Cuban clergy couple navigate new country and new language
By Lindsay Peyton
When it comes to facing challenges, Pastors Frank and Elizabeth Acosta feel blessed to lean on each other. Because they know each other’s strength and how to balance duties, they are poised to divide and conquer almost any obstacle. Together, the Acostas have navigated moving to a new country, learning a new language and attending two different seminaries. They band together in marriage and parenting, as well as both pastoring at First Methodist Conroe for the Celebración ministry. Whether at work or at home, this clergy couple is a true team.
“One of the great blessings of my life is spending time with this amazing woman,” Frank said. “We went to seminary together. We’re serving God together. It’s a blessing to have a partner in life. You can play together, study together, pray together and serve God together.”
The Acostas have now been married for 16 years and have a 2-year old son Josue. Originally from Cuba, they were once teenage sweethearts who met at their home church, after Frank drew Elizabeth’s name as a partner for an activity in his youth group.
“The person I picked was Eli,” Frank recalled. “I started to look at her in a different way.”
Still, they did not start to officially date until a couple years later, when Elizabeth was 17 and Frank was 19. At the time, Frank was serving as youth pastor, and Elizabeth was in charge of the teenagers at church.
Already, Frank was called to serve. He remembers the date – Nov. 15, 1999 – that he accepted the Lord at age 15. On the same day, he received his calling.
“I just wanted to be a pastor,” he said. “I felt a great passion to bring people to the church. God started to prepare my path.”
Serving as youth leader was his first step. The church started with a group of 12 young people. After three years, there were 135 members. He took that as a sign. “God showed us that we were called to lead people,” Frank said.
Elizabeth was a bit more reluctant, even though she also received her calling at a young age. “My first answer was ‘No thank you,’” Elizabeth recalled.
The challenges of being a pastor in Cuba were too great, she explained. For example, a pastor’s salary was only $15 a month. In addition, women were discouraged from attending seminary and the cost to enroll was also disheartening.
“I told Frank, if God wants me to go to ministry, I’d like to go to seminary, and that’s never going to happen,” Elizabeth recalled.
“We didn’t have the money,” Frank explained.
The next day, however, the couple received a call from the seminary urging them both to enroll. The rest is history.
At ages 21 and 19, the Acostas began to pastor their first church in Cuba. “We were so young that when people came the first time, they thought we were the children of the pastors,” Frank recalled with a laugh.
They served the congregation for five years and later relocated to a second church for a year. Then, the couple decided to move to the U.S.
“Eli and I needed something different,” Frank said. “We wanted to be in a country where we were free and where we had the opportunity to preach without restraints.”
Frank came first, by himself, in 2012, and Elizabeth stayed as associate pastor of her home church. “We had to be separated for two years and eight months,” he said. “It was very difficult, but it helped our love get stronger.”
In 2015, Elizabeth was able to move to the U.S. At first, they lived in Florida, but after hearing about an opportunity to pursue Hispanic ministry in Texas, they literally loaded up their car and hit the road.
“We made our decision to move to Texas and start a new life, to follow our dream,” Frank said. “We took our car and a couple of books. We had nothing. We came here, just Eli and me.”
The couple did not yet speak English. Frank explained that there were a lot of immigrants from Cuba in Florida, who all spoke the same language and understood each other’s culture.
In Texas, however, the Latino population is varied, and there was a greater need to speak English, Frank explained. The Texas Annual Conference helped guide the couple through the process of settling in a new state – and learning a new language.
At first, they were appointed to Fairbanks UMC, where they concentrated on reaching out to the community.
For instance, the Acostas would find apartment complexes near the church, work with the managers and establish a monthly session for children, complete with Bible study, games and snacks. In addition, the couple would go to places like Home Depot, where they would serve breakfast and offer prayers to individuals looking for work.
Eventually, the Acostas were welcomed to First Methodist Conroe’s Hispanic congregation Celebración in 2018. At the church, Elizabeth said there are 10 different nationalities who speak Spanish, each with their own customs and traditions.
“For us, it’s a big challenge,” Frank said. “We have to learn how to handle this, how to be empathetic. The decision we made to learn about them, to get engaged in their culture, has helped a lot,” Frank added.
Empathy is the key to being a pastor, he explained. “It’s the most important thing,” he said. “You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
Elizabeth said settling in the new post at First Methodist Conroe was initially difficult. At the time, she had a 4-month old son and had just undergone surgery for cancer. In addition, the pastors had to acclimate to a new community and senior pastor.
The two now love the community and serving the church. They split duties at work. Elizabeth covers Sunday school, Bible study and outreach, while Frank trains leaders, preaches sermons on Sunday and coordinates the worship team.
“Because we work as a team, everything is easier,” Frank said.
The Acostas recently both earned a Masters of Divinity at Perkins, perfecting their English
to complete the courses. While they were studying, COVID-19 struck.
“We were working from home for a few months, offering devotionals on YouTube and all of our services on social media,” Elizabeth said.
Technology allowed the Acostas to stay engaged with the congregation through livestreamed sermons on Sundays and small groups on Zoom, Frank explained. When they reopened for in-person worship in August, about 87 members attended. Before the pandemic, they had an average of 97 attending in-person services.
Frank said that COVID-19 has been difficult, but the couple has dealt with trials before. “Our life always has a challenge,” he said. “When we started serving as pastors, everyone said we were too young. But we said that if God called us, God will support us. God is our boss.”
That same faith carried them through being separated for more than two years, through the cancer treatment, through sickness and in health, for better or worse.
Challenges have simply made his commitment to his marriage even stronger, Frank said. “I know this is the person for me,” he added. “This is the woman of my life.”
Elizabeth feels the same – and is grateful for a husband she can talk to as both a partner and a pastor. “I cannot imagine my life with another person, who doesn’t have the same passion,” she said.
On every step of their journey, she added, God has been there. “It’s amazing to see how God is with you in all the moments of your life,” she said.
Currently, the Acostas are in the commissioning process. Meetings and interviews are in English, and while the couple prefer to express themselves in Spanish, this is just another hurdle to overcome. “Every challenge is possible with God,” Frank said.
He said that he values every moment he spends with Elizabeth. “For me, the most important thing is sharing time together,” he said. “I’m not just talking about our jobs. I’m talking about family time – and it’s good to have a confidant.”
Sharing life’s struggles, challenges and joy helps their relationship stay strong, he explained. “It’s also very important to always have God in the middle of our life – not just as pastors, but in our marriage,” he said.
Elizabeth agreed. “We build our relationship – with each other as a marriage and with God also,” she said. “It’s amazing.”