Shining the ‘Pure Light’ of the Gospel in Belize
The Rev. Duane Meissner has been sent as the Synod’s first missionary to Belize
“Hello, Pastor!” people call out cheerfully, as the Rev. Duane Meissner walks down the sandy streets of Seine Bight, a coastal village in Belize.
Since arriving there in June, Meissner has become a common sight in the village, where he eats in the restaurants and stops to chat with residents on their porches. But this isn’t a tropical vacation for Meissner; he is a man on a mission. As The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first missionary to the Central American country, he has been tasked with planting the first Lutheran churches in Belize.
“At first, everyone just assumed that I was a tourist,” he said. “But very few tourists come back to Seine Bight a second time. So by the second week, they realized I was someone a little different.”
“It’s important for there to be a pure light in their midst and the proclamation of the Word of God — a ministry that’s there to stay, a holistic ministry that ministers to the people’s souls and also to their bodies.” The Rev. Duane Meissner
Many tourists only experience the country’s private islands and glittering resorts, but Meissner knows a much different Belize.
In Seine Bight, most of the village’s 1,000 residents still live in wooden stilt houses with metal roofs. Historically, the residents have been Garifuna — descendants of Carib Indians and Africans — although the village has recently become home to a growing Hispanic population as well.
Residents continue to grapple with the effects of poverty and substance abuse, even as expensive resorts spring up on either side to accommodate the growing number of tourists who flock to nearby Maya Beach and Placencia.
Meissner said there is a dearth of solid Christian teaching in the area, since most local pastors have very little, if any, formal education. Sometimes what other groups have taught has actually been harmful. That’s why his work is so vital.
“It’s important for there to be a pure light in their midst and the proclamation of the Word of God — a ministry that’s there to stay, a holistic ministry that ministers to the people’s souls and also to their bodies,” he said.
Meissner hopes to bridge the gap and create a church that welcomes people from the various demographic groups in the village.
In 2015, the LCMS Office of International Mission (OIM) called Meissner to Latin America, where he is building on the work of the Belize Mission Society, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization that has been sending mission teams to the village since 2003. Those teams hold vacation Bible schools and sports camps, organize dental clinics, complete construction projects and sponsor a lunch program for children in the local school.
“It is critical that, under the leadership of our regional directors, our Synod collaborate in the fine work that has been done by the Belize Mission Society,” said the Rev. Daniel McMiller, the OIM’s associate executive director for Recruitment and Regional Operations. “A long-term, caring pastoral presence in the midst of uncertainty, fear and death is the obvious next step for the expansion of God’s kingdom in these ignored communities so close to our shore.”
One Person at a Time
Meissner’s ministry is extremely personal. Each day as he walks through the village, he has a list of people to visit. Among his regulars are a woman whose teenage son is suffering from a severe but undiagnosed medical condition, a double amputee who is confined to her rickety home, and an older woman who lives alone.
During a home visit, he may provide a devotion, lead a prayer, answer questions about Lutheranism or just sit and chat, as the individual desires. He also learns all he can about the village, its history and the needs its residents see.
“The choices that I make and the impressions that I give at the very beginning are going to affect the ministry — not only my ministry, but the ministry of the missionaries that come long after me,” he said. “So it’s been really important for me to go slowly, be very careful and do a lot of listening.”
One sunny day in late September, resident Ina Martinez questioned him about Lutheranism as the two ate ice cream on her porch and discussed some of the differences between the established churches in the area.
“I like his company. I like the way he talks to me. I understand what he’s talking about,” Martinez said. “That’s why I am going to go to the [Lutheran] church, because I find somebody there that I care for and understand.”
Although Meissner’s main goal is to plant a church, he also hopes to develop mercy ministries to address community needs — a task his wife, Elizabeth, is already working on. After getting to know several local mothers who were hitchhiking to and from work, Elizabeth had the idea of starting a one-on-one reading program based out of Seine Bight’s new library.
“People rarely own cars in Seine Bight, and they typically work in Placencia because it’s very touristy, so they hitchhike back and forth,” she said. “I pick up moms and kids, and that’s how I found out there’s such a need for a reading program. Moms were telling me that their kids don’t know how to read.”
Planting the Church
Meissner’s work is already starting to take root. In October, he began leading two different Bible studies in the village. On Friday evenings, a small group of people gather under a villager’s stilt house to discuss the Book of John. And every weekday, Meissner meets with a diverse group of Mayan, Garifuna and Hispanic women in the local school courtyard to study the Book of Matthew.
He also continues to meet new people every day, as those who attend the Bible studies bring friends and family members.
“Our biggest need is our own church building,” Meissner said. “I really think that will give us an appearance of legitimacy and permanency that will attract more people. It would also give us better protection from the elements.
“Right now, we simply cannot hold Bible studies at either of our locations when it rains above a drizzle,” he continued.
As soon as Meissner’s application to form a legally recognized nongovernmental organization is approved, he will be able to pursue property and establish a permanent presence in Seine Bight.
“I am the son of a biologist, so this is really the ideal setting for someone who has learned to love God’s creation — to love plants and animals and bugs and birds,” Meissner said. But most importantly, he continued, “I love being in villages where I may well be sharing the Gospel with people for the very first time. It’s a very exciting mission field.”
Pray with Us
Lord Jesus Christ, You walked the streets of this world to proclaim Good News and to bring salvation to this world. Bless Pastor Duane Meissner as he walks to bring that Good News to those in Seine Bight and throughout Belize. May the Meissners be Your hands and feet to the people they meet, that the people in Belize might know Your eternal presence and love. We ask this in Your holy name. Amen.
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