by herself.
García had Bible institute training and by the 1970s had become president of the national church and pastor of the congregation at Cuatro Caminos.
Carlton Wittlinger provides a glimpse of García’s ministry in his book Quest for Piety and Obedience:
[In a mid-1970s letter to the Wolgemuths,] García . . . drew attention to the fact that some churches in Cuba were being visited by denominational representatives from Canada. She asked whether it might be possible for a Canadian member of the Board for World Missions to visit the Brethren in Christ Church at Cuatro Caminos.
After careful consideration and planning, Ross Nigh of Niagara Falls, Ontario, secured a Cuban visa and arrived at Havana in January 1976. He was greeted by Rafael Curbelo, treasurer of the Cuban Church . . . .
The next day . . . Nigh arrived at the little church in Cuatro Caminos during the morning service. There he presented to Juana García a Spanish pulpit Bible she had requested. After all had examined this Bible, she took it into the pulpit, read a passage, and then wept as she prayed. Through an interpreter Nigh learned that her prayer was for the Bible to last until Jesus comes.
Following the service, Nigh had a long conversation with Juana García and her husband, Julio Gonzales. She recounted the trials of the early days of the revolution, and the difficulties of leading a church without a trained or ordained leadership. She said that for more than fifteen years they had not had a “Brethren in Christ baptism.” With an ordained minister available, she wanted two recent women converts to be baptized by trine immersion. . . .
Wittlinger’s account, written in 1978, caught a glimpse of the Cuban church at a particularly difficult time in its development. In that year, the church’s membership was 18; its annual budget was about $2,500 (U.S.). It had to “make an annual report to authorities about its finances, names and occupations of members, and organization.” Today, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 church members worship in 28 congregations.
In addition to this incredible growth, the Cuban church has also played a significant role in the expansion of the North American church’s Spanish-language constituency. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Cuban church members — including denominational leaders like Eduardo Llanes — immigrated to the U.S. Many settled in Miami, where a number of Brethren in Christ churches eventually started up under their leadership.
Today, the primarily Miami-concentrated Spanish-language constituency constitutes 20% of all North American Brethren in Christ members.
After García retired from official ministry, she was injured in a car accident and spent her remaining years in a wheelchair. Her faith remained strong, and in her letters she would always write the verse, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (NIV).
Written by Devin Manzullo-Thomas. Edited by Elizabeth Miller.
Originally published on The Search for Piety and Obedience blog: “Remembering Juana Garcia (1923-2017)” and “Juana Garcia de Gonzales and La Iglesia de los Hermanos Menonitas de Cuba”
Cover photo courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. Depicts Juana García de Gonzales with her husband Julio Gonzales.