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Eureka's 'effervescent' new councilmember and her Bible-smuggling past

click to enlarge Eureka’s next city councilmember, Heidi Messner, on stage at the Faith Center.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Eureka’s next city councilmember, Heidi Messner, on stage at the Faith Center.

While Heidi Messner stepped away from pursuing an acting career to follow her family's footsteps in the Christian ministry, her early childhood has all the makings of a Hollywood movie.

Messner — who as a 4-year-old innocently distracted border guards from discovering the Bibles her family was smuggling behind the Iron Curtain — is now the mother of two grown children and will take to a different kind of stage come December when she steps to the dais as a Eureka councilmember representing the city's 2nd Ward.

Messner says she did not make the decision lightly, but only after careful thought and consideration. That included the guidance of her maternal grandmother, who herself spent 30 years on the Brentwood City Council, including time as mayor of the Bay Area city, and — Messner adds — is very excited.

"I don't make a decision until I know what it entails," the 48-year-old notes. "For some people, it seemed like it was coming out of nowhere because there weren't a lot of people that I told."

"I was going into it with my eyes wide open," she adds. "I was doing my research for two years."

The choice, she emphasizes, is not about a religious agenda or political ambitions.

"It is important to understand that I do not bring agendas to this position. I came into it with a desire to serve the community to the best of my ability," she says. "I am not a bought and paid for candidate."

And, while some might think her role as a pastor means she's a conservative, Messner says she considers herself a moderate. But she also doesn't shy away from the notion that her faith is an integral part of who she is and will guide her decisions in City Hall.

"My faith and role as a pastor helps me be compassionate and allows me to stay connected to human need in a way many do not have the privilege of experiencing," Messner says. "It has afforded me unique experiences with the world around me, which has better equipped me to have a diverse perspective and macro, rather than micro, view of life."

Faith and helping others have always been an integral part of Messner's life — a legacy passed down by her parents and embedded in an early childhood that was anything but ordinary.

While other American-born children spent the early 1970s watching Sesame Street, riding their banana seat bikes to school and learning to navigate the social strata of the blacktop at recess, Messner was living a very different life.

When she was 3, her parents set off on a mission to smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain at time when spreading the gospel in the Communist stronghold was akin to peddling contraband.

Her parents, both 21, would spend the next few years crisscrossing far-flung regions of the world with their young brood in tow: Messner, the middle child, and her two brothers.

"We were actually very poor," Messner says. "We actually didn't have anything. They sold everything and bought the plane tickets. ... We just had our little suitcases."

Messner and her family assumed code names as they traversed 23 countries during their travels, many in the Eastern Bloc as well as Iran, Pakistan and India, where she first entered school.

While many memories of those years have faded, Messner says she does remember an incident when border guards ordered her family out of a van that had Bibles concealed under false seats.

Standing outside while the guards banged along the walls of the vehicle, she started singing "Jesus Loves Me." Her mother, Messner recalls, was "freaking out."

"Jesus," after all, is understood by speakers of many languages and their religious mission was not one the family wanted to advertise.

But instead of heightening their suspicions, the guards gathered around the young Messner, admiring her blond curls while making references to the famous French actress Bridget Bardot. Then, they let the family continue on.

It was an experience that taught Messner at an early age that every voice — no matter how small — can make a difference.

"My mother was like, 'See, even at 4 you could help them get distracted. Even at 4 you had the ability to do things,'" she recalls.

When Messner and her brothers were all elementary school age, the family headed back to the United States and settled in Eugene, Oregon, where her parents would pioneer their own Foursquare Church.

Founded in 1923 by Aimee Semple McPherson, who was known for her humanitarian work as well as elaborate stage productions to illustrate her sermons, the evangelistic ministry now has more than 1,700 U.S. churches — including the Faith Center in Eureka, where Messner and her husband Matt are co-pastors.

The adjustment, Messner says, wasn't always easy.

"I remember when we came back (to the U.S.) it was very hard because (people) didn't believe you. ... It didn't seem real. We'd get in trouble, from teachers even, and my parents would have to say, 'She really did live in Iran,'" Messner says.

There were also a few surprises, including learning her parents' real names: Mark and Linda. During their time overseas, they had been traveling under the aliases of Jeremy and Rachel Hicks. Once safely back stateside, Messner and her brothers also found out their actual last name was Wilson.

What people often don't realize, Messner says, are the very real dangers many Christians around the world face for their faith.

The family's travels didn't stop once they settled in Eugene. Summers meant missionary trips, mostly down to Central and South America. When she was 16 years old, Messner was singing and performing plays about the gospel for men being held in Mexican prisons.

"I've been in a lot of those situations in my life. I think, because of the way I grew up, I don't have a lot of fear," Messner says. "That's opened a lot of doors for me."

One of those doors led her to the council.

Standing at her side will be her husband of nearly three decades, who says he's proud of his wife's decision to run. Neither consider themselves political, he says, and they steer clear of political issues at church to ensure a sense of inclusion.

"I see it more as a way to serve the community," Matt says. "That's always been our goal: To improve the lives of people."

What Messner hadn't expected was how it all happened. What she thought would be a contest among several candidates ended at the 11th hour with Wells Fargo broker Matthew Owen and former 5th Ward Councilmember Chet Albin both withdrawing from the race.

"It was," Messner says, "quite a surprise."

She says she had no concerns about running against Owen, who — along with his wife Humboldt County 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass — happen to be her neighbors.

Owen, Messner says, was the first person who encouraged her to run.

While she now has the seat, her candidacy was almost over before it began. Messner, who was on vacation when the nomination deadline approached, says she hadn't realized she needed to be on-hand when her paperwork was turned in to take a candidate oath.

"We had to come back early on Friday to do that," she says.

The time she would have spent campaigning will now be spent out in the community learning about the issues and preparing for the job. That included attending state Sen. Mike McGuire's recent town hall meeting.

"I am open-minded and a listener. I weigh all sides before making a decision on any issue," says Messner, who has a master's degree in psychology and a background in counseling. "I am continuing to listen and gather information on the various issues our community currently faces."

Included on her list: affordable housing, health care, funding for roads, regulations, safety and crime reduction.

Intertwined in the city's homeless problem, she says, are a number of underlying issues, whether it's mental illness, drug use, domestic violence or a combination. It's a nexus she saw first-hand during her years as a counselor at a Seattle in-patient clinic that treated addictions and eating disorders.

If the answer was easy, she notes, someone would have found it by now.

"Hopelessness is what leads to homeless," Messner says. "I don't know what the city can do about that. ... It's going to need to be more than just the city."

Housing is key, she says. Once a person has the security of a place to call home, other issues can begin to be addressed. But in staggered housing units, Messner says, not one big facility, which would just transfer those underlying problems from the streets.

Once a person is housed, the paradigm of hopelessness can begin to change and "the hope begins to grow."

"We all, at some point in our lives, have felt that and we need to remember that," she says.

Along with her husband, Bass also encouraged Messner to run for council.

Describing Messner as "effervescent," Bass says the Messners break many of the stereotypes that people may have about pastors. Matt, she points out, goes surfing in the morning. Both bring an incredible amount of energy to everything they do, pointing to the fact that they have a Jack Russell terrier — named Jack — a breed known for its liveliness.

"She has a very reflective nature," Bass says. "I think she's going in with a very open mind and she also wants to help, but she's also realistic."

After watching Messner delve into complex issues, like combating human trafficking and addressing homelessness, Bass said she's confident in Messner's ability to walk the fine line needed when it comes to making difficult decisions that are inevitable going to upset one side or the other.

"You have to stick to your convictions and what you believe and what the right path is, but also let people know you hear what they are saying. ... It's a balance but her background should be able to help her have those conversations with people."

"I think she has the skills and ability to let people know they're being heard."

Messner, Bass says, simply brings a lot of good qualities to the table, including outreach and leadership skills intermingled with an easygoing nature, strong sense of community and a genuine aspiration to help people.

"I think her dynamic with the board and the mayor should be a very good dynamic," Bass said.

Before this year, Messner says, her plate was simply too full. But recent changes at the church, including the addition of new staff, opened the door.

Matt oversees more of the day-to-day operations at the Faith Center while Messner spent the last several years in leadership roles on regional and national boards of the Foursquare Church, dealing with everything from pastor changes to building issues and ensuring that church paperwork was turned in to the denomination.

With her terms are coming to an end, Messner, says the timing is right to bring her skills — built on life experience and her drive to help others — to a seat on the council.

Her unusual childhood came with many lessons, including what it feels like to be singled out as different. That helped cement an early sense of advocacy: to be a voice for the vulnerable and the things she believed in.

When fellow students made fun of disabled children who rode the same school bus as they did, Messner says she and her brothers stood up to them. During the mid-1980s, when reaction to the AIDS epidemic was immersed in fear, Messner says she was heartbroken for the patients who had not only been isolated in separate wards but, in many cases, rejected by their families as they were dying.

"I would go in and sit, talk with them and pray with them," she says.

More recently, Messner has turned her attention to the issue of human trafficking, which she was first exposed to during her counseling work in Seattle.

"It was eye opening," she says.

Her church has been collaborating with a group called Think Small, which works to combat human trafficking — especially involving children — and Messner traveled to Thailand last summer to see their efforts first-hand.

"When we went, we saw that there was so much that translated to Humboldt County," she says.

With an entrenched illicit drug trade already in place and a major highway running through its center, our region is a prime target for an industry that targets the vulnerable, Messner says.

The church has set up a local prevention program called E.P.I. — Empower. Protect. Invest. — which is working on a local school curriculum aimed at educating children and young adults about the warning signs and dangers of human trafficking.

Over the years, the Faith Center has held workshops and hosted panel discussions, including one with a local trafficking victim.

Humboldt County Undersheriff William Honsal says his office is very much aware that what many consider a big city problem is happening here.

"She came in to discuss the problem and I completely agreed with her and gave her my point of view," Honsal says.

Honsal says he knows the secrecy of the underground marijuana industry plays a role as does the isolation of certain corners of the county. Women who go to work as trimmers at remote farms behind multiple locked gates — often outside of cellphone service — face a number of potential dangers.

Honsal says he agrees with Messner that education and outreach are key.

"We've got to start somewhere," he says.

A major turning point in Messner's life came just as she was about to graduate from high school: Her parents went through what she called a "messy break-up" and most of the family immediately moved away from the Eugene area she'd called home since returning to the United States as a child.

Her world changed seemingly overnight. She says her father had described her as a free spirit, but the weight of responsibility during that time changed her perspective dramatically.

"I stayed in Eugene another year to pack up the house, sell the home we were living in, and try to save money for college since my main college scholarship had been contingent on my father's employment," Messner says.

Where she had once considered studying drama, Messner honed her focus back on the faith that had been a constant throughout her life.

She landed at Life Pacific College in the Los Angeles area, a four-year university affiliated with the Foursquare Church that offers a Christian-focused education. On her first day, a nice young man helped her move into the dorms.

By the end of her junior year, she and Matt were married.

"It didn't take long. I realized what an amazing person he was and what a great leader, even then," Messner says. "I just eventually realized we were a good match. We were friends first, really good friends. It's a good way to do it. It worked out really well."

She describes her husband, a long distance runner who won the Portland Marathon in 1999 and competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic trials, as "the most disciplined person I ever met in my life."

They have two grown children, Alicia and Levi, who live in the Seattle area.

Over the years, the Messners have served in various capacities at churches up and down the West Coast. Six years ago, they arrived at the Faith Center in Eureka.

"It just felt like the right thing," she says.

The sunlit lobby of the Faith Center was bustling on a recent Sunday as people gathered in small groups, talking and laughing.

Messner smiles easily as she stands amid the crowd in an interval between the two morning services, clasping hands with members as they spoke and offering hugs to a young girl who stopped by to visit.

Painted along the main wall of the room leading to the church sanctuary is the simple Bible verse of Hebrews 13.8: "Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever."

There is an air of casual acceptance at the Sunday service. Couples sit with their arms around each other. Folks carrying to-go cups of coffee continue to drift in after the start time. Some in attendance wear dresses and suits. Others, T-shirts and tennis shoes.

The Messners, several church members say, are at the heart of that welcoming atmosphere.

"They're honest, real people," says Recovery Pastor Susan Jones, who has been attending the church tucked away on a quiet street since 1975. "It means a lot."

Several hundred worshipers assemble in the church's softly lit sanctuary, which resembles a mini-television show set with track lighting across the ceiling and cameras in each back corner.

A lighted cross glows bright yellow overhead as a seven-member band plays toe-tapping ballads carrying messages of hope while the lyrics are projected onto large screens set on each side of the stage.

Matt delivers the day's message wearing an untucked cobalt blue dress shirt and jeans. He speaks about the need for everyone to step back from their busy lives at least once a week to observe the Sabbath, take care of themselves, reconnect with their families and replenish their relationship with God.

"He is the God who invented the weekend," he says smiling.

The sermon is more like a conversation with a close friend who happens to weave Bible verses and personal ancedotes into his advice rather than preaching from the pulpit.

After the service, Hannah Rogers, 26, says the Messners "have their hearts focused on people."

"Wherever there is a need, she likes to fulfill it," Rogers says.

Jones wondered at first how Messner would find the time to fit the duties of being a councilmember into an already bursting schedule but says she realized she'll simply bring the same energy she does to the church and her other outreach work.

"It's never a partial commitment," Jones says. "I think she'll bring an awesome balance. ... I think she'll be a great asset."


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