On December 8, 1936, the General Committee met at Rev. Watson Sorrow’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, and recommended that he go to Central America to investigate the potential of opening a foreign mission work. The following are a few excerpts from Brother Watson’s book. “I went to work to get a passport, which took a little time. I purposed to sail about January 23, 1937, but, was unable to get a reservation until March 5, 1937. I left Atlanta on March 3rd and arrived in New Orleans on March 4th, where I saw the “Consul” and got my passport and visa on the same day. I sailed from New Orleans on March 5th about 11 o’clock, which was on Saturday. I was at sea for my first time. As we sailed out of the Mississippi into the Gulf just as the sun was going out of sight, I did not see land any more until we were sailing into Havana, Cuba, about 9 o’clock Monday morning. Our ship docked at Havana all day until about 11 o’clock that night. The Lord blessed me with a good young man who could speak both English and Spanish, to help me from the very leave from the States. He went ashore with me at Havana and helped me by interpreting and showing me things. Our next landing should have been at Cristoble, Panama, but orders were received after we sailed from Havana to go by way of Honduras to pick up a corpse. The corpse taken was a doctor who had been murdered. Our next landing was at Cristoble, Panama, which is on the Panama Canal. We spent a day here before sailing to Port Limon, Costa Rica. I was met by a missionary, Rev. Amos Bradley, whom I had known in the States years ago. We made our way to the train station to catch a train to Cartago, about 75 miles away, across or up the sides of the mountains. It was a narrow track that this little train traveled about as fast as a horse would trot.” (Some Of My Experiences, by Watson Sorrow ~ Page 73-75)
Brother Watson would travel from Cartago to San Jose, Costa Rica where he would preach several times before returning home. It was not until September 6, 1949, however, that the official groundwork for an organized foreign mission program was set in place. In 1950, Harold and Lucille Turner began a three-year tour of service in Bible School work in India. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 17)
The year the Turners returned to the United States, Rev. Hugh Skelton, and his wife Louise, presented their call for missionary service to the Foreign Missions Board. The Skelton’s were given permission to itinerate the churches in the States, and on February 8, 1955, they left for the island of Cuba. The first organized Congregational Holiness Church was established in Santiago de Cuba. General Superintendent, Rev. B.L. Cox, and B.L. Woodruff, visited Cuba in 1957, and on June 8, 1957, the work in Cuba was officially organized with twelve licensed ministers. The Skelton’s served in Cuba for almost six years. Sister Louise was forced to return to the States in 1959 with their son, Allen, because of illness and the extreme danger of the Cuban diplomatic situation. Rev. Skelton fled Cuba on December 19, 1959, escaping a summons to charges of spying for the United States Government. The charges were unfounded, but his leaving the country was imperative. The Skelton’s had served a total of four years in Cuba under the Batista government and two years under Fidel Castro. At the time of their leaving, the Cuban work had progressed to a total of 21 churches and mission points holding weekly services. A total of forty Sunday Schools were conducted every week on the island. The Church owned five buildings, including a seven-acre farm. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 18)
Before we leave Cuba, let us hear from Rev. Hugh Skelton. “On February 8, 1955, the ferry boat pulled out of Key West, Florida, destination, Havana, Cuba. Of the 125 cars aboard, one belonged to a greenhorn missionary, his wife, and son. Somewhere on board was a noted author on another trip to his adopted Cuba; or was it another time that I talked with Hemingway on the nine-hour sailing? The nine-hour trip became a nightmarish storm that engulfed us, almost a sign of the political storms to come in Cuba over the next six years. The rough seas poured in over either side of the ferry as it rolled in the waters. Seasickness broke out everywhere. Such a rough trip, I have never encountered since then. Never to be forgotten are those hours I spent on top deck, stretched out over a box of life preservers, wondering why I ever started this trip. The landing at Cardenas, just beyond Havana, was a welcome moment. Then, quickly through customs and an immediate drive to Santiago. The 600 plus mile trip brought us to an exhausted halt outside a large two-story duplex. We were home in Cuba, the beginning of six wonderful, frightening years.” (Vision Caster by Rev. Hugh Skelton ~ Pages 15 & 16)
“Early in the morning, of the last day of November 1956, Castro’s forces struck in Santiago, Cuba, the island’s second city, 500 miles east of Havana.” (Newsweek Magazine, December 17, 1956 ~ Page 56) To say we live in the midst of the revolution is to put it mildly. Oriente Province was the home of Fidel. His first attempt to take over the barracks of the military forces was in Santiago. His landing on the “Gramma” on December 2, 1956 was as close to Santiago as he could get the ship. The forerunner to his landing was my first brush with the fighting and with the death that was to surround us in the coming years. The incident reported by Newsweek Magazine made my November 30, 1956 a little different from other Friday mornings. A trip to the Post Office was not unusual. I parked the old ’54 Chevrolet station wagon and strolled in. But, the “companeros” of Fidel Castro were waiting for his return from exile and began their move to let the world know a revolution was beginning in Cuba. The firing of guns startled me, and all the other patrons. It was a dive for cover of any kind. I crouched behind the mail stacks. The one and a half hours passed minute by minute; an eternity of 90 minutes.” (Vision Caster by Rev. Hugh Skelton ~ Pages 39-40)
On one of those normal days of bus trips into the country, we walked back home tired but pleased. It was the end without warning. I would never again visit those friends. No time for “good-bye” messages. No last service together. No prayer of fellowship and God speed. The crowd outside the house was noisy. Something had excited the entire neighborhood. Several ran to me as we walked the few hundred yards from the bus stop, weeping and hugging me. They propelled us to the doorway and the summons attached was clear. “Hermano, the soldiers came. You will be killed. Senor, it is danger, danger.” The paper on the door was clear. “You are under arrest. Under no circumstances are you to leave the island of Cuba. Appearance before a federal judge is commanded at 10:00 a.m. December 19.” My options were closing fast. As an American, spy charges against me would not go easy. We gathered our suitcases from the house and drove to visit a friend. He was not delicate about his answer. “Senor, I can lose my head for the advice I am about to give you. You must leave. Try for your flight to the U.S. You have nothing to lose by trying.” A friend drove me to the Santiago airport where he was able to smuggle me onto the next flight to Havana. There were no farewells, no parting looks over the city, just get on the plane and go.” (Vision Caster by Rev. Hugh Skelton ~ Pages 62-65)
During those six difficult, but extremely rewarding years, a work was established that still flourishes today. What seemed to be a setback, would serve as a catalyst to propel Rev. Skelton into all the world.
In 1956, General Superintendent, B.L. Cox, and B.B. Blalock, went to Nigeria, Africa in answer to an appeal from Brother E.G. Edet, a native missionary. While there, there found a number of full Gospel natives and preachers who desired membership with the Congregational Holiness Church. After spending three weeks in Nigeria, they recommended to the General Committee that met at the Carrollton Church on April 12, 1956, that this work be added to our organization. This recommendation was accepted, which gave us a total almost 100 churches in Cuba and Nigeria at that time. Support for this work was terminated in 1961, when plans to send a full-time missionary to serve in this area did not materialize. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 17)
In September 1962, Rev. Hugh Skelton went to Mexico to consider the missionary possibilities. The call of the Spirit was definite. He returned home to begin an itinerary for specific services in Mexico. In late August of 1963, the Skelton’s moved to McAllen, Texas, and began their pioneer effort across the border into Mexico. The first Sunday School was held in a small home in Reynosa, Mexico, on October 13, 1963, with sixty-seven in attendance. By November, Rev. Jose Rubio rented a building and was holding weekly services. The Mexican Conference grew rapidly. General Superintendent, Rev. Terry Crews, assisted Rev. Skelton in organizing the first Conference in Cueneo, Michoacan, on March 19, 1965. The work was soon organized into a full Conference, and Rev. Jose Arroyo was elected as the first Superintendent. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 19)
From the outset, Rev. Arroyo suffered much persecution. He was run out of village after village by the Roman Catholic Church. In one place, he returned by swimming the river after midnight, silently slipping into the homes of those interested in the Gospel, giving them the Word, praying for them and instructing them, and then leading them to the Lord. Then, shortly before daybreak, he would silently move to the river and swim back to safety. He was stoned, beaten, and shot at by the enemies of the Lord. Once, eight Catholic men caught and began beating him. His nose was broken, but he escaped with his life. His nose was bent slightly to one side till the day he died. On another occasion, a man who wished to kill him got another man drunk, put him on a horse, gave him a gun, and told him to go kill Jose Arroyo. Brother Arroyo sensed what was happening as the horse and rider drew near. He was leading a service at the time. As the horse and rider approached him, he stood forth and rebuked the Devil in the name of the Lord. The horse reared up on its legs, and the man was unable to shoot. Again, the man tried to drive the horse toward God’s servant, but again the horse reared up and the shot could not be fired. Each time the rider tried to aim the gun, his horse reared up to prevent his shooting. It was like another chapter was being added to the Book of Acts. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 21)
In 1964, the Missionary Training Center, (MTC) was organized in McAllen, Texas, by Rev. Hugh Skelton. His express purpose was for the training and informing of missionary candidates and interested persons in actual field conditions encountered in missions work. The School began conducting its first sessions in 1964. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 22)
In 1966, Rev. Elmer Moreira, a former Cuban pastor, and his family were appointed to begin a missionary endeavor in Honduras. As they prepared for the moved, Rev. Moreira was killed in a traffic accident. Shortly thereafter, Ray and Nona Jo Alvarado, then serving as missionaries in Mexico, were asked to transfer and initiate a work in Honduras. The Alvarado’s answered the call and moved to San Pedro Sula to begin the work. After much hard work and labor, they were able to officially organize the first church on February 23, 1969. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 24)
Missionary work for the Congregational Holiness Church in the Central American Country of Costa Rica was begun in 1967 by Randall and Sharon Chester. They began a language school in San Jose, Costa Rica and organized the first church the following year. On February 20, 1969, the first annual Conference was held. This Conference was organized with fifty-six members, four churches, three missions and six workers. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 23)
The first Congregational Holiness Church Bible School was opened in the fall of 1968, in the city of Morelia, Mexico. Rev. Jose Rubio, the first Congregational Holiness worker in Mexico, was chosen to head the Bible School. The school graduated nine students in 1970 and eleven in 1971.
From midsummer 1970, until March 1971, Rev. L.M. Reese spent eight months in Brazil as a Phase II student of the Missionary Training Center in McAllen, Texas. When he returned home, he expressed a desire to return to Brazil as a full-time missionary to the Amazon jungle area of Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Gospel Messenger Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Page 25)
From these beginnings, both in the United States and around the world, we now have approximately ten thousand churches, and missions, in thirty-two countries and it is estimated that more than one and half million people worldwide meet each week under the banner of the Congregational Holiness Church.