by Bill Weber
Had Bob and Phyllis Mills not enrolled at Lincoln Bible Institute1 in the 1940s, their incredible 47-year adventure in Africa would never have happened.2
Phyllis grew up as a missionary kid on the Tibetan border of China.3 Bob was a farm boy from southern Illinois. Phyllis’s cross-cultural childhood with her family and Bob’s traveling the world as a sailor in the Navy ignited in each of them a commitment to foreign mission service. This was a match made in Heaven. The Millses met, fell in love, married in 1950, raised four daughters, and spent their lifetime of ministry in Africa.
They first traveled to Africa on a ship in 1953 with a 1-year-old daughter and a 6-week-old baby. When they arrived in Windhoek in Southwest Africa, they received a cool reception from the white population.4 They made some progress in teaching African children, but were not satisfied that they were doing all they could. Bob decided to write some correspondence lessons to evangelize the adult population. This step of faith was the catalyst for what became their life’s work.
After a few years, Bob and Phyllis moved to Kimberly in South Africa, the center of the Church of Christ Mission at that time. The “mother church” of the mission was located there, along with the preacher training institute and several other mission families. This move provided new contacts for their publishing work, the support of local congregations, and fellowship for their family.
Bob began translating his correspondence lessons. Over the years, Bob and Phyllis developed a publishing and literature distribution ministry producing materials that were translated into more than 20 languages used in Africa, literally hundreds of titles of booklets and tracts. Bob enrolled several hundred thousand students during his 47 years of correspondence work.
The Mills family eventually moved to Johannesburg, the largest and most modern city in South Africa. This brought them closer to suppliers of materials for their literature ministry and provided easier access to service technicians for their equipment, enabling them to expand their outreach.
They were also very engaged with the Church of Christ Mission and the churches throughout the country. They traveled to major regional and national gatherings to participate in preaching and teaching. However, there was always something special when Bob arrived at the meeting with his vehicle full of printed literature: Bibles, hymnbooks, tracts, and booklets.
In the early years he sold these items out of the trunk of his car. As the churches grew and Bob’s inventory grew, he had to pull a trailer to contain his inventory. He eventually bought a van that served as a kiosk. The van opened up, allowing him to display his products and serve the hundreds of people at these gatherings.
Bob and Phyllis both were well respected by the leaders of the churches and the Church of Christ Mission in South Africa. Bob developed lifelong friendships with some of the ministers of local congregations. They worked together for decades, and in some instances, Bob had the privilege, heartache, joy, and responsibility to speak at their funeral services.
KEPT ON COURSE
Bob and Phyllis had their share of interesting missionary experiences. From a hand-cranked Gestetner mimeograph in the early days to offset presses, and finally, to digital desktop publishing, each challenge was a new chapter for Bob. With no formal instruction, Bob learned the printing industry and did all of his work without office or clerical help.
Travel, of course, provided stories to share as well as to strengthen their faith. From Bob’s bouts of seasickness to harrowing experiences on their early trans-Atlantic flights, there was always another story. In one instance, the cocaptain of the plane came back to the passenger area and began to take up the floorboards to find the cause of the smoke in the cabin. Yet faith kept them on course.
Our family’s lifelong friendships with Bob and Phyllis began when we were young missionaries in South Africa. On many occasions, in their home or ours, we loved to listen to the adventures of their early years in Africa and their many travels. We are grateful for the last 30 years of friendship, kindness, and encouragement. To our family, as well as to many others, Bob and Phyllis have been a great blessing.5
Bob and Phyllis are now retired and living in Texas near one of their daughters. Their four daughters have given them grandchildren and great-grandchildren living on three continents, in several countries, and across the United States. Their life and ministry for nearly half a century in Africa is a testimony of their faithfulness to what God called them to be and to do.
1Now Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, Lincoln, Illinois.
2See http://47yearsinafrica.blogspot.com/ for more stories from Bob and Phyllis.
3Phyllis wrote about her childhood and growing up in the Far East in her autobiography, Some of God’s Children. Copies are available from the author.
4Southwest Africa was previously known as German Southwest Africa. After Germany was defeated in World War I, South Africa took control of Southwest Africa, which is today known as Namibia.
5The Millses’ mission work was recognized when Bob received The Restoration Award in Mission from his alma mater, Lincoln Christian College, in 1970.
Bill Weber teaches spiritual formation at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University where he serves as professor of practical ministries.