COLUMBUS — Mariano Menendez has several life experiences he calls "supernatural."
And each helped lead him to Columbus.
The Word of Life Church pastor began his life in Guatemala, where he lived until he was 22 years old. Wanting to spread his wings, he took a job an ocean away.
“I lived for one year in Germany,” Menendez said. “I had a job as an au pair, but it was for a dog.”
That's where he met someone who would change his life.
“My new friend introduced me to the difference between having a relationship with God versus religion,” Menendez said. “I had not yet given my life to Christ. I had heard of Jesus, but I didn’t know Him personally. But this friend of mine talked about Him like He was her friend. Just like she would talk about anyone else.”
This friend noticed Menendez's life was heading down a troubling path. She convinced him to attend a religious retreat back in his home country of Guatemala.
“I spent Holy Week, which is what Guatemalans call Easter, at this retreat,” Menendez explained. “The whole week I wasn’t really into the religious part of the whole thing. My friends were starting to really worry and pray hard for me. Then we were at this big fellowship event at the retreat. I had a vision of Jesus when I was in this big crowd of 200 people.”
The vision was exactly what he expected Jesus to look like.
“He had a white robe and sash with long, brown hair,” Menendez said. “He had the most loving eyes I have ever seen. He walked up to me through the crowd, and said, ‘It is I you are looking for,' and I said, ‘Yes you are.' And that was it.”
This experience inspired Menendez to intensely study the Bible before deciding to leave Guatemala to spread God's word.
“God called to me and told me to go into the land and use my languages,” he said. “I obviously knew Spanish and English, but I also knew a good amount of German from my time there. At this point in my life, if God had asked me to cut off my pinkie I would have said, OK, cut it off quick. So I went to school to learn even more.”
He spent one year in Mexico attending the Instituto Teologico Vision Internacional in 1996. The next year he was ordained.
“I’ve been in full-time ministry for 20 years now,” Menendez said. “None of this happened until I was 24. So I spent 24 years with the devil and I’m working on 20 years with God.”
After ordination, Menendez heard another call from God to work in the United States.
“The Lord wanted me to stay in the U.S.,” he said. “So I stayed in Texas for a year working at a Spanish mission. After that year was up, I moved to Grand Island to be a youth pastor.”
He met his wife Heidi in Grand Island.
“God told me that this woman was to be my wife,” Menendez said. “When I told her this, thinking she would call me crazy, she looked at me, smiled and said, ‘I know.' It was all so supernatural."
Soon after their engagement, the couple moved to Scottsbluff, where they lived for 11 years. Three years into that venture, Menendez was invited to be a guest pastor at Palabra de Vida in Columbus. The one-time visit became an annual trip for eight years before God's plans changed again.
“God asked me one day, ‘Why don’t you just pastor here?'" Menendez said of Columbus. “We heard that Word of Life didn’t have a pastor for some time, so I applied there and have been their pastor for five years now.
"We love it. The community is neat and the people always want to help. I know God wants us here, and that makes it paradise.”
Sharing the lesson he learned many years ago, Menendez encourages his congregation to understand the difference between religion and having a relationship with God.
“When God is in your life, that’s a relationship,” he said. “He’s in your everyday life and every thought. It’s not about religious duties, but having a strong relationship. It’s about knowing we are children of God."