ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Connie and Dennis Byler, serving with Mennonite Mission Network, watched Anabaptism take root in Spain in their 37 years of ministry there. They helped tuck seeds into the ground tilled by the Catholic renewal movement of the 1970s. They tended the young growth of church plants. And now they rejoice at the fruitfulness of vibrant congregations that are multiplying within Spain and sending out mission workers to West Africa.
Several weeks before the couple's retirement that began January 2018, Dennis marveled that God had permitted him and Connie to be part of this awesome movement.
"I've been blessed to do what I love, what I have a passion for," Dennis said. That passion centers on sharing Jesus' love through teaching, preaching and writing.
Dennis taught courses at a Protestant seminary in El Escorial, near Madrid, and helped found Kenosis Theological Seminary, the first specifically Anabaptist training offered in Spain. When the Internet became available in most households, Dennis offered online courses and began editing El Mensajero (The Messenger), a monthly electronic newsletter to connect the Anabaptist network of churches in Spain and Latin America. Throughout his life, Byler has always had writing projects, a practice he doesn't plan to change in retirement.
Connie and Dennis Byler model complementary ministries that grew out of the Burgos congregation, now called Comunidades Anabautistas Unidas (United Anabaptist Communities). Eight years ago, two small Anabaptist congregations in Burgos joined.
While Dennis reflects on how to best communicate the biblical foundation of God's mission, Connie lives it out visiting people in their homes, in the hospital, and in hospice care. Her sentences often begin with, "I've got a friend …" She has taken special interest in people living with HIV-AIDS, children whose parents are in prison, and refugees. She knows people all across Burgos and throughout the surrounding villages, including a military general who was an English-language student, and a Guatemalan immigrant named Ruth who came to Spain to take care of two blind men.
In 1981, Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, called the Byler family from a ministry of walking alongside the Toba-Qom people in the Argentine Chaco to continue the accompaniment work that Bonita and John Driver had begun in Spain six years earlier. The Drivers were teaching the Bible from an Anabaptist perspective when a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit brought new life to Catholic young people. The Drivers provided pastoral support when the established church structure excommunicated the new believers who were putting into practice biblical teachings that threatened the hierarchy.
Sylvie Gudin Koehn, a French woman whose life was transformed by an encounter with Jesus during the renewal movement, told the Bylers, "We were full of Christian joy and life, but we needed mature Christians as teachers. You fathered and mothered young believers in the faith."
For nearly four decades, Connie and Dennis Byler nurtured the fragile shoots of obedience to God's word and growing trust in Jesus. With their charismatic gifts of loving presence, with rigorous academic discipline in training home-grown church leaders, and with patient mentoring of Anabaptist congregations and networks, they contributed to flourishing Anabaptist communities.
If Connie isn't engaging with people she meets on the streets, she may be holding a hand and praying with someone in hospice. In 2009, as she was ministering to a family in their congregation who narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded outside their apartment, Byler explained her approach to ministry: "We laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry." In every conversation, she seeks "to share the goodness of God with others."
Augustín Melguizo, one of the pastors who has worked with the Bylers, expressed appreciation for their lifetime of service.
"Many missionaries are pressured by their mission agencies to achieve results in a short amount of time … [this] can cause offense when interacting with Spanish people's concept of time. First, you must dedicate yourself to getting to know people and winning them with friendship and a good testimony. Then, after several years, you can begin to benefit from some occasions to present the gospel clearly," Melguizo said.
Through Bible study and living out their faith, the Bylers helped Burgos to become "one of the major Mennonite centers in Europe today," Melguizo said.
Among Dennis Byler's writing projects was a Spanish-language trilogy totaling more than 1,000 pages addressing the topics of biblical authority and how to apply the Bible to one's life. The title of the second book is Todo lo que te Preguntabas sobre la Biblia (Y algunas cosas que Preferirías no Saber) [Everything You were Wondering about the Bible (and a Few Things You Would Rather Not Know)], adding some humor to the easy-to-read question-and-answer format. Dennis began a habit of daily Bible study as a teen, and continues to delight in this practice, normally preferring to read God's word in its original languages.
Tim Foley, Mission Network's director for Europe, paid tribute to the Bylers' lifetime of humble service. "Your brothers and sisters in Spain have told us of how your gifts have shaped the unity of the Anabaptist family in Spain, bringing together different churches and denominational families that now have a membership of more than 500 people. They say that you are an essential part of this achievement," Foley wrote on their retirement certificate.
Connie and Dennis plan to retire to Cantabria on Spain's northern coast where the weather is kinder than that of the high-altitude cold of Burgos.
"It is best for the Burgos congregation that we aren't a constant presence," Dennis said, about the couple's retirement plans. "I expect to continue teaching, writing, and editing the El Mensajero as long as I feel up to it. And then, there are still books I want to write. And Connie will immediately make new friends in Cantabria."
Then, of course, there are the children and grandchildren. The family of Bylers' daughter, Mariberta, lives in Cantabria with three grandsons. The family of their son, Mateo, lives in Burgos, so there will be frequent travel to connect with three more grandsons and to continue relationships with their church family there. Daughter, Gloria, lives in Madrid.
Nine Anabaptist communities in Spain are carrying on the ministry that Connie and Dennis Byler worked at so faithfully, and Mennonite Mission Network has three additional families serving in Spain.
For the past 11 years, Brian and Noelia Fox and their three daughters have made Burgos their home. In addition to helping develop a vibrant youth ministry in the congregation, they have founded an English-language academy through which they live out their faith in the larger Burgos community.
Alisha and Joshua Garber and infant son became part of the Anabaptist congregation in Barcelona a few months ago. Building on prior mission experience at LCC International University in Lithuania, the Garbers will work alongside their new church family to show that Jesus is still relevant to youth and people of all ages in Spain's post-Christian society.
Francisco and Juanita Machado, jointly appointed workers through Mennonite Mission Network and Virginia Mennonite Missions, also recently moved to Madrid to begin a church-planting ministry.