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Mark Wimberley greets a student on a summer mission trip to Lativa

Courtesy photo
Athens Review, Athens, Texas

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a new Athens Daily Review feature called ‘You’re News.’ These features will cover an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. Subsequent features will run every Monday inside the Review.



Athens High School economics teacher Mark Wimberley has made an international tradition of mixing basketball with the Bible.

Wimberley — who, along with his wife, Laura, is a member of First Baptist Church in Athens — has gone on mission trips to Latvia every summer for the last four years. A public school teacher for the past 30 years, Wimberley is a former head basketball coach at AHS.

The missions began with the Summit Sports Camp, a basketball and volleyball summer camp for kids aged 8 to 18 years. The camp was set up in 2003 by Wimberley and Sean Stephens, a former Athens Junior High coach.

“Me and a couple of other coaches got it going,” Wimberley said. “There were so many kids over there, we said, ‘Let’s start a sports camp.’

“Now we’re focusing on basketball,” he said. “But our ultimate goal is doing more than just basketball techniques.”

Latvia — you get extra points for being able to find it on a map, Wimberley jokes — is a nation of around 2 million people in northeastern Europe, bordering on Russia. Once a part of the former Soviet Union, the country became an independent democracy in 1991.

The largest religious denomination in Latvia is Lutheran, with Catholicism and Russian Orthodox coming in second and third. According to Wimberley, there are only 93 Baptist churches in the country.

“They’re very open to religious discussion,” Wimberley said. “Under Communism, they didn’t have much opportunity to explore their religion.”

Wimberley said Latvians are typically seen as reserved and private as a people, due to the years their country spent under Communism. But over the last few summers he’s forged some close bonds through his mission work.

“Over the years, we’ve developed some very good friendships,” Wimberley said. “I think the biggest thing is being able to go that far.”

Wimberley and his fellow missionaries work in Cesis, a small city of about 20,000 people. The town is home to Cesis Baptist Church — which became a “sister church” to First Baptist in Athens in the mid-1990s — as well as a sports school, which is where most of the basketball gets played.

Wimberley describes the town as picturesque, with many buildings dating back hundreds of years.

“It’s a really neat area,” Wimberley said. “There’s a 600-year-old church half a block from our apartments. It’s really a neat old place.”

Cesis has another distinguishing landmark: The only boys’ prison in Latvia. Cesis Boys’ Prison, which is maximum security, is an old school building fortified with fences, walls and guardposts.

The prison houses boys in their teenage years, from 12 to 18, for a wide range of offenses. The boys are moved out upon turning 19.

“Before you can go in, they make you turn over your driver’s license, all your identification ... Your whole identity, practically,” Wimberley said. “ That (the prison) is probably the biggest thing we’ve seen (over there),” he said. “Seeing a 12-year-old right next to an 18-year-old ... They certainly don’t coddle them.”

The First Baptist missionaries’ daily routine includes individual Bible studies, an overnight “Disciple Now” event for high school students and serving as ministry assistants at Cesis Baptist Church. Laura, who teaches fifth grade ESL at Athens Intermediate, also offers English lessons for children and adults at the church.

They also visit with the kids at the prison, where they hold devotionals and sports activities. They bring essential supplies to the boys, like socks and underwear, as the need arises.

Most of the rest of their time is spent coaching. The Summit Sports Camp has grown from 75 to about 130 children, some of whom have gone on to participate in international basketball tournaments.

For their next mission trip, the Wimberleys intend to stay in Cesis for an entire year — they’ll be leaving this June and plan to return next August. They hope to work more closely with the pastor of Cesis Baptist Church and establish additional sports programs.

Wimberley’s not totally sure if his old job at AHS will be open when he gets back, and he’s not ready to go into retirement. But he still intends to follow the will of God, he says.

“The community has really taken us in. We’ve had no problems,” Wimberley said. “I feel like God is calling us to do this. It’s worked out great so far.

“It’s really blessed our hearts.”

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e-mail dgordon@athensreview.com

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