How Southern Baptists Addressed the 1960s Cuban Refugee Crisis

It was the early 1960s. Jackie O was the queen of fashion. Elvis was at the top of the charts. Ben-Hur was sweeping the Oscars, bell bottoms were looming on the horizon, and Cuba was in turmoil.

Cubans who had entered Fidel Castro’s regime with high hopes of reform were now scrambling to make sense of their own country. Practically overnight, private schools and family businesses became government property, Marxist curriculum infused the education system, and religious practice was wrapped in an ever-tightening noose of government oversight.

Across the Gulf of Mexico, Americans were no less abashed. The boogeymen of the Cold War had snapped their Soviet roots, hurdled the Atlantic, and burrowed into the very heart of the Caribbean. Any hope of digging them out quickly was dashed by the Bay of Pigs incident in ’61, and then they had the nerve to plant nuclear missiles right on the island, mere miles from American soil.

As if that wasn’t enough, the US was soon inundated by a flood of these Spanish-speaking strangers. The Cuban immigrant population rocketed from 79,000 to 439,000 in just a decade. Who were these foreigners? What did they want? Were they dangerous? Were they Communists?

More importantly, at least for this discussion, how would Southern Baptists respond to them?

Texas Baptists Respond

Doctor Edwin Cook would go on to forge an impressive career as an IMB medical missionary in Asia. But in 1961, he was just young Dr. Ed, making his rounds at the local hospital in Lake Jackson, Texas. And on those rounds, he met a boy named Roberto.

The city of Lake Jackson (population ten thousand or thereabouts) didn’t have much, but it had one thing no small town should be without: a First Baptist Church. And when FBC Lake Jackson heard how Cuban refugees were struggling, they decided to take action.

In partnership with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (today the North American Mission Board), FBC Lake Jackson sponsored a Cuban refugee family. As a church, they took three generations of Cuban immigrants under their collective wing, making sure they were fed and clothed, giving them furnished homes, helping them find jobs, and, in Roberto’s case, taking them to the local doctor when they fell ill.

Dr. Ed did his best, but for Roberto, the news wasn’t good. Cancer, and lots of it. He forwarded Roberto’s case to a bigger hospital with a better oncology department, but Dr. Ed’s own missionary calling whisked him overseas before he could learn how his young patient’s story ended.

California Baptists Mobilize

West, across the plains of Texas and the deserts of several other states, lived another boy named Carlos. His family had fled Cuba when their homes, business, and finances were seized by the new government. All of them—mom, dad, sister, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents—had been smuggled out of their homeland in the lower decks of a Spanish ship, bouncing from Veracruz to Mexico City to Miami before landing in Santa Barbara, California, under the sponsorship of another Baptist church.

Carlos was grateful, but he was also confused. Before coming to America, he hadn’t even known what a Baptist was, and now he was surrounded by them, a horde of smiling people giving him everything he needed and asking nothing in return. “These people don’t even know us,” he wondered, “Why are they doing this?”

“This is why those people in California loved you. They had the love of Jesus, and they were sharing it with you.”

Years later, kneeling on the floor of his college dorm alongside two missionaries, he learned why. As he prayed to give his life to Christ, Carlos heard the Holy Spirit whisper in his newly saved soul, “This is why those people in California loved you. They had the love of Jesus, and they were sharing it with you.”

The Story Continues

Decades after leaving Lake Jackson for Korea, Dr. Ed wondered whatever happened to Roberto. Did he beat the cancer? Was he happy? Was he safe? Now a father, grandfather, and missionary emeritus in his nineties, Dr. Edwin Cook decided to find out.

Some quick investigation unearthed a phone number. Unsure who would pick up and what they would tell him, Ed dialed it.

Within moments, Dr. Ed had his answer: Roberto (or “Bert,” as Ed calls him now) was indeed alive and well, working as an architect in Miami. Bert remembered the doctor who’d first diagnosed him and was anxious to thank Dr. Cook for saving his life, but Ed just threw back his head and guffawed, “The Lord saved your life, not me! I was just a transmitter.”

Coming Full Circle

Carlos’s life went on as well. He finished college. He got married. He became a father.

Then he took a job at a missions organization on the outskirts of Atlanta. In the flurry of settling into his position, he heard that his new employer had supported Cuban refugees in the ’60s. Intrigued, he asked if they had worked with any churches in California.

A few days later, the head of the refugee resettlement project called Carlos into his office. He was holding a file. He had tears in his eyes.

“Carlos,” he said, “this is the church that sponsored your family. This is your file.”

Unbeknownst to everyone but the Divine Maestro himself, Carlos had taken a job serving the very people who had served him: the North American Mission Board.

Where to Now?

Because Southern Baptists welcomed him as a child, Carlos Ferrer is now the executive vice president and CFO of the North American Mission Board.

Because a small church in a small town responded to an international crisis with eternal faith, our friend Bert is alive now.

“Who will today’s refugees be sixty years from now?”

Who will today’s refugees be sixty years from now?

Maybe the next Lottie Moon is a young South Sudanese woman named Abuk. Maybe the next B. H. Carroll is a barefoot kid in a Ugandan refugee camp. Maybe the next Charles Spurgeon is a Rohingya teenager fighting off starvation in Bangladesh.

Right now, there are an unprecedented 68.5 million displaced people in our world. Like the Cuban refugees of the ’60s, they’re on the run. Some are running from oppressive governments, some from war or ethnic persecution, others from crippling poverty. They’re flooding out of their countries and across mountains, deserts, oceans, and closed borders, desperate for a place to call home. And wherever they go, people wonder: Who are these foreigners? What do they want? Are they dangerous? Are they terrorists?

But more importantly, how will Southern Baptists respond to them?

All over the country and all over the world, churches just like yours are mobilizing to care for the foreigner in both word and deed. There are many ways you can serve refugees, be it from your own home, through your local church, or in partnership with our SBC entities, including the North American Mission Board, which is still hard at work serving refugees to this day.

Jaclyn S. Parrish worked as a writer for IMB in South Asia. She currently serves in the US as a writer, editor, and social media associate for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaclynSParrish.

You can also learn more about supporting missions sending from Cuba to the nations here.