ELKHART, Ind. — 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 multiplying within Spain and sending out mission workers to West Africa.
“I’ve been blessed to do what I love,” said Dennis Byler several weeks before the couple’s retirement began this month. That passion centers on sharing Jesus’ love through teaching, preaching and writing.
He 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. He offered online courses and began editing El Mensajero (The Messenger), a monthly newsletter to connect the Anabaptist network of churches in Spain and Latin America. He has always had writing projects, a practice he doesn’t plan to change in retirement.
The Bylers 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 joined.
While Dennis Byler reflects on how to best communicate God’s mission, Connie Byler lives it out by visiting people in homes, the hospital and hospice care. She has taken special interest in people living with HIV-AIDS, children whose parents are in prison and refugees.
Nurturing fragile shoots
In 1981, Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of MMN, called the Byler family from a ministry in the Argentine Chaco to continue work that Bonita and John Driver began in Spain six years earlier. The Drivers provided pastoral support when the established church structure excommunicated new believers who were putting into practice biblical teachings that threatened the hierarchy.
For nearly four decades, the Bylers nurtured the fragile shoots of obedience to God’s word and trust in Jesus.
In 2009, as Connie Byler was ministering to a family in their congregation who narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded outside their apartment, she 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,” he said. “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.”
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 biblical authority and how to apply the Bible to one’s life.
The Bylers plan to retire to Cantabria on Spain’s coast, where the weather is kinder than Burgos’ high-altitude cold.
“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,” Dennis Byler said. “And Connie will immediately make new friends in Cantabria.”
Nine Anabaptist communities in Spain are carrying on the ministry the Bylers worked at so faithfully. MMN has three other families serving in Spain.
For 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.
Alisha and Joshua Garber and their 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.
Francisco and Juanita Machado, jointly appointed workers through MMN and Virginia Mennonite Missions, also recently moved to Madrid to begin a church-planting ministry.