Ordinary People

Phil and Linda

By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Jason Ransom
On Field Media

How does a family-practice doctor with a love for sailing end up as the leader of a ministry team in the remote hills of landlocked South Sudan? For Phil Byler, the journey began when he was eight years old and his Uncle Paul’s commissioning service captivated him. “Whenever somebody asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” Phil explains as flies buzz around his face and roosters crow in the background. “I’d say I wanted to be a missionary doctor like Uncle Paul. That was my childhood dream.”

Linda had a similar desire. “My dad was the mission board president for the Mennonite missions, and we often had missionaries in our home. I loved the single missionary nurses; they were so fascinating, and I’d talk to them and ask them all kinds of questions. So I thought I wanted to be a single missionary nurse when I grew up.”

“When we met in our college years,” Phil laughs, “our life ambitions meshed pretty well, except for that singleness part, which I had to persuade Linda out of!”

Phil and Linda married in 1971, and after finishing medical school, they hoped to begin their overseas mission life. During that time, however, they had four children, including a set of twin girls, and felt the timing was not ideal. Instead, Phil set up his medical practice in Pennsylvania, and they considered themselves home missionaries. For twenty-five years, they contributed financially to missions, embarked on short-term mission trips every other year, and instilled a love of Jesus and mission work into their four children.

In fact, it was their children—two of whom are missionaries themselves—who encouraged Phil and Linda to seriously re-explore their childhood dream. One month later, they went on another short-term trip to northwest Uganda and heard the Lord say, “Why don’t you come here?”

“Really?” Phil objected. “Could you at least call us to a place that has paved roads and cell towers and internet possibilities?” These questions are amusing now, because since that day fifteen years ago, besides their home in the capital city of Uganda, most of their homes in east and central Africa have had none of these amenities. Linda even claims that the house here in primitive Kimatong, South Sudan is nicer than the one they had in the city.

“Well, once it has water and electricity!” Phil clarifies, grinning.

After serving as regional leadership for AIM for several years and despite nearing the age of retirement, the Byler’s suspected God was not done with them on the mission field. Again, Phil and Linda included their children (and now their grandchildren) in the prayer and fasting process. The answer: move to a remote location in South Sudan among an unreached people group called the Laarim. They obediently arrived to their new home in early 2016, where they are now learning the language and preparing to lead an outreach team of young missionaries.

“Our dream for these three years is two-fold,” Phil explains. “One, evangelism to the Laarim. That’s a big, big part of it. Two, raising up these team members to carry on with long-term missions and leadership. We are assuming that after these three years, we actually will retire, but we’ll see.”

Beside him, Linda smiles fondly and says, “When [our ten-year-old grandchild] found out we were going to an unreached people group, he said, ‘Mom, if they don’t get finished in three years, maybe I can go there sometime and finish up!’”

Ordinary People: Phil and Linda

Jun 13, 2016 | Articles, By OFM, Central Region, Laarim, Ordinary People