By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A visit to Reggie Thomas’ office is like taking a trip around the world. In 67 years of ministry, with all but 20 of those on the foreign mission field, this dedicated Joplin missionary has literally traversed the globe, spreading the word of God in 83 nations.
Mementos lining the walls, photo albums and pictures on computer discs provide an unforgettable testament to the love of Christ as exhibited by the 83-year-old Thomas, who could easily pass for someone 20 years younger.
With all the trips taken on behalf of his ministry, White Fields Overseas Evangelism, Thomas has shared the Christian message far and wide, but no excursion could have been more heartfelt than his recent stay in Cuba.
The trip commemorated the 15th anniversary of a Christian church established there in honor of him, his wife, Esther, and his White Fields team.
Thomas was evangelizing in India in 1996 when he read that a U.S. law, which prohibited preaching in Cuba due to an embargo against the communist country, had been amended.
High Risk, High Reward
“It took a whole year of paperwork, but I actually secured a license from the U.S. government giving me permission to go there from the standpoint of America,” Thomas said. “However, I was still illegal, according to Cuba. That is why I had to go secretly and still do to this day.”
Cuba prohibits anyone from evangelizing openly or having church buildings. The law prescribes worship to occur privately at someone’s home with no more than 12 people present at any time. However, Thomas said the latter rule is violated every Sunday all over the island.
On its first trip, White Fields, led by Thomas, organized one small house church and started a Bible institute with five students. Since then, the ministry has organized 40 house churches with 3,472 people converting to Christianity and being baptized. Not only that, but 12 students of the Bible institute, in keeping with the four-year course of Bible studies that American Bible colleges follow, are scheduled to be in the first graduating class in October of next year.
In making 42 trips to Cuba over the past 15 years, White Fields missionaries has had to use caution concerning preaching. Cuban law has clamped down on open evangelism. In fact, Thomas has been arrested twice over such restrictions.
The first arrest came in 1998 following a service in a garage, which had been converted into a house church. A zealous church leader decided to set a loud speaker out and crank up the volume of Thomas’ preaching and gospel music. More than 100 people attended the service, including a government informant.
“The Cubans have an informant in every neighborhood, and someone turned me in,” said Thomas, who also worked as director of overseas evangelism for the Revival Fires Ministry in Joplin during the 1970s. “When I got back to my hotel, there was a note for me to report to the office of immigration the next morning. I was really frightened because I knew it was very serious.”
Esther insisted on going with him in case her husband was sent to prison. After about two hours of interrogation, Thomas thought he was going to jail, especially after he was reminded that it was against the law to preach in public.
Even though the interrogator emphasized that he had the authority to send Thomas to prison or fine him $2,000, he decided to do neither one, adding that he let him go because Thomas had told him the truth.
“I asked him if he wanted me to leave the island immediately, but he said ‘No. Enjoy Cuba. Go to the beach, but don’t preach,’” said Thomas, who launched White Fields Overseas Evangelism out of Ozark Christian College.
The second time Thomas was arrested was in 2002. One of the house church preachers thought it would be a good idea to get his church registered with the government, so they would be free to come and go as they like.
After notifying authorities that they were coming to get registered, they were met on another part of the island and whisked off for interrogation, much like the first encounter four years earlier. But, again, they were freed after promising to do no more preaching in public.
Thomas says the good has far outweighed the bad in the Cuban ministry. A highlight for the Joplin missionary had to do with one of the Cuban men who had been trained for the ministry.
Although he had been faithful in doing God’s work, the man struggled in his home life because his wife was a high-ranking communist official who did not attend church or support her husband in any way. It was not only a burden for the Cuban man, it was also disconcerting for White Fields because its members didn’t know if the woman would report the ministry to the government for any slight reason.
Then, about four years ago, Thomas visited the couple’s home and got a wonderful surprise that may have bordered on miraculous.
“When I knocked on their door, I was greeted by the wife, who had a most beautiful smile on her face, and said, ‘Brother Reggie, I am ready,’” said Thomas. “I asked, ‘Ready for what?’ and she replied, ‘Ready to become a Christian.’ That was the most crowning moment in my 15 years in Cuba.”
Because of the communist connection, she insisted on being baptized in a boat on the ocean to keep out of sight of informants. Although she doesn’t broadcast her Christianity, she appears to be a changed person, Thomas said.
“Now when we arrive at their home, she comes running out with a bubbling smile, and she is even the leading lady in the church,” he said.
Ministry aims high
The White Fields ministry has three goals yet to be met in Cuba. The first is to get an evangelistic association started among the Christian churches, in order to spread the gospel to every point on the island. Next is to get at least one church building constructed, in an effort to no longer be limited to holding services in people’s homes. Last is to establish a youth camp, where youngsters can be taught the word of God.
“We may be closer to these goals than you might think,” Thomas said. “Just this past May, the government eased restrictions and now allows people to purchase their own automobiles, which has never been allowed before. In addition, people are now being allowed to own their own house or apartment, which has never been allowed before either.”
With money in a trust fund for the youth camp and much experience in building churches Ñ it’s helped with the construction of 157 structures throughout the world Ñ White Fields is ready to meet at least two of those goals.
Now, it’s up to Cuba.
Thomas and his overseas ministry will ask for their prayers to be answered as they pave the way.
Address correspondence to Rich Brown, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802, or email richbrown@ cableone.net.