Homecoming: The Extraordinary Life Journey of Tem Suarez

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By Julie Z. Lee

There he was, waiting with arms outstretched. No sooner had I rolled into his driveway, Tem was outside his front door to greet me. I waved to this stranger, someone I had known by name, but not one I could yet call a friend. I pulled my luggage out of the trunk, and he apologized for not having the strength to help me. When I reached him at the door, he enveloped me in his arms as if a lost daughter returned.

“Welcome. Make yourself at home.”

Writing the Legacy

Tem and Judy Suarez are on a roll. They are answering questions about the past and slipping into a sort of rhythm-not unlike one a comedian must adopt-full of interruptions, pauses, and jokes executed with perfect timing.

How did you come to the United States from Cuba?

“He came on a raft,” quips Judy.

“—A banana boat,” says Tem.

How did you communicate with everyone when you couldn’t speak English?

“I learned fast. But I had a heavy accent and no one could understand me anyway,” says Tem. He motions to Judy. “She still doesn’t understand me.”

“What?” Judy feigns incomprehension without missing a beat.

They aren’t shy about razzing each other; a conversation between the two is punctuated with friendly teasing. When they laugh, it is infectious and endearing.

Tem met Judy Addison Jones in 1971. A mutual friend from church set them up. On their first outing, they went on a double date with Tem’s eldest son, who was a teenager, and his son’s girlfriend. They took a walk around Lake Eola in central Florida, where they still live now. On the first lap around, Tem didn’t hold Judy’s hand. On the second lap, Judy made him hold her hand. They met again the next morning for a pancake breakfast and brought their kids from previous marriages. Tem brought his two sons, and Judy brought her little boy. In the middle of breakfast, Judy’s five-year old son burst out, “Mom, I like Tem. Are you going to marry him?”

Five months later, they married at Judy’s brother’s house in South Carolina. Tem wore a slick brown suit. Judy wore a baby blue dress with a matching floppy hat. Their wedding pictures, more than thirty years old, buzz with the energy of their personalities. In one photograph, Tem sits in a rocking chair against a backdrop of seventies dark, wood paneling. Smiling, Judy’s father is pointing a shotgun at him while Tem holds his hands up in surrender—a joke regarding the short courtship. There are photos of the couple walking down the aisle, eating cake, and hopping into their getaway car for a honeymoon that started off with a fender bender. And if there was bitterness about that unfortunate beginning, none is reflected. It’s just another one of those fabulous legends from the life of Judy and Tem.

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The photos are magnetic, not only because of wedding-day effervescence, but because of the context in which I am meeting them now.

Tem has cancer.

There is something inside of him, tearing away at his health and invading his vibrancy. These days his gait is slow, his posture ever so slightly bent, and his energy subdued. It has been washing over him for the past two and a half years, teasing with signs of improvement before dipping into the pains of its occupancy.

As much as I’d like to forget this in the few days I have with Tem, there is no escaping his reality. Our conversation is smattered with breaks for his medication, the telltale signs of fatigue when he closes his eyes, and pauses in his narrative as he struggles to find memory for my questions.

The circumstance is a distressing combination of inspiration and sadness—a cocktail of emotions that I don’t think I can bear. These are the times when I wonder why I’ve come.

Then the phone rings, and Judy answers.

“We have a writer staying with us from Maranatha,” she says in her booming voice.

“She’s here to write Tem’s legacy.”

Dreams and Heartbreak

More than fifty years ago, Tem came to the United States, an 18-year old on the brink of adulthood. He left his parents and nine brothers and sisters in Cuba with a desire to capture what he didn’t and couldn’t find words to describe: the American dream. After two years of begging, his mother finally let him go. He immediately enrolled as a junior at Highland Adventist Academy in Tennessee. On the seven-hour bus ride from his countryside home to Havana, where he would catch the plane, Tem told everyone he was going someplace better-more exciting and fulfilling—although he didn’t know quite what he was looking for. He only knew he was an adventurer, like his heroes, Lewis and Clark. He was leaving home and venturing on new ground. But home, as Tem knew it, would never be the same. In the years to come, there were only a couple more visits to Cuba. He spent his first summer break from academy at his parent’s rural home. In college, he took his new wife, Juanita, to meet the family. Then in 1962, during the Cold War, the United States instituted a full trade embargo with Cuba. In I963, the Kennedy administration banned U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba. The door to his home and family closed firmly shut.

By the time Tem returned nearly two decades later, everything in Cuba would be different. Everything in his life would be different.

In the early sixties, Tem, Juanita, and their two young boys settled in Orlando, Florida. Tem and a fellow Cuban transplant had started up a cabinet-making business; Tem had first learned the trade in Cuba and picked up woodworking techniques throughout school. It was a humble enterprise, but it helped make ends meet. More important, Tem’s growing expertise in cabinetry allowed him to serve on mission trips, making cabinets for schools and clinics in Latin America. In I 968, Tem took his wife and boys to Central America to travel and do volunteer work. But something was wrong with Juanita; she was ill but no one knew why. By the time they returned to the United States, her condition had worsened. During an exploratory surgery, the doctors found her assaulted with cancer. The family they had been working so hard to build came thundering down in a heap, burying Tem’s heart underneath.

“My wife’s sickness did a number on me,” says Tem. “It was one of the worst things I have ever gone through in my life. We had worked so hard, we were just starting to get better.”

She died nine months later.

The Return to Cuba

In I977, U.S. president Jimmy Carter lifted the travel ban to Cuba under the I967 Supreme Court ruling that dictated American citizens could not be prosecuted for traveling to countries blacklisted by the State Department. The ruling argued that the right to travel was protected by the Fifth Amendment as a liberty interest. In January I979, Cuban-American citizens were permitted to visit their families in Cuba. In the following year, an estimated 100,000 visited Cuba. Tem and Judy were among the second group to go.

In preparation, they packed and repacked three large duffle bags, two carry-on bags, and Judy’s pocket book with clothes, underwear, shoes, lotions, and anything else that was unattainable in Cuba. They were only permitted 44 pounds per person for check-in luggage and 15 pounds each for carry on. Judy’s purse itself weighed 20. Together, they were 50 pounds over the limit. Rather than omit items, they decided to take a risk. The biggest threat was the Bibles, a hymnal, and other Christian literature tucked under more innocuous things.

Travel itineraries were still sketchy, and Tem and Judy had to wait for a week, packed and ready to leave as soon as they received word from offices in Miami. They got final confirmation of their flight on February 19, just two days prior to their assigned departure date. Judy and Tem, dressed in multiple layers of clothes they could later give away, headed for the Miami airport.

The luggage passed all the way to Cuba. Nothing was taken out. “It was an answer to prayer,” says Judy. They were elated.

But the euphoria dissipated when Tem set eyes on Cuba. The U.S.-imposed embargo, along with the rise of a communist dictator, had created a sort of scaled theme park encapsulating the fifties—the last decade of technological progress witnessed by the island—but one that had been crumbling for quite some time. Tem’s spirits dipped at the sight of Havana, once rich with culture, architecture, and the dazzle of big-city life. Now it was dreary. People walked by in faded colors, clothes that had been washed and darned and passed on repeatedly. Cars were a patchwork of 1950s sedans pieced together from whatever still functioned. Mansions from the 30s and 40s were being propped up with two by fours and had shed their paint years ago.

In Ciego de Avila, the countryside area where Tem’s family lived, things were no better. Hardly anyone had cars. Many rode in carts pulled by tractors. Bicycles and buses were a popular mode of transportation. Running water or water at all was a luxury. So when Tem and Judy began unpacking gifts, his family cried in happiness at a bar of soap.

Tem and Judy gave everything away. Underwear, a shower cap, razor, a curling iron, a tape recorder for the Adventist Conference (a similar one in Cuba would have cost the Church $300), and even their duffle bags. By the time Tem and Judy left, all they had were the clothes on their backs and a pair of shoes that Judy had not been able to give away.

“I wore a size eight, and nobody wore a size eight,” says Judy.

But God had plans, even for the shoes on Judy’s feet.

On one of the last evenings, Tem and Judy dined with the president of the Cuba Union and his wife. During dinner, Judy noticed the woman’s shoes. They were ragged and worn. Judy was certain they were a size eight, so she nudged Tem and asked him to see if the wife wanted a pair of shoes.

“When we finally got the nerve to ask, the wife started crying,” says Judy. “I was afraid we had insulted her. But she told us that she had had the same pair of shoes for four years. The annual ration for shoes was always on Sabbath, and she could never go.”

Judy took off her shoes and placed them at the woman’s feet. They were a perfect fit.

Judy walked out of the restaurant barefoot but thrilled.

A Crumbling Church

Relations between the United States and Cuba didn’t improve. In January 1981, the Reagan administration reestablished the travel ban. Believing Tem might never see his family again, they applied for special permission reserved for Cuban-born Americans. Tem had to apply for a Cuban passport, paying an exorbitant amount of money to attain it. When the paperwork went through, Tem and Judy went on their second visit in October 1981.

Now that they had already experienced the raw emotions during the first trip, Tem and Judy focused on other issues in Cuba. Anti-Americanism was on the rise and filled the streets and airwaves. Anyone who mentioned the possibility of leaving Cuba was blacklisted and lost their job.

Churches were also getting hit with suspicion. Some pastors had to show their sermons to the government for approval before preaching them from the pulpits. In the Adventist Church, approximately 1,000 Adventists, many pastors included, left or were forced to leave Cuba. Males were prohibited from attending the seminary as a plan to eliminate future pastors. Despite this drainage, the Adventist Church was one of the few still gaining members. Much of the evangelism was conducted as clandestine operations, mostly through discreet word of mouth.

Unfortunately, most of the church buildings were deteriorated. Worship space, like so many other buildings in Cuba, was becoming uninhabitable.

Mission Impossible

In 1982, Tem and Judy began a personal project that would eventually carve the path for their future passion. Tem had already been on a couple of mission trips, and he wanted to take their service a step further. Tem and Judy wanted to build a church. Tem called a friend who worked in the Inter-American Division and asked where the need for churches was the greatest. They told him about a pastor in northern Dominican Republic; he was ministering to a dozen congregations. One in particular, Colorada, had 80 members but worshiped in a shack. They needed a new church badly.

Tem and Judy flew to the Dominican Republic for an initial site visit. Tem later returned with three men from his church in Florida to construct the church building. He was hooked. The next summer, Judy and Tem sponsored the construction of another church in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. During this time, Tem came into contact with Van Vanden Heuvel, one of the original members of Maranatha. Van had also been working in the Dominican Republic with Maranatha for some time. “Van heard I was working in the Dominican Republic, so he called me and said he had a shed full of tools over there that I could use,” says Tem.

It was a phone call that planted the seeds of a friendship to last more than twenty years. It was the phone call that eventually brought Tem to Maranatha.

By 1992, Tem and Judy had sponsored eight churches in the Dominican Republic and served as board members of the International Children’s Care orphanage. Tem’s work in the country continued when he went to Santo Domingo ’92 with Maranatha. By 1993, Van, who was good friends with the Suarezes, recommended Tem be added to the Maranatha board. Shortly thereafter, Tem went to Guatemala for a large-scale dedication for all the churches Maranatha had built. Several representatives from the General Conference were present. One evening, Tem sat in a hotel room with Robert Folkenberg, then president of the General Conference; Garwin McNeilus, an independent businessman and missions supporter; and Don Noble, president of Maranatha. Over a casual supper of take-out pizza, Tem’s life took on new purpose. That night, God revealed a plan.

McNeilus said he wanted to build churches in Cuba. Folkenberg asked if Tem would be willing to lead the way by working with Maranatha.

“I told them that if we can build one church in Cuba, it’ll be a miracle,” says Tem. “I was scared, but l said if God wanted to do it, I would do it.”

After the meeting in Guatemala, Tem and a Maranatha team went back to Cuba. They met with people from the Union office and toured Adventist churches. They learned the Cuban church was depressed after 36 years of persecution. Most of the buildings were falling apart.

In the following months, Tem traveled to Cuba repeatedly. Tem’s easygoing personality and charisma earned him the respect and friendship of government and church officials. He developed a close bond with the second minister of religion, Dr. Silvio Platero, who happened to be from Tem’s home province. It was a shared history that turned out to be a blessing and stepping-stone for Maranatha. Tem and Platero’s friendship became key.

In the first year and a half, a series of miracles began to unfold. Platero suggested that Maranatha repair existing churches first, rather than constructing new ones. Quickly, Maranatha transferred one of their field staff, Nixon (who went by the name Fito) Ricardo to Cuba to assist with the effort full time.

Tem and Fito traveled all over the country in search of materials. Since everything was rationed, it was difficult and expensive to obtain supplies. Blocks were near impossible to get. Tem and Fito figured it would be easier to make their own blocks by purchasing cement, which was more readily available.

They started a construction company that would facilitate the process of buying materials. They established an office and initiated the long process for obtaining building permits. They created a block mold, and a group of workers made blocks. Others began repairs at various churches.

In the meantime, Tem and Fito searched for ways to reproduce Steps to Christ.
“All the government printing presses would only print communist material,” says Tem. “I didn’t know how we would do it, but we kept knocking on all the doors, and finally we found someone who would print it. It was one miracle after another.”

Then, unexpectedly, Maranatha was given permission to build an Adventist seminary. Funding was another miracle as major donors in the church as well as hundreds of others gave support to the project. Soon Maranatha was negotiating land for a new seminary, refurbishing old churches and building new ones, one permit at a time.

For the first time in years, the Adventist Church in Cuba began to come alive.

The Revival

From 1993 onward, Tem went to Cuba countless times, yet it never got easier. Without fail, each pass through customs left his hands clammy and his heart pounding. Though he had been an American citizen for decades, for minutes at a time, Tem had to convince himself and government officials that he was one hundred percent Cuban until they allowed him to pass.

“Cubans who leave Cuba and go back aren’t treated very well,” says Tem. “It was nerve-wracking.”

He approached all business in country with a great deal of discretion, making sure to speak cautiously and diplomatically.

His prudence paid off. In five years since the project commenced, Maranatha constructed over 80 new churches, refurbished 85 existing churches, and constructed a seminary complex. More than four million Bible study guides, 250,000 Steps to Christ booklets, and Sabbath School materials were printed by government and Adventist presses. Today there are more than 29,000 Adventists in Cuba, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

“I am thankful for hard-working people who make things happen,” said Robert Folkenberg, during a 1998 dedication of the La Vibora Adventist Church in Cuba. “I am thankful for a faith that focuses completely on its mission, no matter the political or cultural obstacles, and allows God to work when the time is right.”

A Life of Service

In the summer of 2000, Tem was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer. His liver was full of tumors. When his good friend, Dr. Julius Garner, gave him the news, Tem answered in a way only Tem could.

“Praise God, why NOT me?”

Doctor after doctor who came into contact with Tem was shocked into silence at his customary greeting: “Doctor, I’m not afraid to die.”
In their annual Christmas letter, Judy wrote:

“He looks good and just praises the Lord each day for life . . . Tem has such a wonderful relationship with God and is an inspiration to everyone he comes in contact with. The Bible promise in Isaiah 26:3 has been a blessing to us—for Tem has peace, and it radiates throughout our family.”

All the while, Tem continued to participate on and lead mission trips. After his diagnosis, he took a group of fifteen people to build a church in Cuba. At the 2001 Maranatha Convention in Glorieta, New Mexico, Tem was named Maranatha Missionary of the Year, an award honoring volunteers who have demonstrated steadfast dedication, leadership, and a passion for the mission of Maranatha.

“Tem embodies what Maranatha and true Christianity aspires to be. He accepts people as they are and is genuinely interested in their salvation. Hundreds of people have experienced life-changing mission trips as a result of his prodding. He is a tremendous Christian example, a powerful inspiration, and a great friend. I look forward to spending eternity with him,” said Don Noble.

When a tearful Tem took the stage to accept the honor, he could hardly speak.

“Maranatha is my life. The mission and the people have become a part of me.”

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On March 22, 2003, fifty people crowded into the Suarez home for a celebration in honor of Tem. They are all members of the Winter Springs Adventist Church—Tem’s home church for the past thirty years. More importantly, they had all been on a mission trip because of Tem’s passion for service. He has planned or volunteered on 18 mission trips with Winter Springs. The church has been transformed as a result. They are a church on fire with the Holy Spirit. Tithe and offering has increased, participation in overall activities continues at a high, and their enthusiasm for missions is unmatched.

“About twenty years ago the Lord landed on your heart a desire to bring others to Christ,” said Vic Ferris during worship that evening. “Everyone here has the same desire in our hearts because of you. We’re here to assure you that what you’ve started, we will continue.”

People reminisced about past mission trips with Tem. Some talked about how he touched their lives through kind words and actions.

“I was in church one day, minding my own business. Tem came up to me and said, ‘You’re gonna go on a mission trip.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So we went to the Dominican Republic. I had never thought about mission trips before…”

“Tem doesn’t see why people shouldn’t go. I’m sure Tem’s talked you into going, and I’m sure now you’re thankful he did.”

“Whenever I hear the phrase ‘my friend Jesus,’ I think about Tem because he’s always witnessing and sharing Christ with others.”

“When Tem speaks, I listen. When Tem speaks, government officials listen. And I may be sacrilegious, but I think when Tem speaks, God listens.”

Going Home

On a warm Sabbath afternoon, Tem and I sit outside on the back porch. We are relaxing against a backdrop of spring rain, which leaves the air thick but refreshed. It is my last day with Tem and Judy. Mostly we are quiet. Every so often, Tem tells me stories.

When Tem was twelve-years old, Adventist colporteurs came to his house. As a result, his Catholic parents sent him to an Adventist boarding school. When he turned 16 years old, an Adventist pastor from Switzerland held an evangelism meeting in Cuba. He remembers the pastor talking about “a beautiful city coming down to earth.” Some time around then, Tem gave his heart to God. It’s belonged to Him ever since.

“Christ is my whole life,” he says. “I think about Him all the time.”

Judy, who has been working inside the house, interrupts us to ask about Tem’s medication. She wants to know which he has taken and when. They talk in numbers, a code for the many pills Tem has to take each day. When she is assured he’s followed doctor’s instructions, she goes back inside.

“When my first wife was dying, I realized how helpless we are,” says Tem. “Now I don’t care what the doctors do to me. They cannot save me. They can pump me full of all kinds of chemicals, but they can’t save me.”

“I look at my life today. There are so many parallels for my life now and back when I was leaving Cuba as a boy. I was so excited to come to a new country. I was so enthused. Now this physical life is coming to an end, and I get so excited thinking about going to a new country. Going to see and meet completely different faces. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than closing my eyes and opening them to see my Christ!”

The calm that emanates from Tem is palpable. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee because he trusteth in Thee. Briefly, he closes his eyes.

“That’s what it’s all about.”

Note: On May 30, 2003, shortly after this story was published in The Volunteer magazine, Tem passed away. He was 71 years old.

 

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