Two days in April 2016 changed Kristi Byh’s life.
On April 21, Kristi planned to take her husband, Jim, to the hospital.
She wanted him to be well before he headed back overseas to work with a ministry called OneHope in Africa.
Jim had been prescribed antibiotics for a slight case of bronchitis, but still didn’t feel right.
He talked on his way to the car.
But once inside, he suffered a massive heart attack.
“He literally died in the car,” Kristi said.
Kristi pulled him from the car and did cardiopulmonary resuscitation, called 911, then continued CPR until paramedics arrived.
Jim was taken to Nebraska Heart Hospital, where it was thought he’d recover and be a good candidate for a heart transplant.
After all, he was young and had been in good health.
Then his kidneys began to fail.
Jim died April 22, a day after his heart attack.
He was only 53 years old.
Before his death, Jim had worked fervently to spread the Gospel.
Jim was a missionary, who’d spent more than three decades in French-speaking West and Central Africa — planting churches, teaching in Bible schools and at crusades and starting Bible clubs for children.
He had planted more than 600 churches.
And he facilitated the presentation of the Gospel to more than 45 million children.
I never knew Jim, but I’d met Kristi years ago at a women’s retreat in Lexington. More recently, I heard her speak in Kearney about God’s faithfulness — not just on the mission field — but in the uncharted waters of widowhood.
Kristi and Jim married in December 1983. She was a sophomore and he was a senior in college.
Since Jim had to be debt free before they could go on the mission field, Kristi quit college midway through her sophomore year to put him through school.
They’d be appointed as missionaries and sent to language school in Canada.
The start of their lengthy work history included 2 ½ years as missionaries in training in the Ivory Coast, then a couple years pastoring a Lincoln church.
They then became full-time missionaries, planting churches in Benin in West Africa for more than 10 years.
They’d later teach church planting at a Bible school in Eritrea (in East Africa) for a couple years, but all missionaries left during war between that country and Ethiopia so the Byhs returned to Benin.
In 2003, Jim was elected as area director for 15 French-speaking countries in Africa for OneHope.
Through this program, literature telling about the life of Christ and a movie is presented in schools. Crusades take place and churches form.
During their years in ministry, the Byhs had four daughters: Wendy, Tiffany, Jessica and Kaelee.
They returned to the United States after Jessica began having health issues.
“We decided it wasn’t real safe to take her back,” Kristi said.
And since Jim’s work as area director required lots of travel, they wouldn’t see him much anyway.
So Kristi and their daughters, including Kaelee who was about 3 years old, moved home to Lincoln in 2004.
Jim would commute back and forth, spending three weeks at home in Lincoln and three weeks overseas. He’d train leaders in Africa how to get Gospel material into schools, hold crusades and evangelize.
In April 2016, Jim came home to a busy schedule: two days at a pastors’ meeting in Nebraska and two days in Illinois where he met with a church that committed $100,000 for 50 churches in Africa.
He visited his parents in Minnesota on a Friday and Saturday, then went fishing with a cousin on Sunday.
That Monday, Jim wasn’t feeling well and went to the doctor.
He still didn’t feel well on April 21 — the day before his death.
When Jim died, Kristi faced the loss of her partner, best friend, the father of her children — the man she’d wanted to grow old with — and her ministry.
“Missionaries are two for the price of one,” Kristi said. “You’re not just losing your partner, you’re losing your livelihood, your whole identity. Although I pastored and did missions with him, when he died all of that died.”
She’d face other challenges.
Three weeks after Jim died, hail and a severe thunderstorm hit Lincoln and a tornado was spotted. Kristi’s home would need a new roof, but she was unaccustomed to dealing with insurance or inspectors.
Yet God provided.
A man, who also was a credentialed AG pastor, walked her through the insurance process. A family from church helped her pick out a replacement patio door.
Six months later, Jim’s mother fell and hit her head. She was hospitalized, then sent to a nursing home.
Within two weeks, she died.
One day, Kristi took one of Jim’s aunts, who hadn’t been able to attend the funeral, out for breakfast.
Thirteen days later the aunt awoke, didn’t feel well and died.
Jim’s dad died six months after that.
Besides all this, Kristi’s refrigerator and hot water heater went out. Her dishwasher would need to be replaced, too.
There were other concerns.
Kristi’s youngest daughter, Kaelee, had attended a Christian school since she was little. Insurance money paid for Kaelee’s freshman year.
Kristi didn’t have the tuition money for Kaelee’s sophomore year, but applied for a scholarship.
Later, Kristi was at an event when the group sang the song, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
At one point, a woman leading the song said the group needed to sing one of the lyrics again for someone — or maybe several people — in the room.
The lyric was: “All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.”
With that, Kristi took out a piece of paper and wrote down what she needed: tuition for her youngest daughter’s schooling, a car (her current one had 150,000 miles), joy, a job with insurance — and for her daughter’s heart to be healed; Kaelee had been just 14 years old when she lost her dad and grandparents in about a year’s time.
Kristi finished her list and the group went to lunch at noon.
When Kristi checked her phone, she’d received an email from the school saying her daughter’s tuition had been paid. So had the teen’s activity fee and yearbook, along with extra money for lunches.
Kristi soon learned the Illinois church, which had donated money for African churches, had taken an offering of $10,000 which she would be able to put toward a car.
Kristi had written her list at about 11 a.m.
In an hour, God had taken care of the first two things on that list.
Earlier this year, Kristi was scrubbing her floor and praying — asking God if Kaelee should keep attending the school.
If so, Kristi needed tuition for Kaelee’s junior year — plus Jessica was getting married.
Kristi wanted to pay for her third daughter’s wedding as she and Jim had done with their first two — but didn’t know how she’d do it.
She finished cleaning the floor and checked her Facebook. She got a message saying someone had paid her youngest daughter’s tuition.
Before the wedding, Jim’s brother gave Kristi a check, which certainly would help with expenses.
Kristi and her family missed Jim deeply at the wedding.
A memorial table paying tribute to Jim was set up and Jessica carried a photo of her dad in her bridal bouquet.
“I got to do the daddy-daughter dance,” Kristi said.
Kristi held her emotions together until after that dance. When the dance was over and she saw her son-in-law dancing with his mom, Kristi started to cry.
“All of this was uncharted waters. This was not how it was supposed to be,” Kristi said.
Yet Kristi continued to see God’s faithfulness.
The day after the wedding, a friend gave her an envelope with cash.
Between the check and the cash, the wedding was covered.
Other expenses have been covered, too.
Using money from the church in Illinois, along with trading in her husband’s car, Kristi got a car for $13,000, paying only $1,000 out of pocket.
She got a discount on the dishwasher, since she bought the refrigerator.
The man who put in the new dishwasher said it was good she was replacing it, because the pump in the machine was leaking.
Had it not been replaced, she would have had damage in her basement’s ceiling.
These days, Kristi is trusting God to supply the job with insurance, healing for her young daughter’s heart and joy for her own.
She knows God is faithful.
Kristi also knows she’s not defined by what she does, but that she’s a child of God.
“Life is hard and grief is messy, but over and over God showed me that I can trust him in the everyday battles, the hard times,” she said. “There’s still pain, but I can trust him. He’s a good father.”