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FIRST-PERSON: Missionaries followed their call & God cared for a struggling son

GARLAND, Texas (BP)–The loud ring of the telephone jarred us awake on the night of Feb. 1, 1983. It was not good news. Our second son, John, had experienced a mental breakdown and had been hospitalized.

At that time, my husband, Gene, and I were on the other side of the world from John. We were Southern Baptist missionaries to Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). The days after that call were a nightmare, so I quickly booked a flight to the States to be with John.

This challenge was one of countless traumas we experienced while serving the Lord in Africa for 40 years. From the Rhodesian civil war to bush-country living to an abduction at gunpoint by some intruders into our home in Lesotho, God rescued us and spared our lives again and again and kept us on the field despite hardships.

Undoubtedly, however, some of the most discouraging times for any missionary occur when difficulty strikes one of his or her children back in the States. Though intelligent and gifted in art, John had dyslexia and had great difficulty in school growing up. Before he turned 18, we had to send him out of the country before he could be drafted for Rhodesian army service. Back in the States, he became depressed and in 1983, when the nightmarish phone call came, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive. It broke my heart to see him so confused and psychotic. Eventually he stabilized and wanted to return to Zimbabwe with me. Though he experienced some good times and was able to work on his art, he had numerous relapses and frequent hospitalizations. In 1985, we took an extended leave from the mission field so our second-born could be cared for in better hospitals.

Though we prayed, cried, begged and claimed God’s healing and deliverance, it seemed that God did not choose to bring about a quick “fix” for John. We considered whether to stay in the States permanently. One day Gene and I decided to go aside for prayer, with Gene going one way with his Bible and me going another with mine. When we later compared experiences, we each sensed that God had given both of us a fresh call to missions and a desire to return to the field. But what would we do about John?

John’s psychiatrist helped answer the matter for us. He knew we had been on a holding pattern for some time. One day he said to us, “You folks need to face the fact that your son is chronically ill, and your being with him will not help him get better. You need to get on with your lives.”

We booked our flights for June 1986, two weeks afterward. Before flying out, we went by the hospital to tell John goodbye. He was in a catatonic state and did not acknowledge our presence. We told him we loved him and were returning to our work in Zimbabwe. Amid our tears, we kissed him goodbye. Then with heavy hearts, made glad through obedience and praise of our Lord, we boarded the plane, looking forward to what our faithful God would do as we trusted him. He would rescue this situation somehow. And God was faithful! John began improving as soon as we left. Soon he was out of the hospital and living in a mental-health halfway house.

In 1992 his doctors decided to try a new medicine. This has stabilized him to such a degree that during the 10 years he’s been on it he has been hospitalized only four brief times — times he felt the need to regulate his dosage under hospital care.

John now lives in a mental-health apartment complex in Columbia, S.C., where he is “resident artist” and has a ministry of caring for others. Recently he said to me, “Mom, I can praise God for my sickness, for through it I understand many with whom I live.” John meets with some of his friends in the complex for Bible study and they go to church together on Sundays. He has a passion to see the lost saved.

Our Zimbabwe Baptist Publishing House made prints of his drawings of African animals. We chose a verse of Scripture to go with each. They appear on the introductory page of each chapter of a book I wrote about our missionary experiences, “Rescue.” One of the drawings is of elephants fighting. With it is the verse, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through out Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). We can testify to the truth of that verse throughout the many battles we have encountered in our lives. God, through Christ, is the one who gives victory.
“Rescue” is available online at hannibalbooks.com or amazon.com and at Christian bookstores. It can also be ordered by calling Hannibal Books at 1-800-747-0738.

    About the Author

  • Jean Phillips