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Whirlwind defines Sun City Center missionary minister

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image The Rev. Mark Salmon just returned from a mission trip to Guatemala where he has helped plant a small church. Salmon has been to that country 20 times and has also worked on projects in many other countries. Photo Penny Fletcher

He’s been in Sun City Center two years now, but is still making mission trips out of the country on a regular basis.

By PENNY FLETCHER

Being in the room with the Rev. Mark Salmon is like being in the center of a whirlwind.

Rev. Salmon is so filled with life experiences, plans, stories, and photographs from his missions around the world that he goes from one thing to the other so quickly one minute you’re picturing small churches in the path of active volcanoes and the next plans for new things he wants to introduce at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sun City Center.

It makes for an extraordinary interview.

All the while he was being interviewed Oct. 18, Salmon was surrounded by mementos he has collected from his travels, shelves lined with books, and photos he seemed to pull from the air.

Oh, that’s right, he’s also a “Christian magician,” doing “magic” acts in his spare time. Maybe that’s why he can suddenly lay his hand on just about anything you may ask to see.

Salmon and his wife Dee came to the Sun City Center church after spending 10 years at a church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Of course, they didn’t stay there all the time. Between the church’s “Presbytery” (governing body of elders in an area), his own congregation and money from his own pocket, Salmon has visited most of Europe, some of Asia and Mexico. But his real loves are Israel, where he has gone on ministry trips 37 times and Guatemala, where he has gone more than 20 times.

He’s been in Sun City Center two years now, but is still making mission trips out of the country on a regular basis. His daughter has inherited the missionary gene, and at 22, has already volunteered in 30 countries.

Although Salmon says he had biked through foreign countries in his younger days, his missionary trips began 12 years ago when he went with a group from the Texas Presbytery that formed a “pig project” in Guatemala. 

“We took about $200 into small villages and gave it as seed money for the villagers to buy little piglets to raise for breeding, sale or meat,” he said. This was around 2002.

The way the group handled the project was to give the money outright to the community as a whole. Then community leaders would “loan” it to the people. “Everyone paid them back 100-percent,” he said proudly. “We never wanted our seed money back. But show me a place anywhere else where every loan is repaid 100-percent out of pride in what has been accomplished.”

The people who began raising the pigs often lived in homes without floors or walls between rooms. They had so little their average wage at the time was around $1 a day in American currency, he said.

In another trip, he and those who went with him went to one of the few places in a town where there was electricity and taught computer skills. “These places were usually in church buildings,” he said.

But there was still no Presbyterian church so planting one became a goal that has since been accomplished.

“We also did eyeglass projects,” he said. The groups would collect eyeglasses, and they learned how to give simple eye exams. “One time we took more than 1,000 pairs.”

Fitting them was easy there because if someone put a pair on and could suddenly see, they kept them. The group had no way of correcting complicated conditions. But just providing the glasses to those they would help was rewarding, he explained. Many could just try on pairs until they found one that was right and wear them.

Sometimes Dee goes with him, and sometimes he goes with a group of men from his Presbytery.

He just returned from Guatemala in late September after spending 17 days there and plans a trip to Israel next year for his and Dee’s 40th anniversary.

“This will be for pleasure. We have friends on both sides of the border, in Israel and Palestine,” he said. When asked if crossing the border was dangerous, he said he never felt he was in danger. Yet he does remember a time when he had money taken from his “fanny-pack” and didn’t suspect it. “The guy was really, really good,” he said. That was when he talked about being a Christian magician and knowing about sleight of hand.

“I felt really foolish,” he said, and went into the complete story. 

Sometimes, it isn’t churches that fund the trips, but companies, doing their best to help the poor or promote goodwill. Antigua, Guatemala (not the island of Antigua) is one of the oldest communities there and there was never a Presbyterian Church there but it is a UNESCO-protected space, he said. UNESCO is the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture founded in 1945.

Now there is a mission.

“Sometimes, I like to go just to live and work with the people. Not be seen as the wealthy gringo from the United States,” he said, describing some of the conditions he has seen and lived in.

In the two years he has been the pastor at the Sun City Center church he has already raised awareness enough to fund a Guatemalan woman to go to seminary as well as take some mission trips.

“I do go into my own pocket though. I just love to go to the places where we’re needed most,” he said.

While talking, he was surrounded by multi-colored, handmade (minister’s) stoles and coffee bags given to him by many people he has met in Mexico and Guatemala. 

Looking at the workmanship, it is obvious they are a labor of love.

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