E. MORRIS SIDER. Living Simply, Giving Generously: A Biography of David and Jeannie Byer. Grantham, PA: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2015. Pp. 208. $15.00 (U.S.)
Unusual enough for the Historical Society, the subjects of this biography are not Brethren in Christ—officially, that is; but by background, principles, engagement, and support, very much so. David Byer, a son of the Pleasant Hill (Kansas) congregation, had a long career as an anesthesiologist at Mayo Clinic. Jeannie (Jordan) Byer, a South Sudan missionary kid, has flourished as a registered nurse and mother of six. Together both have lived unusually generous lives, contributing much to Brethren in Christ missions and education along the way.
This is neither your usual comprehensive biography, nor the usual scholarly work of Morris Sider. Nor was it meant to be. Very intentionally, David and Jeannie have “live[d] simply in order to give generously,” (ix) and as the introduction explains, the main purpose of this book is to present these lives in order “to spread abroad this principle” (ix). Sponsored by the Friends of Murray Library, Messiah College, the book was also written to recognize the Byers’ contributions to the Ruth E. Engle Memorial Collection of Children’s Book Illustration. To appeal to a wide audience, Sider has kept it short and has limited the documentation.
Sider presents chapters on the family history and youth of each partner; coming together; medical training and careers; service in Ethiopia and the Brethren in Christ mission in Zambia; civic, church, and home life; and contributions to Messiah College. Also included are sections on their annual service trips to Africa and their many American and international friends, plus 28 black and white photographs.
Then follow four appendixes: Jeannie’s account of the family’s trip through Europe in 1988; David’s reflections on his struggle with depression around 1995; curator Cherie Fieser’s history of the Byers’ delightful engagement with the Engle Memorial Collection; and last, 17 color photos of the artworks sponsored by the Byers family.
The presentation is thematic rather than chronological, a portrayal of two lives united by a common interest in helping all sorts of people. However, we do get an historical overview of David’s Brethren in Christ heritage, his father and California mother, and his childhood and youth. Appropriately, quite a bit is presented about David’s professional work at the Mayo Clinic and in Africa. Along the way, we also learn of his wide reading and ecumenical bent and his surprising interests in street lights and local politics.
Jeannie’s story is nicely balanced with David’s—a tricky thing to manage in a dual biography where lives are inextricably bound together and the husband has the more prominent career. While Sider understandably provides less information about Jeannie’s heritage than David’s, he naturally gives more about her exotic missionary childhood. Thereafter we read of her demanding nursing schedules, her gathering and organizing of medical supplies for missions, and her engineering of many trips, especially that trek through Europe with six children ages 5 to 18. And running through all this, we get an occasional inkling of the work of motherhood and hospitality for many long- and short-term house guests.
The themes of frugal living, liberal giving, and committed service are well illustrated by many anecdotes, a nice mix of the humorous and the horrendous. Among them are stories of their medical service in Ethiopia and Zambia; adoption by grandmother Bina Ezra and of daughter Salina Sikalima; taking children’s books to Macha; their duct-taped used cars and for-loan missionary cars; and hospitality to students from Zambia, Poland, China, Laos, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Iran. Two telling examples are Jeannie rescuing a distraught Chinese student (99) and David’s visiting patients’ families “at the fires” at Macha Hospital (74). Troubles and regrets are not kept out of the record: a dark period of dealing with drug abuse in the family, David’s depression, severe illness endured by both David and Jeannie.
The appendixes, more than mere add-ons, present aspects of the Byer’s lives best told by themselves and Cherie Fieser, and they also support Sider’s themes of exemplary living. Jeannie’s travelogue shows her resourcefulness and innate good humor as well as family cohesion. David’s essay on his depression, included at his insistence, reveals his solid faith and persevering character. Fieser’s account about the Engle Memorial Collection and the pictures that follow, while showcasing this little-known treasure of Messiah College, primarily display the Byers’ altruistic involvement in yet another area of interest.
This book is a tribute, not an exhaustive biography, but a short chronology (another appendix?) would perhaps have satisfied some readers’ curiosity, e.g., what exactly are the Byers’ birthdates? when and how long were their later visits to Zambia? Similarly, regarding places, more exactness is desired about the locations of Jeannie’s childhood in Sudan, the couple’s medical work in Ethiopia, and the famed Macha mission. Place is essential to story, and a reader should be able to use his atlas.
Only one factual error was detected, and that the fault of this reviewer: David’s one year at Upland College did not intersect with Mike Brown’s two. Two minor technical slips: a missing n in “two Africa countries” (56); a rule broken in “David [read David’s] and Jeannie’s Parents” (118). One faux pas: although they may illustrate something of David’s first encounter with different cultures, his quips about African cooking pots and cannibals and dippy, whiny Arabic music ought to be expunged (p. 50).
But these matters are mentioned mainly to follow review requirements for something to criticize. Sider’s aim to promote the Byers’ lifestyle principles is well met, and by means of his biography the reader finds it a pleasure to learn to know this warm-hearted, venturesome pair.
Author: Michael R. Brown
Mike Brown served as a librarian at Messiah College from 1973-2006. He and his wife now live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where they attend Gehman Mennonite Church.