A tropical paradise spread before their eyes when Tom and Mabel Willey first looked out across the island of Cuba in 1941. Towering palms swayed in the breeze, flanked against an azure sky. Crystal blue waters reflected the impressive Havana skyline. Though the homes dotting the villages were modest at best, these pioneer Cuban missionaries were delighted to find a warm reception among the Cuban people who seemed so eager to help and listen.
It did not take long to make inroads into the community. In 1943, the Willeys opened their work in Pinar del Rio in western Cuba. They also purchased property nearby, where they built the “Cedars of Lebanon,” Cuba’s first Bible Institute. In the same year, the Willeys organized the Cuban Association of Free Will Baptists, with a small membership of 76, though 200 more were awaiting baptism. Within one year’s time, five more churches surrounding Pinar del Rio were developed.
The Willeys’ warmth and love touched Cuban hearts at every strata of society. Whether visiting a lowly fieldhand or an upper-class dignitary, Mabel and Tom had a unique gift that made each person feel important, loved, and respected. Their beautiful blend of compassion and determined purpose, powerful speech, and empathic listening melted even the toughest resistance. Before long, Cubans everywhere referred to Mabel and Tom as “Mom” and “Pop” Willey, affectionately welcoming them to truly be a part of the Cuban family. The Willeys’ own children, Tom, Jr. and Barbara, grew up as a part of that culture, following in the loving footsteps of their parents.
In 1960, the Cuban climate changed dramatically. Fidel Castro and his army overthrew the existing government and established a communist regime. New policies demanded all missionaries exit the country—Mom and Pop Willey included. Undaunted, the Willeys moved to Miami where hundreds of Cuban refugees sought shelter. They continued their work developing Christian leaders and establishing churches among the Cubans, in the political safety of the United States.
Six years later, the Willeys faced a personal crisis that rivaled anything experienced in Cuba. Tom Willey, Sr. was diagnosed with cancer. Though he fought his disease as tenaciously as he preached, he was unable to resist God’s call home in 1968. Mabel, equally determined, continued her work in Miami as she prayed for the church in Cuba, hoping that one day she might return.
But God had other plans for Mom Willey in Panama, where she and Tom worked prior to their time in Cuba. She joined her son and daughter who were already busy planting and growing churches and mission centers in the main cities and some rural areas. Mom Willey quickly joined in, assisting the Panama City church and starting a teaching ministry for professional women.
At last, 17 years after leaving Cuba, Mabel Willey was invited to return to the country that still held her heart. Her visit was both wonderful and sorrowful. It was a joy to see old friends and visit places she and Tom experienced together. But she noticed the spirit of joy and friendliness had been replaced with a colder, more task-oriented culture. Despite communism’s harsh impact on the community, she was thrilled to find the churches growing and believers eager to continue God’s work, not only on their own island, but all around the world as well.
After a long life of dedicated ministry, “Mom” Willey went home to Jesus on January 16, 1998. Her legacy—her children and the many lives she touched—lives on to continue the work God began through her.
Learn more about the Willeys and their ministry.