One of World Renew's first ministries was to Cuban Refugees arriving in Miami. Over the course of 10 years, World Renew and the Good Samaritan Center helped more than 25,000 refugees. Here is the first of two stories.
Rev. Clarence Nyenhuis receiving six tons of clothing shipped by the Eastern Diaconate to the Good Samaritan Center by way of the U.S. Navy's 'Operation Handclasp' in October, 1963.
In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow the government of Cuba. In the succeeding years as Castro adopted a philosophy of communism, hundreds of thousands of Cubans left Cuba and came to the United States to begin a new life. As they arrived in Miami, Florida, many were greeted by and received assistance from members of the Christian Reformed Church through a ministry known as the Good Samaritan Center.
It started with the Nyenhuis family. Clarence and Arlene Nyenhuis had been missionaries with Christian Reformed World Missions in Cuba in the late 1950’s. Following the revolution, the Nyenhuis family came to Florida for the birth of one of their children and were unable to return to Cuba.
“When we first got out of Cuba, we moved from place to place a little bit in South Florida. It soon became apparent that people were leaving Cuba and coming into Florida by hundreds and thousands,” recalls Arlene. “There was a positive feeling about stationing somebody there and having someone there to begin a work, a ministry.”
Together with support from Christian Reformed Home Missions, the Nyenhuis family started a small, Spanish-speaking church in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami on Christmas day 1960. While attendance started out small, word began to spread and refugee families began to encourage their friends and neighbors to join them for services. Yet as more people came to hear the Word, their need for physical support was also apparent.
“We realized the people that were coming came with absolutely nothing,” said Arlene. “It was soon apparent that we needed to do more than just have church services. At that point, things were beginning to open up for refugee work, and we opened a refugee center. We were able to rent a store front, and we called it ‘The Good Samaritan Refugee Center.’”
The Good Samaritan Center provided families with food and clothing donated by Christian Reformed Churches across North America. A second store front was also used to provide health care through Spanish-speaking doctors.
At the same time, the Spanish-speaking, Good Samaritan Church was continuing to grow. The Nyenhuis family needed assistance, and in 1963 responsibility for the Good Samaritan Center was transferred from Christian Reformed Home Missions to the newly formed CRWRC (later called World Renew). Pete Limburg was hired to be the temporary Director until Jim Tuinstra, the future Director, completed his Spanish training.
“The Good Samaritan Center was World Renew’s first domestic program,” recalls Tuinstra. “At that time there was some programming in Korea, and I think they were just beginning in Nigeria, but this was definitely their first domestic program.”
Tuistra was joined on the staff by a Cuban doctor, a Cuban pharmacist, clerical staff who came from the refugee community, and a social worker who had recently graduated from Calvin College.
“The whole staff spoke Spanish. That was the language of our operation there. And we were open five days a week,” said Tuinstra. “Patients would come in every morning to see the doctor. And we'd see 30 to 70 people a day with our doctor and fill prescriptions. The social worker would assist people with a variety of different issues, including helping them to find jobs and housing and various other emotional type problems that they were having.”
Some refugees already had friends or relatives living in the United States. These families and individuals would leave Miami quickly to go live in the community of the individual that had “claimed” them. They received support as they got started in their new life.
Other refugees were “unclaimed” and sought to begin their life in Miami or be resettled elsewhere. The Good Samaritan Center strived to meet their needs while in Miami, and to also assist them in finding homes in other parts of the country.
“There was already quite a large population of Cubans and other Hispanic people in Miami,” said Tuinstra, “There was a government effort to get them to move throughout the country. One of my major responsibilities then, as the executive director, was to work with the congregations throughout the United States to encourage them to consider resettling refugee families. I spent a good bit of my time on the telephone, calling up people that had expressed some level of interest. And I participated in several mission conferences that would be held on a regional basis and would go and speak about the Cuban refugee needs and encourage the churches to consider resettling families.”
Through this encouragement, several churches took on the responsibility of hosting refugee families.
“I think it was a very positive experience for most of the people that were involved,” said Tuinstra. “It was the first time that as a denomination we really got behind a resettlement effort. The Christian Reformed Church was very, very well respected by Church World Service because of it. We had a reputation of being able to take difficult families or individuals and find support for them. It was quite easy to find a home for a young couple with one or two kids, especially if they had a good education. Other situations were more difficult. For example, there was a couple, a blind man and a blind wife with three or four kids, and they were a real challenge to find a place. Another time, we had six young guys come out together. Six young guys was a real challenge to find a place. But those are the types of situations that would be brought to our attention at the Good Samaritan Center, and we would then work with church groups to take them.”
Over the course of 10 years, the Good Samaritan Center served 25,000 refugees.