By JB Clark
TUPELO – When Daniel Mejia left his home in Quito, Ecuador, to spend a summer learning about ministry at The Orchard in Tupelo, he fully intended to return to his home and work in his family’s ministry.
Two years have passed, and the 25-year-old minister is still in Tupelo. Now, he is married and the pastor of The Orchard’s newest campus, The Orchard Hispanos.
Mejia connected with The Orchard when the church began sending groups to help with his family’s nonprofit Foundation Elohim in Ecuador – an organization that helps Ecuador’s school children by feeding them, helping with school work and providing health care.
“I came for a summer, but in the process I was seeing lots of Hispanic people and not many Hispanic churches or opportunities,” Mejia said. “The Orchard saw the need and knew language was a wall. We prayed, and God put on my heart and their hearts to start a church.”
Mejia estimates the Hispanic population in the Tupelo area to be around 5,000 people, the majority of which is underserved and isolated.
That’s when Mejia began applying for legal documentation that would allow him to stay and work in Tupelo, a year-long application process during which he was unable to legally or officially work for The Orchard.
“In the process, I tried to be friends with the Hispanic community since I couldn’t work,” he said. “I volunteered in schools and at the free clinic. I started a soccer team in the Hispanic soccer league here.”
The church has grown to more than 50 members the past year, about half of those children and young people.
Mejia said his goal for those young people, who are usually first-generation English speakers, is to teach them how to better themselves in the community.
“We don’t just want to be people who receive from the community,” he said. “We want to give to the community. We want to share God’s love and be a church that is part of the community – to go out and reach the people nobody wants.”
To develop a church that gives back to the community, Mejia said he encourages the children to believe they can grow up to achieve much more than their parents have.
“Most of the parents didn’t finish school, and so we want to show the kids they don’t just have to finish school, they can do even more,” he said. “They can be engineers and lawyers and doctors.”
As he has built the church, Mejia has gotten help from wife Mariela, a Quito native who was studying at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers when he first came to Tupelo.
The two didn’t know each other while they were both in Quito. She met Mejia while he was still living in Quito and she was back home visiting family.
He was attending a pastor’s conference with her father, an elder in his own church. The two met and dated long distance, he in Quito, she in Fort Meyers. While Mejia began planning for The Orchard Hispanos, she graduated and found work in Tupelo, and eventually began graduate studies at the University of Mississippi. The two married in November.
They never imagined they would be together in America and much less in Tupelo – a place so different from Quito, which is home to almost 3 million people and sits higher than 9,000 feet above sea level.
“I never had the American Dream,” Mejia said. “I love Ecuador and my family’s ministry there but sometimes God changes your plans. And, in Ecuador I have left a place for other people to fill. I served in many roles and now more people have opportunities.”
The Orchard Hispanos meets each Sunday at 6 p.m. in the Gloster Creek Village. Free English classes are offered before services each week at 4:30 p.m.