Never losing heart

Tuesday, March 2, 2010
(Sentinel photo by Magdalene Landegent) Phyliss Masters holds a family photo taken before her husband Phil was killed by tribesmen in Indonesia while they were serving as missionaries there in the 1960s. Now Phyliss is returning to the same location for a Bible dedication in the people's language.

Masters returns to site of tragedy to dedicate Bible

Phyliss Masters' husband Philip was killed by a group of remote Indonesian tribesmen.

Now she's returning to the same region for a celebration.

(Photo contributed) Phil Masters, the late husband of Phyliss Masters, preaches to tribal people in Indonesia in this 1960s photo. He was later killed while attempting to reach more remote people. Now a Bible school is named after him.

The Le Mars woman and her husband had been living as Christian missionaries with another nearby tribe and working to record the group's spoken language for the first time in writing in the 1960s.

One day, Phil went out on a trek to meet with other tribes. He never returned.

But this week, Phyliss is traveling back to Indonesia for the dedication of a new Bible.

The scriptures are written in the language her husband began recording so many years ago.

Phyliss grew up in Le Mars, graduating from the Le Mars schools and attending the University of South Dakota before joining her husband Phil at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

The couple felt called to be missionaries, Phyliss said. To train, they went on to the Prairie Bible Institute in Canada.

"There the Lord showed us he wanted us out in what was then Dutch New Guinea," Phyliss said.

Now known as Papua, the region is part of Indonesia, north of Australia.

After language schools and other preparations, the couple moved to Dutch New Guinea with Regions Beyond Missionary Union in 1961, along with their three children.

Their first post was with the Dani people at Karubaga.

During their first term, Phil helped build an airstrip east of Karubaga and felt the call to reach more remote eastern tribes.

"The Lord burdened his heart," Phyliss said. "The tribes didn't have a written language. Many of them were cannibals."

Phil hiked seven days over mountains before reaching the Kimyal people in the Korupun region, which would become his family's new home.

"He found a place where he felt they could build an airstrip," Phyliss said.

Phil returned home, and trekked back in 1963 with eight Dani men to help build the airstrip, a difficult process involving moving huge boulders and digging down to solid earth.

That December, the airstrip opened. During that time, Phil and Phyliss' fourth child was born. Then the whole family joined Phil at Korupun.

They began to get to know the Kimyal people and their language.

"My husband was very good," Phyliss said. "I did speak it."

Phil, she said, would listen to what people said in Kimyal and then write it in the phonetic alphabet.

"He slowly came to know the meanings of different things and then got to the place where he could put sentences together," Phyliss said.

From the phonetic record, the Kimyal alphabet was formed.

"Phil started that and others have finished it," Phyliss said.

Phil had hiked several times eastward into Seng Valley to seek people there and encountered no trouble, but when he headed out on his third trip in 1968, the story was different.

Phil and another missionary were shot and killed.

At the time, Phyliss was expecting her fifth child.

"I couldn't stay at Korupun. It was too isolated," she said. "I couldn't have handled being alone like that and the grief, and the Lord knew that, too."

She returned to Karubaga where she and her husband's missionary work had begun and found there was plenty to do.

There was both a Bible school and a hospital, and Phyliss started out doing medical hostess work and taking care of missionaries.

Even though she had lost her husband, she decided staying in Indonesia was the right choice.

"I have always been thankful to the Lord because it was much easier to stay on. The children could continue their schooling," Phyliss said. "It was a blessing because my kids could be surrounded by really good role models and people who understood, many who had parents who could be in similar situations."

She worked in Karubaga until returning to the United States in 1987 to help care for her father.

By then, all five of her children had graduated from high school in Penang, Malaysia.

Back in Iowa, Phyliss did public relations work for the mission, traveling to Indonesia every summer to lead seminars.

Then in 1999, she returned to Papua teach for a year at a school for missionaries' children.

In 2001, Phyliss retired from the mission, 40 years after she and Phil began.

She keeps in contact through Facebook, an Internet social network, with college students who were children while she was in Indonesia.

But now Phyliss is on her way back to Indonesia.

Between traveling, teaching a few seminars and visiting old friends, she will be in Korupun for the March 16 dedication of the Kimyal New Testament -- the portion of the Bible that focuses on Jesus' life on earth and the time that follows.

"It is being printed now," she said. "In that place there are about 4,000 people that speak the language."

In the nearby region there is roughly another 4,000, she said.

"I believe all the missionaries that have been involved in the work at Korupun will be back for the dedication," Phyliss said.

While Phyliss will be returning to the same geographical site she and her husband lived before he was killed, the place has undergone a transformation, she said.

"When I left Korupun, there were a few people who had trusted in Christ, not very many," Phyliss said. "In the years following, many accepted Christ."

Now, Korupun has its own Bible school -- named after Phyliss' husband Phil.

"They relayed it to me that they say Phil was the first one to bring them God's word," Phyliss said.

That stuck with her.

"It didn't seem like when I left there was really all that much accomplished. We hadn't left a church behind, but there were believers," she said. "Now there are about 41 churches established, the last I heard."

And in the region where the men who killed Phil came from, 50 or 60 churches now exist.

The Yali tribe, from which the men who killed Phil came, now has the entire Bible in its language.

"You don't choose the hard things, the suffering," Phyliss said. "But the Lord gives you grace and strength to carry on."

Her husband is gone, but the mission he lived for is alive and well.

Phyliss recalled someone telling her, "The Lord doesn't waste the seed that has been sown."

"The gospel has definitely been spread," she said. "It's been amazing."

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