When Pastor Segundo Mir first became a priest in the late 1960s in Cuba, he knew he wanted to become a missionary.
Now, at the spry age of 70, he will finally realize that dream. Mir, who has spent the last 25 years leading the Spanish congregation at Laurel's First Baptist Church, recently left his post at the church to embark on a three-year mission to Spain. There, he says, he will advocate for the churches to assist the country's rising influx of immigrants, many of whom are coming from Africa.
"Most of the people 70 years old, they retire," Mir said sitting inside First Baptist's chapel on a recent morning. "I see the people suffering right now, and it breaks my heart. I thought the idea: Now this is an opportunity to go to a different country, to do something."
And while Mir is leaving to embark on his first full-time mission – he said he's gone on many week-long missions to 12 different countries in his 45 years as a pastor – in many ways his work in Laurel has been a mission of its own.
"Laurel has changed a lot. When I first came here it was an American old town. Now it is an international town, a modern town," Mir said. "I have been here 25 years, but I have been suffering. There was a lot of prejudice against the Hispanic. I have been suffering here, in the beginning they don't accept me because I don't speak English very well, because my eyes and skin are not like theirs, because I am Spanish. After 25 years, this church has opened the mind and opened the heart. These people accept me, and they love me."
When Mir arrived in Laurel in 1989, the Spanish-speaking congregation was between 12 to 30 people, depending on who you ask. It has since grown to a regular congregation of more than 200, thanks in large part to Mir's efforts.
Mir said in the early days he used to spend time door knocking in Laurel apartment complexes, places he was told Hispanic residents were living, to try and drum up support for First Baptist's Spanish congregation.
"I went floor by floor, door by door, and stood outside the door and listened to see if they had Hispanic music or to see if I could smell Hispanic food," Mir said.
Mir also hosted a 15-minute radio program on 900 AM, a Spanish-speaking station, as a way to get the word out about the congregation.
After awhile, it got to the point where prospective parishioners were calling Mir. He said people would not only call about joining the church, but would also call if they needed assistance. That's when Mir's missionary spirit kicked in.
"I don't know how, but when they come from Central America, South America, they have my phone number and they call me, 'I heard you are Pastor Mir. I just arrived last night from Mexico or El Salvador or wherever, and some friend of mine gave me your phone number,'" Mir said, mimicking one of the many calls he has received over the years.
"They say, 'I need your help.' So I try to help find a job, find a house, find food, find medical, whatever they need. So I've been helping people for 25 years."
Parishioner Luis Rosa, 63, of Laurel, said he's known Mir since 1992 and that he is constantly helping others in the community. Rosa recalled how Mir assisted him when his own son, a member of the armed services, was injured in Iraq.
"When it happened, he was here for us. He helped us a lot," Rosa said. "I know he helps all kind of people. You can't give him any money, because he'd give it away."
Rosa added, "He's going to be missed. We love him dearly and he made an impact in the Hispanic community."
First Baptist parishioners are not the only ones who have taken note of Mir. Last month, he was honored at a Laurel City Council meeting by Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and the council for his contributions to the community.
At the meeting, the council and Moe read a proclamation honoring Mir and his service to the city.
Council President Fred Smalls, who has known Mir for years, said Mir has been integral to helping the relationship between the city and the Hispanic community.
"Pastor Mir and I have enjoyed a very long friendship," Smalls said at the July 28 meeting. "I've never met a man who has such faith and commitment to his community and to God as Pastor Mir does."
"Not everyone gets an opportunity to start a church, turn it over to somebody who does an excellent job and then have that person retire and come back," Suarez said. "It's an excitement, but it's a great responsibility."