Many parents worry about their children drifting away from their faith when they get to be teenagers. Freddy Tames’ parents were on the flip side of that equation. They didn’t want their children to become religious. But young Freddy, with the guidance of his girlfriend, persisted in following the call, even when it led to some long journeys.
Tames grew up in Holguin, Cuba. His parents were both engineers. They were raised in the time of the Cuban revolution and are believers in their communist government. Their communist mindset has no room for religion.
“There was no talk of God in my house. As a child, I knew nothing of the church,” Tames said. The closest he came to church was hearing people in his neighborhood, who were of African religions, singing and praying.
Tames’ world changed in middle school when he met a girl. Her family was Methodist, and he was soon introduced to the church. As he became religious, it was upsetting to his parents.
“They felt it was a betrayal to their core ideology,” Tames said. “Many Cubans relate having faith to being an American.” They didn’t like anything about that.
“I had to fight for my faith,” Tames said.
Tames makes it clear that his parents were both very loving, supportive people who worked hard to provide him with a good home. They always wanted what was best for him. They were just very loyal to a communist, atheist perspective that did not accept religion.
But the romance that started at age 14 was not a passing fancy and neither was Tames’ coming to faith. He married at age 19.
Tames went to college, majoring in fine arts with a specialty in painting. But then he started serving as a leader of youth in a local church and advanced to being a youth director in the region, then the nation. He traveled all over Cuba, which had 300 Methodist churches at the time.
In 2007, the Bishop of Cuba offered Tames an appointment at Pons Methodist Church in the Pinar Del Rio district. It was as far away as you could get from Tames’ home without leaving Cuba. The 500-mile journey took them two days in the back of a truck, sleeping on the mattress they were taking for the move.
There was no transportation in the small mountain village other than the occasional large truck used for deliveries or agricultural purposes. Tames’ salary was $15 per month.
When he arrived at Pons, there were only three people. He learned to play the keyboard, so they would have music. There were 70 people at the church when he left two years later.
As his position in the church grew from member to leader to pastor, things didn’t get easier for his parents. They worried about how they could face their friends at work when they found out their son was a pastor.
The Cuban Methodist church became independent from the Florida Conference in 1968. After the Cuban revolution, American pastors went
home. New churches were not allowed to be constructed, so the church was typically offered in the pastor’s home, as in the living room became the church.
This was the case with the first church Tames served. It was in his house, in a residential neighborhood very close to other houses. No one had air conditioning, so all windows and doors were open. The neighbors complained about the noise.
After two years, Tames was appointed to Baracoa Methodist Church. This move was from the westernmost point of Cuba to the eastern shore. The 600-mile trip took three days in the back of a truck. It was as far as you could go in Cuba without driving into the sea. But it was a bigger town, with better living conditions. He was going to seminary while he was pastoring these churches, as is normal for a new pastor in Cuba. Here his family grew in number from three to five.
Tames’ wife, Yurisbell Gullien Reyes, studied in seminary with Tames and served churches alongside him, but in the system they were in in Cuba, only one person of a clergy couple is considered a pastor.
“We’ve been serving together all of our life,” Tames said.
At Baracoa, there were already 30 people attending the church when he arrived, and it grew to 90. In 2016 Hurricane Mathew hit the neighborhood. The Category 4 hurricane hit hard, with about 60% of the congregation losing everything they had.
“October 11, my birthday, was the worst day of my life,” Tames said. “People were outside crying, wandering down the streets like zombies, and we had no resources to help them.”
At the time, Tames was earning $25 per month as a pastor, it wasn’t much to support a family of five. Eight members of the Church of the Resurrection came to help, and that started a greater effort of support for the church, which grew from 80 members to 200 in five months.
The Cuban government didn’t allow the churches to engage in social work, so the relief the church was providing to the community had to occur inside, behind closed doors.
In 2017 Tames attended the Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection. In 2019 he was back in the U.S. to attend a Hispanic ministry conference in Houston. Here he met Revs. Roger Ross and Jim Simpson. Tames interviewed online with Ross in 2020. After that, he started the immigration process.
Kelli Meilink assisted Tames and the Missouri Conference with the immigration process. She is a lawyer in Kansas City who focuses her practice on business immigration law, representing a wide range of employers in obtaining and maintaining employment authorization for foreign national employees on a temporary and permanent basis.
She has helped the Missouri Conference before in obtaining an R1 (religious worker) visa for a new pastor, but in those cases, the pastor was already present in the U.S. “Then it’s just a matter of filing a petition,” she said. “But with Freddy, he had to file a petition just to get here.”
That means he had to get a visa stamp from the U.S. consulate. But because Cuba and U.S. don’t have diplomatic relations, there is no U.S. consulate in Cuba. He had to fly to Guiana with his wife and three children in tow. It was high stakes because if something went wrong, he wasn’t sure he would be able to get back into Cuba.
It was a challenge to get an appointment with the U.S. Embassy since he was not a citizen of Guiana.
“He was taking a risk, trusting us to make sure he was able to get a visa,” Meilink said.
He had left his appointment in June, so for four months, he was unemployed. On November 18, the family got their plane tickets and flew to Jamaica, Panama and Guiana. He was nervous about the appointment at the consulate in Guiana. If the interview didn’t go well, his visa application could be denied, and there was no plan for where he and his family would go next.
“The man doing the immigration interview was the son of a pastor,” Tames said. “His advice to me was to take care of family – that my family should be my first ministry.”
His immigration status was approved. He was on his way to Independence. That’s Independence, Missouri, where he was to start a new Spanish language church at Christ UMC.
Rev. Mike Costanzo has been senior pastor at Christ UMC for six years. He has seen the Hispanic population growth in the community, up 30% in the last 10 years, making the area around the church the 10th largest Hispanic community in the state and adjacent to the eighth largest.
“The food drop at the church had about 20 percent participation from Hispanic people, and now it’s about 80 percent,” Costanzo said.
Heartland District Superintendent David Gilmore thought Christ would be a good fit for hosting a new Hispanic church, and the church agreed.
“The church council voted and were unanimously for it, and the church members voted with 69 in favor and only one against,” Costanzo said.
The church furnished a nearby apartment for the family of five, and members have helped the Tames family with things like finding doctors, signing up for schools, getting a driver’s license and all the other tasks related to relocating from another country. That kind of service has been a blessing that goes both ways.
“Freddy and his family are so joyful. Being able to help them has been a real shot in the arm for the whole church,” Costanzo said.
Reyes isn’t allowed to work with her R1 visa, so she is volunteering with the church’s daycare. She started this by helping out when a three-year-old Cuban child who didn’t speak any English was having a hard time adjusting to the church on his first day. Their own children now range in age from seven to 10.
The new Spanish language church officially launched on Sunday, February 27. They have worship every Sunday at 11:50 a.m. in the main sanctuary of Christ UMC in Independence, followed by lunch.
A year before Tames became a Christian, his sister became a nun. She had studied art history. She served as a nun for six years but then withdrew, got married and now has three children.
“With a son turning Christian and a daughter a nun, [my parents] were asking, ‘Where did we go wrong?’” Tames said.
His parents haven’t converted, but they have softened in their feelings about having a son who is a pastor, considering the lack of economic opportunity in Cuba.
“They are very happy with the life we have here,” Tames said. “I’ve been a Christian for 25 years now, and they are very proud of our family.”