Opening the way for women to lead

Byler learned to be ready for God’s surprises, including a call to return to Guatemala

Romelia Pop, María Pa and Silvia Bo present to Deb Byler a gift from the women’s committee of the Carchá region at a farewell service in Carchá, Guatemala. — Linda Shelly/MMN Romelia Pop, María Pa and Silvia Bo present to Deb Byler a gift from the women’s committee of the Carchá region at a farewell service in Carchá, Guatemala. — Linda Shelly/MMN

Deb Byler saw amazing growth among Kekchi women during her last five years of service with Mennonite Mission Network in Guatemala.

“Many think they aren’t as intelligent as men, can’t lead like men,” she said. “I am impressed with the dedication of the Kekchi women leaders who are sometimes challenged by pastors who don’t understand the need for the women’s organization.”

Byler is retiring after 16 years in Guatemala — 11 in the 1980s and ’90s, and five more since 2017 — and 17 additional years of service with MMN in the Elkhart, Ind., office.

“I experienced many surprises throughout my life and career,” she said. “We always need to be ready for the surprises God has for us.”

Byler worked with the Iglesia Nacional Evangélica Menonita Guatemalteca (INEMGUA) Kekchi Mennonite Church, which consists of 128 churches. The Kekchi are an Indigenous people of Mayan decent.

She lived in San Pedro Carchá — site of the Kekchi Mennonite Church offices — supporting women to develop their gifts for ministry. In partnership with Indigenous women, Byler developed and distributed materials to pastors and hundreds of women, sponsored Bible studies, facilitated trauma healing workshops and held Sister Care Seminars (a program of Mennonite Women USA).

Byler grew up in West Liberty, Ohio, and was inspired to work in another country after a Goshen College Study Service Term in Costa Rica. In 1984, she went to Guatemala with Eastern Mennonite Missions and worked with Kekchi women, with a focus on literacy.

Twelve years later, she left Guatemala and completed a master of divinity degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1999. In 2000, she began working in MMN’s Human Resources department, where she served in various roles, including director of worker care. In 2015 she earned a doctor of ministry degree at Columbia International University.

“I always wanted to return to Guatemala, but my mother was still living, so I did not feel a release from God to leave her,” she said. “When my mother died in May 2016, I thought I was too old to go back. Four months later, I awoke in the night and sensed God saying to me, ‘It’s time to go back.’ ”

She checked with the Kekchi Mennonite Church staff and former mission workers, who confirmed a need. She returned Guatemala in 2017.

“For approximately eight years while I was in the United States between terms, I experienced serious depression and could not see or experience God walking with me,” Byler said. “God was silent. Now, I can see God was shaping me at that time to be able to later identify with the vulnerable, human and very dedicated Kekchi women. God was with me whether I knew it or not. I know now that God is always at work.”

The fruit of her work, and that of her Guatemalan colleagues, is evident. Every region of the Kekchi Mennonite Church now has a women’s committee and a supervisor who travels to the churches of her region to visit women and encourage the women leaders.

This level of organization creates opportunities for women. Currently, 29 Kekchi women are studying theology at Instituto Biblico Mennonita INEMGUA in Carchá, thanks to small scholarships from MMN’s International Leadership Training Endowment.

A church in each INEMGUA region held a farewell service for Byler. Women expressed appreciation for her role in raising them up with dignity.

Retiring in Goshen, Ind., Byler will miss her Guatemalan friends — and the hot tortillas they served.

“I never learned to make tortillas properly,” she said. “The women laughed at my attempts!”

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