From the earliest time I can remember, I had an intense longing for peace. Born in Havana, Cuba, in the early 1950s, I was aware from a young age that our country was in a constant state of violence. At night, it was common for our family to hear gunfire and bombs going off in the distance. These were the beginning years of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution.
By the latter part of the 1950s, the sounds of war were getting closer to our neighborhood and louder by the day. On January 8, 1959, Castro marched into the streets of Havana, and I thought peace had finally been achieved. It wasn’t long, however, before ordinary Cubans began to grasp the true nature of the new communist regime. The government started taking over farmland and businesses, which roused a movement dedicated to overthrowing Castro.
In May of 1961, the government took control of all the island’s private schools, a move that hit close to home. My family had founded the Pitman Academy and operated it for decades, but the government takeover drove them out of business and stripped them of all their assets. Seeing no future on the island, we decided to make our escape later that year, boarding a commercial ship from Spain headed for Veracruz, Mexico. We left in the middle of the night, taking nothing but the clothes we were wearing.
Acts of Compassion
My grandfather had some distant cousins living in Mexico City. After we landed in Mexico, they took us into their home for a few months. Once my grandfather and my other aunts and uncles arrived, we were able to rent a one-bedroom apartment, where 15 of us lived for over six months. The refugee life didn’t bring anything like the peace for which I had hoped.
In April of 1962, members of my immediate family received resident green cards, allowing us to enter the United States legally. We left for Miami, and though our standard of living appeared to improve somewhat, we were still crammed together with other families. My parents weren’t making much money, and basic food from the government was the only thing keeping us alive. Then a breakthrough happened: A Baptist church in California answered my father’s application to relocate from Miami. (It had been processed by the Baptist Refugee Resettlement ministry.)
This church sponsored our family so that we could begin a new life in Santa Barbara. Its generous people found a job for my dad, rented us a house for six months, and supplied us with basic necessities, including clothing for me and my sister, Lily. I couldn’t help but wonder what was motivating these acts of compassion. Why would these people display such love and generosity when we were all but strangers? The question lingered with me for years.
In the summer of 1965, the company that employed my father filed for bankruptcy, and he opted to resettle our family in San Antonio. My father had friends there, and the culture was much friendlier. We started our lives over once more.
I decided to attend the University of Texas in Austin. As a student, I was confronting some of the biggest questions of life, questions about career, family, and faith. One day I heard a knock on my dorm room door. I opened it to find two students, who told me they were sharing their faith in God with others. They asked if I would listen to them for a few minutes. I agreed, and they proceeded to share the gospel with me. They asked the question I most needed at that juncture: “Would you want to have a relationship with Christ, who wants to bring you inner peace and eternal salvation?”
I immediately said yes, and we prayed together. Soon thereafter, I thought back to the people of that Baptist church in California, and a light bulb came on in my brain. Why had they helped us? Now it made perfect sense: Their actions sprang from their faith. Because Jesus had loved them so abundantly, they wanted to share that love with others. They wanted us to experience the love of Jesus through their generosity and kindness.
I called my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, and told her I had just made a decision that would change my life forever. She was thrilled because she was a Christian already. Cindy and I married the following year.
After graduation, I got a job in the corporate world and started climbing the ladder of success. But even as I reached progressively new heights of income and responsibility, I still felt unsatisfied. All the while, my wife was working as a pediatric oncology nurse, caring for children with cancer. Seeing how fulfilled she was, I began to desire more from my career.
I wound up in a small Southern Baptist, Spanish-speaking seminary in San Antonio, working on the business side of the school. I was only earning half of what I made in the corporate world, but I could not have been happier. A few years later, the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (now the North American Mission Board) came calling, offering the position of financial controller. After taking the job, I heard that my new employer had been involved in helping resettle Cuban refugees in the 1960s. I asked if, by chance, the organization had worked with any churches in California.
By this point, it had been 30 years since our family had reached America. But after only a few days, the leader of the mission board’s refugee resettlement office called me over. He was holding a file folder. With tears in his eyes, he said, “Carlos, this is the church that sponsored your family. This is your file.”
You can imagine my complete astonishment. What an amazing path the Lord had prepared for me years before I even considered inviting him into my life.
My Heart for Cuba
Of course, Cuba and its people are still very close to my heart. Only a few relatives still live there, but I have friends on the island, including many pastors. Several years after starting work at the mission board, I had the opportunity to travel back to Cuba with the pastor of my church, who was preaching at several engagements and needed an interpreter.
I had described for him the old Havana neighborhood where my family lived. And unbeknownst to me, he had been searching for that very neighborhood. One morning we went for a drive. I started to recognize old landmarks—and there it was, my boyhood house. We knocked on the door, and my great aunt answered. She was amazed to see “little Carlos,” now all grown up, at her doorstep. Before long, a family reunion was taking place.
Since becoming a believer, I’ve prayed often for my family in Cuba. Although house churches are thriving, many people are still lost or stuck in spiritual confusion. I could not let this opportunity pass without sharing the gospel. We found a local pastor to join us, and together we told the story of salvation. It was a day I will never forget.
Nearly half a century has passed since my decision to follow Jesus, and I have no regrets. My life has hardly been free of troubles and disappointments, but his love, kindness, and compassion have accompanied all of my steps. I am eternally thankful for the people God placed in my life to bring me the peace I always desired.
Carlos Ferrer is executive vice president for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He and his wife, Cindy, have two adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren.