By Vicki Brown, Word&Way Associate Editor
Visitors to either of Heber Mena's Jefferson City offices immediately learn Mena likes to minister overseas. Photos, folk art and framed foreign currency grace the walls, and souvenirs rest on tables.
But recently Mena finally got to experience what most people on mission trips he leads often do — loss of control.
The pastor of Familia Cristiana Internacional [International Christian Family] and Concord Baptist Association's multicultural specialist recently ministered in Belarus as part of a team from First Baptist Church, Jefferson City. He also preached one Sunday in Lithuania.
Mena is an old hand at mission adventures, visiting 11 different countries and working in Honduras 12 times. Most of his trips, though, have targeted Spanish speakers, which gave the El Salvadoran a control and comfort that others on overseas mission experiences sometimes lack.
Mena came to the United States in 1998 to study at Rio Grande Bible Institute in Edinburg, Texas. After graduating, he remained in America, accepting the two Jefferson City posts in 2003. He has since completed requirements for permanent residency.
Since becoming a Christian, Mena has sought mission opportunities. He has made several trips with Medical Brigade, a Georgia-based medical mission outreach to Central America. He also has led Concord association teams to El Salvador.
The trip to Belarus gave him a different perspective. "I was pretty much in control when I went to Latin America, but I didn't know what would be happening in Belarus," he said.
Concerned that he couldn't speak Russian, he asked trip leaders how he would communicate. Told he would preach and teach in English, Heber went to work.
"Since English is not my first language, I put double effort into it because I had to translate [from Spanish to English] the sermons I wanted to take," he said.
Mena also was concerned because he had never experienced having to rely on a translator. Instead, he had been a translator on previous mission trips. He learned how people for whom he translates feel when they don't know the language or customs.
Using a translator was "a highlight of the trip because God used it to show me how others feel," he said.
A transaction as simple as buying bottled water brought the lesson home to him. "I handled it in the wrong way," he said.
"The trip helped me understand more how Americans feel when they go to Latin America, and it helped me understand why they ask so many questions," he laughed. "I asked all the questions the Americans ask when they go."
His ethnicity earned him extra scrutiny beyond the normal delays the rest of the group faced. Entry into Belarus took more than an hour and a half.
"They couldn't understand why as an Hispanic and a permanent resident of the United States I would go to Belarus," he said. "They asked, 'Why are you here and not in the United States?'"
Because Belarus is not considered a high-tourism country, Mena said immigration officials seemed suspicious. They couldn't understand why Mena had come and wanted to see all the documents he carried with him.
"God used the trip to humble my spirit," Heber admitted.
But the Lord also allowed Mena to use his talents and to fulfill a desire to learn a little about Russia.
Since moving to Jefferson City, Mena had heard that First Baptist and the Missouri Baptist Convention had had a connection to Belarus. The convention ended a 10-year partnership with that country in 2003.
"I've had a mission concern all my life...and I began to pray about an opportunity to go because I had never been to that part of the world," he said.
Since he found out that his middle name, Alexander, is Russian, he has been fascinated with the language and other aspects of the country and its history.
Desire to visit Belarus
Shortly after arriving in Missouri, he shared his desire to go to Belarus with Roger Hatfield, a First Baptist member and co-founder of MinistryConnect, a resource for church leaders. Hatfield invited Mena on this year's trip to teach church planting principles.
Mena, who has taught church planting in Missouri and in Latin America, said the principles apply everywhere. But culture determines the strategies needed to implement the principles.
The primary difference between the approach among U.S. Baptists and Baptists in Belarus and Latin America is money. Most Baptist church planters in the United States get some monetary support, at least for a set time frame, he said.
Belorussians particularly responded to teaching about determining a church's mission, vision and core values.
Mena's mission involvement has influenced his church members to participate. One member, an adult with five grown children, has been on three mission trips and now feels God calling her as a full-time missionary.
Eight different Latin American countries are represented in Familia Cristiana Internacional, including 12 families from Chile. Those families are trying to arrange a teaching mission trip to their country next year.
Mena plans to continue his own mission involvement through a Medical Brigade trip to Panama and continued help for churches ministering in El Salvador. (08-24-06)