JONATHAN JOHNSON experienced two life-changing events in the span of three months late in 1998. The Columbia Blowfish coach made his Major League Baseball debut with the Texas Rangers. Then he visited Cuba on a missionary trip.
Johnson pitched parts of six seasons in the major leagues with the Rangers, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros. Now he uses his love of baseball, and the connections he made through playing the game, as a vehicle to spread the word of God in Cuba through his family’s Honoring the Father Ministries.
Johnson will take advantage of a late June break in the Blowfish schedule to make another trip to Cuba, where he again will distribute baseball equipment and minister.
“They love the game of baseball,” Johnson says of the Cuban population. Men age 17 to 50 gather on sandlots across the island daily and play loosely organized games from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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“I have pictures of them catching me, barefoot, jean shorts, no (protective cup), no chest protector, just a mask hanging on with shoestrings,” Johnson says. “That shows their passion for the game.”
Honoring the Father Ministries has established more than 100 adult teams across the island as well as youth leagues in every Cuban province with approximately 800 teams and 15,000 kids playing the game. Through those leagues, the program has ministered to more than 900,000 Cubans, according to its website, honoringthefather.com.
“Our mission is to use our talent and our platform to do something positive for the world,” Johnson says.
Johnson was 34-5 with a 2.63 earned run average in three seasons at Florida State before being selected in the first round (No. 7 overall) in the 1995 Major League Baseball draft. With his $1.1 million signing bonus, Johnson gave $110,000 toward start-up costs for Honoring the Father Ministries.
Johnson’s father, Johnny, had been the pastor for 25 years at Wings of Faith Fellowship in Ocala, Fla., before starting the Honoring the Father Ministries, which initially visited cancer patients and built a church in Mexico.
In 1998, Johnny Johnson made his first trip to Cuba where he met with Osmani Sosa, who was pitching in the Cuban major leagues. Sosa was so enthralled by the prospect of doing ministry work in his native country that he retired from baseball.
“The game was not his heart,” Jonathan Johnson says of Sosa.
So excited was Johnny Johnson at the prospect of having a Cuban, Spanish speaking contact in ministry, he directed the Honoring the Father Ministries toward working primarily in the communist country. At the time of his return from Cuba, Johnson’s son was pitching for Oklahoma City in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. A teammate of his was R.A. Dickey, now a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The two Oklahoma City pitchers began collecting equipment to send to Cuba. Within a month they had filled six, 50-pound suitcases with gloves, batting helmets, cleats, bats and balls. By September of 1998, Johnson and Dickey were ready to join Johnson’s father on a mission trip to Cuba.
The first trip to a communist country for Johnson and Dickey was eye-opening. Johnson says it took him about four years worth of trips to fully grasp how the socialistic system worked in Cuba. There was no mistaking the Cubans’ love of baseball. Their religious beliefs were much more muddied.
Forbidden by the Cuban government from preaching or reading from the Bible, Johnson instead gives his testimony to his belief in Jesus Christ on playing fields, quotes from scripture and answers questions. The government does not permit the construction of churches on the island or for gatherings for religious purposes to exceed a certain percentage of the population in a community.
To work within the government regulations, Honoring the Father Ministries has built hundreds of “home churches,” at a cost of about $3,000 apiece in rural areas. Approximately $1,500 is needed to purchase property and construct a building, another $500 for music equipment and $15 to $20 a month is allocated for pastoral salaries.
The bulk of the Johnsons’ time with Honoring the Father Ministries is dedicated to fund-raising and gathering of equipment to ship to Cuba. The Johnsons’ draw annual salaries not to exceed $50,000.
On their three or four trips annually to Cuba, they have learned to expect the unexpected. Once, Chad Moeller, who was catching for Arizona at the time, donated a hockey-style catcher’s mask. Johnson was somewhat reluctant to cart a mask with the Diamondbacks’ snake logo on a mission trip.
When Johnson presented the new-age helmet to a group of youth players in Cuba, they were taken aback. They did not recognize it as a catcher’s mask, thinking maybe it was a motorcycle helmet.
“Listen, we’re going to have to take this to the far end of the island,” Johnson recalled one of the Cubans saying.
“Why?” Johnson asked.
“If it stays in Havana, they’ll take it from us. They’re not going to let us play on the back fields with this when their major-league catchers are playing with straps missing on their helmets.”
With that, Johnson found yet another place in Cuba to spread the word about Honoring the Father Ministries.