(EDITOR'S NOTE: Home-Grown Missions profiles missionaries, both full- and part-time, who grew up in area churches. As part of an on-going series, letters home from those serving on the mission field occasionally also will be published.)
Long before they came to Williamsport in 1978 and spent a quarter of a century in private medical practice, Phil and Linda Byler knew from their childhoods they were destined for the mission field.
"I grew up in a Christian home where my father was very involved in mission administration (Raymond Charles was president of the Mennonite Mission Board of the Lancaster Conference). I grew up with it and we always had missionaries in our home. I saw African nationals coming to visit and I just always had a passion for it," Linda said on a recent stateside visit.
Phil and Linda Byler in Africa.
"Linda's goal was to be a single missionary nurse," Phil chimed in, laughing. "I had to talk her out of the single part.
"I vividly remember going to a missionary commissioning service of my uncle and aunt, Paul T. Yoder, who was being sent to Ethiopia, Africa, and my imagination and childhood memories were captivated and I forever wanted to be a missionary like Uncle Paul. That was my childhood goal and youth goal and young adult goal," Phil said.
"We got married intending to be career missionaries. I never expected to practice in the U.S. I was going to be a missionary doctor," Phil continued. "During my senior year of medical school, after we had been married for three years and Linda (a registered nurse) was pregnant with our first child, we went to Ethiopia, where my uncle still was 20-some years later, and spent three months working with him in a health clinic. We had a marvelous time. It was a wonderful opportunity. It was our first time out of the U.S. - our exposure to missions in real life - and we loved it, except for one thing," Phil said.
"In those days, they didn't have home-schooling and so realizing all these little kids were being sent away for boarding school I just didn't feel God had given me the vision for sending my little kids away," Linda said, "so we came back and reconsidered and prayed about it and felt committed to short-term missions regularly, but to stay here while our kids were little."
That led to them opening Cornerstone Family Health in the city with Dr. Kenneth Hurst in 1978.
"It was our desire that it not only be a top-quality medical practice but also a Christian Ministry base," Phil said, noting that they continued to do short-term mission trip at least every other year while their four children were growing.
"For me, I always liked coming back to the U.S. where things are done properly, where I had my routines and my referral base and patient base. I loved going, but I loved coming back," Phil said.
"And I always felt like I could stay wherever we were. I don't mind the chaos and unpredictability," Linda noted.
"We're in the center of the Lord's will here in Williamsport and we'll stay here until we retire, I thought," Phil said.
Once the children were grown, after being questioned about their future by one of their soon-to-be son-in-laws, the subject of full-time missions again was on the table.
"I realized our reason for not going into full-time missions 30 years ago was because of our family life, and that chapter is now just about finished and we were still at least 10 years from retirement and our health was still good, so maybe we should relook at it. We did, and prayerfully, opened the door that the Lord might call us into full-time missions. Two months later, He did," Phil said.
"For Linda it was just great. We were finally getting on with our lives," Phil said. "For me, it was a struggle. I was in the West Nile (region) of Uganda doing a short-term mission trip and it was there that the Lord spoke to my heart and said 'Phil, this is where I want you.' I said, 'Lord, I'm willing to in full-time missions in Africa, no problem, but couldn't it be someplace with better roads and mobile telephone service, at least, and Internet connectivity? I struggled with that for about two weeks before I prayerfully submitted to the call and we went."
The call came in 2001 and preparations to make the move took another two years before they left the states in 2003.
Their work began in the West Nile of Uganda, in the northwest corner near the Sudan border, but after just three weeks in the field some fellow missionaries were murdered nearby and the Bylers were pulled out and moved to a safer place.
They spent the next two years in a larger, safer community working in a mission hospital in Uganda, during which time it was learned that a militant Muslim anti-American, anti-Christian attack carried out by hired ex-convicts was behind the deaths of their co-workers. At that time, the district where they had been called was closed.
"For me it was an intense personal and spiritual struggle because the Lord's call for us to leave our wonderful life in Williamsport and go to Africa wasn't just somewhere in the mission field, it was this people group, this part of the world; it was a very specific call. Now that call is finished. What does that mean?" Phil questioned. "For me it was a couple of months of deep soul searching. The Lord met us in a very, very special and intimate and personal way to not answer the questions I had but to satisfy my heart that He is God and He is leading and that His leading is good."
That all came at a time when leadership was asking the Bylers to lead the Africa Inland Mission work in South Sudan. Initially, Phil was against it, he said, for a variety of reasons. But as they returned for their second term in 2006 it became clear that the Lord was asking them to be mission leaders.
Mission work in South Sudan had been pretty much shut down because of an ongoing war in that region, but now the door was opening and the Bylers accepted the challenge, spending the next five years in a leadership position and setting their medical work aside.
"As the AIM unit leader, we coordinated all of our mission efforts in South Sudan, which at the beginning was just a couple of missionaries but grew to about 20 in a variety of work. We would set the vision and agenda for our work, (determining) where it would be reasonable to put new missionaries, then helping to recruit, train, encourage and support them," Phil said. "Most of them were younger, about the age of our kids, so we filled kind of a mission leadership, parent-grand parenting role for some of them," he said.
"Reaching into the unreached areas where people had not gone before was a big part of our emphasis," Linda added.
Kenya and Uganda, to name two, they said, are very Christianized now, and, in fact, are sending missionaries out to Europe and the U.S. where the church is declining. Not so much in parts of Sudan, where there are at least five tribes that have yet to be reached for Christ. Those more isolated areas now are their focus.
A year ago the Bylers were asked to step up to the regional leadership level or a four-year term and they now oversee AIM's central region that includes Sudan, Congo, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Rwanda and Uganda. They live and work out of Kampala, Uganda, and supervise about 100 missionaries.
Addressing their biggest challenge, Phil said, is "just to remember to stay close to Jesus Christ as He is the source of our life, He is the source of our missionary efforts, He is the one who produces the fruit and to remember that it's not just up to our human strivings and human abilities but to call ourselves and our mission leaders and missionaries to stay close to Jesus, to abide in Him and believe in Him, to trust and hope in Him. Just like here in America, we get busy and caught up in our human efforts and our church programs and our political agendas. We just need the reminder that it's all about Jesus, isn't it?"
Although their blessings have been too many to count, Linda said one of the most significant has been, "Seeing people who never heard about Jesus receiving Him and the transformation of lives, the transformation that comes as Jesus becomes not just Savior but the Lord of their lives."
Added Phil, "You tend to think to be a missionary in Africa look at all you have to give up, which is true, you give up a lot of comforts of America, a lot of money, but there are so many rewards and joys. I think at this stage of our lives, even though we loved our life in Williamsport, I think now is even more fulfilling and full of joy despite all we have given up."
The Bylers were home for two months assignment to connect with those who support them. They returned to Africa shortly after Easter.
"Following Jesus is rewarding, joyful and surprising," Phil said. "We've had so many surprises on this journey. Lots of surprises, but we just keep following Jesus and trusting Him and believing Him."
Carpenter is the Sun-Gazette's religion editor.