The small boat skimmed quickly through the dark across the swelling waves. José Marquez remembers holding his nine-month- old son tightly, afraid he’d lose grasp of the boy as the small fiberglass vessel bounced along the water between the Bahamas and Miami, Fla. In the child’s diaper was all the money that José and his wife, Migdalia, had – funds they needed to start life over in a new country. The trio was headed toward the U.S. coast and the promise of a better life.
What they didn’t know was that life in a new country would give them more than personal liberty. In the U.S., they would find freedom in Christ.
Marquez, now 55, had spent the previous two years as a project manager of a Cuban-Bahamian venture for organic farms. During monthly trips from his home in Cuba to the Bahamas, he began quietly to formulate a plan to defect. On his last scheduled trip, his wife, who was pregnant with their son, accompanied him. They were secretly planning to not return to Cuba.
“The existing communist regime on the island (Cuba) did not allow you to express [your opinion] freely, [and did] not let you have your own business,” he recalls more than 15 years after that unforgettable night.
José sets up chairs for communion at Iglesia Comunal Cristiana, a Grace Brethren church in Tampa, Fla.
They sought amnesty in the Bahamas, but the government there wouldn’t grant it. Faced with deportation back to Cuba, where they likely would be jailed, the couple, along with their newborn son, Daniel, went into hiding.
It was during this time, that the Marquezes first heard of Jesus. Raised in a non-religious home in Cuba, José recalls his father practicing “black religion,” the Afro-Cuban religion that includes voodoo. So when the Greek Christian who helped him in the Bahamas began talking to them about Jesus, José admits he didn’t want to hear it.
But they didn’t have a choice. Forced into hiding until they could find passage to the United States, the couple had to rely on the gospel-speaking man who would bring food and supplies to the house where they were staying.
At his benefactor’s suggestion, José began to pray. “I didn’t know what prayer was,” he admits, but he found it gave him peace. It was not long before he was able to complete the arrangements to travel to the U.S. under the cover of darkness. He says now he felt the providence of God as they crossed the turbulent waters of the Gulf Stream between Miami and Bimini until they found themselves in calmer seas.
Once on U.S. soil, it took a year-and-a-half for him and his family to gain legal residence status. (They became U.S. citizens in 2009.) But the promises he’d made to God in the small room where he hid in the Bahamas were realized almost right away.
“Hey, God, if you pull me out of this, if you carry me to the United States, I will give my life to you, and I will serve you forever,” he remembers praying. Apart from once going to church to thank God, José forgot the promise he’d made. Exactly 40 days after arriving in the U.S., a new Cuban friend invited the couple to church in Naples, Fla., where they were living. There, they heard the gospel again and both José and Migdalia accepted Christ as their Savior.
That was September 29, 1996, and the couple has not looked back, enthusiastically embracing their newfound faith. “All that I can do is just try to reach one more for Christ,” José says.
Two years later, he took a job as a civil engineer with the Public Works Department in Tampa, Fla. The move to Tampa also took the family to a new church – one he says “was really like a family and is still like a family” – Iglesia Comunal Cristiana, a Spanish-speaking Grace Brethren congregation in the Town and Country area of Tampa and led by Pastor Gerardo Leiton, a native of Costa Rica.
“It’s a beautiful church where everybody tries to support each other,” José says. “We do whatever we have to do for other people,” he adds. In addition to reaching into their community, the Marquezes have been instrumental in leading ministry trips to Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.
José Marquez makes announcements at Iglesia Comunal Cristiana, a Grace Brethren congregation in Tampa, Fla.
But the Lord wasn’t done yet. While on a ministry trip to Uberlandia, Brazil, in 2004, José felt that God was calling him into full-time service. When he returned, he immersed himself in serving at the Tampa church in a variety of roles and began to train for the ministry. Last fall, he passed the exam in the Florida District of Grace Brethren Churches to be a licensed minister.
Now he, Migdalia, 48, and their two children, Daniel, 16, and Gabriela, 14, are ready to set out on another adventure – perhaps as exciting as a late-night ocean crossing but most likely not as dangerous. They are joining the multi-ethnic team that is working with Encompass World Partners (formerly Grace Brethren International Missions) in Atlanta, Ga., and will focus on planting Spanish-speaking churches.
They are excited about the opportunities. “The Latino people number around a half a million in the metro Atlanta area,” says José. He estimates that is 10 percent of the population in the region.
They hope to move to Atlanta this summer to begin their new ministry.
“I think that all this has been part of God’s plan to prepare me,” he says.
This article first appeared in FGBC World magazine.