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On a global mission to make a difference where it's needed most

On a global mission to make a difference where it's needed most

Missions and Outreach

EDITOR’S NOTE: In February, Cuban missionaries Leonardo Garcia and his wife, Cleivfy Benitez Garcia, were in Florida as part of their itineration – a practice where missionaries visit churches to tell their story and to seek additional support. Their work is under Global Missions and director Icel Rodriguez in the Florida United Methodist Conference. This is their story.

They are man and wife, medical doctors by trade, but two deeply committed missionaries from Cuba.

For the past nine years, they have worked in East Angola, a region in Africa that was greatly affected by civil war.
And the whole partnership was arranged through the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“If God weren’t behind it, such a thing would never happen,’’ said Icel Rodriguez, director of global missions for the Florida Conference. “There’s no way to get those three things to line up, to have so much good come from it, without God’s help.’’

Leonardo and Cleivy Garcia

The missionaries are Leonardo Garcia and his wife, Cleivy Benitez Garcia. They met in medical school but were later called to the seminary. They pursued mission work, but in several cases, details kept falling through, and things never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez and her husband, Armando, were finishing their Angolan mission work, pioneered by the Florida Conference, around 2010. They were distressed because there were no apparent replacement missionaries.
Rodriguez, a Cuban native, pondered aloud: “I wonder if there might be someone in Cuba?’’

She contacted the Cuban bishop, who knew of the Garcias and their frustrations at finding missionary work. At her mother’s home in Santa Clara, near the middle of the Cuban island, Rodriguez met with the couple and forged an instant connection.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a sign from God … there is no other way this happens,’ ‘’ Rodriguez said. “They didn’t have children. They would be ideal parents for the orphans of war. They are eager to go. It was one of those God things. It was perfect.’’

And despite adversity, it has been perfect.

In Cuba, people aren’t allowed to be pastors and doctors. The Garcias chose their faith and put aside their medical careers. And that was their aim when they arrived in East Angola. But very soon, they realized the need was far too great.

At first, it was supposed to be a small clinic, more of a way to dispense the necessary medical supplies. Leonardo, a general practitioner, and Cleivy, a pediatrician, soon began treating the influx of children.

On Sundays, they host a meal that feeds up to 700 children and teenagers.

Their mission compound now has electricity and running water, plus all the needed food. Leonardo has suffered through nine cases of malaria, while Cleivy once contracted typhoid fever. But they have endured — and they plan to continue their work indefinitely.

“Initially, we were going for two years,’’ Leonardo said. “After that, it became one more year … followed by one more year … followed by one more year. We feel there is work to be done, and we have a love for the people.’’

“So many doors were closed for us in the beginning,’’ Cleivy said. “We tried to go to Honduras. We tried to go to Mozambique. Something always happened, like it wasn’t destiny for us to work as missionaries. I think we were meant for (East Angola). This is God’s work.’’

Angola had more than 400 years of colonialist rule from Portugal. The first battles for independence from Portugal began in 1961, and Angola achieved its own identity some 14 years later.

But a civil war soon broke out between the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), supported by the United States and South Africa.

The conflict lasted until 2002, and the MPLA emerged victoriously. It remains the ruling party.

The rebuilding of the Quessua Methodist Mission in East Angola, which had its hospital destroyed in the civil war, has been a major initiative. The spiritual life of its citizens also has been an important movement.

“As far as war and destruction, there is now peace,’’ Cleivy said. “There is a lot of rebuilding going on. But as far as human resources, they are way behind.’’

“The connection between Florida and East Angola began before we arrived,’’ Leonardo said. “We’re continuing what others have started. We have been able to see how impactful this connection really is. The ties are strong.’’

But there is much to be done.

“A lot of education is needed in terms of health and hygiene,’’ Cleivy said. “There are many illnesses, and all of them are preventable.’’

“We do have plumbing, and the water is not the best, but it’s not the worst, either,’’ Leonardo said. “In the villages, the water is really bad. There is no plumbing there. That’s the critical need. We have needs, too, but we are making progress.’’

Leonardo and Cleivy visited Florida during February, speaking at various churches and providing insight into their mission. That was followed by a trip home to Cuba and a reunion with family.

Then it was back to East Angola.

“What they are doing, it’s just remarkable,’’ Rodriguez said. “They are doctors. They are missionaries. They are working with the youth. They are serving food. They do what is needed.

“This is true multi-tasking. We wondered what would happen in Angola, then we found them. It is a true miracle. It is God’s work coming to life, and we are so grateful that it happened like this.’’

Through all the frustrations, through all the sacrifices, Leonardo and Cleivy are more determined than ever to build the best possible spiritual life for the citizens of East Angola.

How do they best describe their all-consuming missionary work in a faraway, often forgotten land?

They answered in unison.

“It is what God called us to do.’’

ADDENDUM: Just a couple of days after Leonardo and Cleivy Garcia returned to Angola, the Angolan government canceled all international flights and closed its borders. Schools and universities were closed until further notice, and any gatherings larger than 50 people were prohibited. The Garcias had to remain quarantined for two weeks before they could go back to work at the Quessua Hospital.

In the meantime, volunteers from the Quessua United Methodist Church visited the villages around the mission to share information with the residents about measures implemented by the Angolan government to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Volunteers from the Quessua United Methodist Church

Most of the villages do not have running water for residents to wash their hands regularly to avoid contamination. David Schaad, the vice-director of the Quessua Methodist Mission, made handwashing buckets for the chapels/classrooms in every village. In contrast, his wife Ruthie, together with students from the Boarding House, made face masks for the nurses and staff of the Quessua Hospital.

David was born to American missionaries in Quessua and worked for many years as Deputy Country Director for Operations at the World Food Program in the DRC while Ruthie, a registered nurse, worked with the Presbyterian Church. In retirement, the couple settled back in Angola to help develop the Quessua Mission, particularly in the area of food security.

Recently, the East Angola Conference received a $10,000 grant from the Global Health Unit of the General Board of Global Ministries to help with the response to Covid 19 in the Quessua area. Dr. Leo Garcia will be in charge of training health workers at the hospital and community leaders in the villages.

As of April 28, the Angolan Ministry of Health has confirmed 26 cases of COVID-19 in Angola and two deaths. All cases are located in Luanda, which has caused the government to prohibit travel into and out of Luanda province. 

--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer from Tampa.


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