Missionary to the Hopeless

Photo by Ninno JackJr on Unsplash

By Teena Myers

Mary Bryant defined the lives of the people she ministers to with a peculiar Swahili word – Sug-ga-la-bu-ga-la (the spelling is my best guess), which means a mess or state of disorder. Mary learned the Swahili language during her fifteen years of missionary work in Africa.

“My life growing up was dull,” said Mary. “I was never bad or disorderly as a child. Later, I was too busy studying to be a nurse to have time for partying with friends.”

Her family believed in God but rarely attended church. Encounters with drug addicts left her with the conviction she never wanted to be one. During her teenage years the Catholic Charismatic movement briefly touched her life, but God seemed unreachable. She pursued a career in nursing believing she would find fulfillment and meaning. Becoming a nurse failed to fill the God sized hole in her life, and a thirst to know God continued to grow. 

One day, she entered a patient’s room to administer medicine and encountered a man holding a Bible praying for her patient. She did not know what to do, so she slowly backed out of the room. The man with the Bible waved her to come in. She administered the medicine and departed, but the scene stirred up a long held curiosity about God.

Later that day, she broke for lunch late. The cafeteria had already closed, so she took the elevator to the break room to piece together a meal from the vending machines. While purchasing a bag of popcorn she saw the man with the Bible seated at a nearby table. Mary sat at his table and referenced their encounter in the patient’s room. Suddenly, an avalanche of questions about God poured from her lips. He answered as many questions as he could during her brief lunch break and then prayed for her.

“I remember stepping out of the elevator on the fifth floor and thinking wow God is real!said Mary. Then her sister invited her to attend a Christian concert at a local church. The genuineness of the Christians she encountered convinced her to stay. They became a source of comfort and encouragement when her marriage ended. Nursing in the 80’s paid little more than minimum wage making it difficult to support herself, so she pursued a new career in retail store management.  

During a church revival God told Mary he would send her out as a seed of his glory to the nations. She accepted the call to missionary work and sought counsel from church leaders.  They gave her specific instructions. Attend Bible College and begin serving in a local ministry.

Mary enrolled Bible College and volunteered her services to at Inner City Kids Church. About that time her car needed to be replaced. She prayed God would give her a bus, so she could bring people to church. While chatting with a group of friends she mentioned that she had been asking God for a bus. The person standing next to her exclaimed, “You’re kidding! I am looking for someone I can give a school bus to. All you have to do is pick it up.”

Every Saturday Mary drove her bus to the inner city to pick up 50 to 60 children and brought them to Inner City Kids Church. At first the experience felt unnatural. She did not understand the inner city culture, and found the names difficult to pronounce and remember. Two years later, she had fallen in love with the children and did not want to leave. Convinced she had found her place in ministry she abandoned thoughts of mission work in a foreign country. Her life appeared set. She loved her missions work in the inner city, made a decent living, and was happy living single.

Then she received a phone call that changed everything. Her pastor wanted her to talk to the Danish evangelist Egon Falk, founder of New Life Outreach in Tanzania, Africa. Mary’s decision to change careers became the key that opened the door to foreign mission’s work. Falk’s ministry needed someone with management experience to handle their accounts.

Egon Falk had spoken at her church many times, and her friend, Don, worked at the Tanzania ministry. The thought of making such a major transition drove Mary to her knees for three days of fasting and prayer. She found peace when God revealed he had always kept her on a need-to-know basis. Showing her the dramatic scope of his plan for her life would have overwhelmed her.

Mary landed in Africa on August 3, 1999 with five suitcases packed with everything she anticipated needing: ramen noodles, canned tuna, pans, her guitar, etc. Before she exited the plane Mary sensed God had ordained her to marry Don. She supported Don’s missionary work and prayed for him but had never been attracted to him. And Don was convinced he would remain single to serve God as the Apostle Paul, which made marriage unlikely.

Four months later, on Christmas Day, Don asked Mary if God had been talking to her about their relationship. 

“Yes, Mary replied, “but I don’t think you really want to know what God said to me.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you really don’t.” Mary wanted Don to say marriage first.

But Don wanted Mary to say it first. “Please, release me from this painful situation I am in. Tell me what God is telling you.”

Reluctantly, Mary told him the truth. “I feel like God told me that we are going to get married.”

“That is what God told me from the time you got off the plane,” Don exclaimed. I had been praying for a wife. When you stepped off the plane God said, “I brought a wife to you.” Mary and Don had a civil marriage in Arusha, Tanzania on January 28, 2001 followed by a church marriage the next day. 

Mary and Don had been happily serving God for fifteen years in Africa when Mary sensed a course change was coming. Then Mary received word her mother needed urgent care. She returned to America. Shortly afterward Don received word his mother was ill. He traveled to Arkansas to tend to his mother. The prospects of returning to Africa any time soon were distant and the Bryant’s knew they could not survive on missionary donations in America.

They were in the midst of pursuing employment when their cell phones rang simultaneously. Mary’s pastor wanted to know if they would be interested in directing a men’s restoration center. Thinking Mary was on the phone with her mother, Don entered the room doing a happy dance. Mary put her conversation on speaker phone. Don sat on the couch next to his wife to listen.

The Bryant’s had a difficult decision. A job offer with one of the biggest trucking agencies in the country had prompted Don’s happy dance. They wanted to send him to Memphis in two days to start orientation where he would be paid $500 a week and double that amount when he completed orientation. The alternative offered little privacy and small salaries as directors of a men’s restoration center.

Don and Mary stared at each other in silence. Mary spoke first. “You know Don, I have never had our pastors ask us to do something that wasn’t God. During our final years in Africa, God gave both of us words that we would have the father’s heart to reach out to the fatherless and bring the spirit of adoption back into people’s lives. That is basically what happens when people get enslaved. They have taken on the spirit of slavery, which is the opposite of the spirit of adoption.” Don acknowledge they had spent the last five years in Africa reaching out to young people who were orphaned and helping people nobody else wanted to help. 

The Bryant’s accepted the position. “There was a familiarity to the work at the Center,” said Mary. “We were doing the same things we did in Africa but dealing with a different culture. The culture of hopelessness in Africa taste different, feels the same, but taste different. We have been made shepherds of people who are the outcast, the lame, the refuse of the world. There have been stressful times I wanted to leave. During those times I seek God’s presence and he renews my vision of what these men can become.”

The Bryant’s persevered in their work to help the hopeless until the center closed. Today, Mary works as an administrator for an insurance company.

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