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Alumni Profile in Excellence: Being a Bright Light

July 4, 2009

As towns go, Golden is pretty small. But the southwest Missouri community offered Sylvia Howard Fletcher a huge culture shock.

After living in Peru for nearly 30 years, often surrounded by more than 9 million people, moving to a town of 18 was an adjustment for Sylvia. However, one thing that remains consistent - regardless of the population or the location - is her positive outlook and drive to be a bright light.

"People say, 'You're happy all of the time; what is the matter?' and I say, 'Well happiness is a choice,'" Fletcher said. "Each day is a choice. I'm grateful every morning that I get to wake up and see what the day holds."

Sylvia felt she was called to the foreign mission field when she was 15 years old. After graduating from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1969 and spending two years as a music consultant and teacher, she began working to make the calling her reality. She enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1971 to obtain a degree in early childhood education. That semester she ran into Woody Fletcher.

"I met him in a church in Stillwater where he was leading the music, but I didn't know anything about him," she said. "When I got to seminary, he was there. By the third of January we were engaged."

During a missions week at the seminary, Woody also felt called to foreign missions, so the couple applied to work with the International Mission Board. After they were approved in January 1974, they moved out of their house six days later and left for missionary orientation.

"We did things rather quickly," Sylvia said. "Things started to head towards Peru. They were looking for what at that time they called 'field evangelists,' translated today to be 'church planter.' By that time we had a little girl who was not even 18 months old. I wasn't sure that I wanted to go anywhere because I didn't want to take the baby, but the Lord showed us that it was OK."

The Fletchers began their first term in the Peruvian mountains, and began to work with the local church immediately upon arrival - Sylvia playing the pump organ and Woody preaching. Though they had the only little child in the church, and another on the way, Sylvia said it was amazing to see how God surrounded them with people who were welcoming and accepting.

"It was not scary ... it was exciting," she said. "It was very different, but I guess we were fortunate because neither of us expected anything."

After a year in the mountains, Sylvia returned to the States to sell the rest of their possessions in a garage sale. The couple then lived in Peru's capital city, Lima, where there was a growing need for field evangelists. Their family grew to a total of six just a few years after they moved to Lima.

"All of the children were born during our first term," Sylvia said. "Back then, the board voted [before] you could go back [on the field]. They asked why I wanted to go back and I said, 'Well, I would like to go and do something other than have babies.'"

Sylvia returned to Peru for a second term and seized every opportunity and outlet to serve, especially through music. She played piano, led music and served as a prayer coordinator to help meet needs in the churches. The family was often called to churches in many different areas of the country to utilize her talent with music and Woody's passion for teaching.

"The ministry that we had with the church basically was a healing ministry, helping churches to heal after major problems," she said. "We've done a lot of counseling, etcetera. Basically, we try to just be a bright light."

The family faced experiences that would seem to make it difficult for them to be a 'bright light.' For years, they did not live near a supermarket or have access to basic needs like disposable diapers. They needed to pasteurize their own milk - yet Sylvia considered that part of life and not a hardship. Beyond the living conditions, she met even greater challenges at the national level.

"We lived in Peru through 15 years of severe terrorism where bombs went off and buildings were blown up," she said. "It was a daily event. Woody was even kidnapped at one point. We've had tremors where everything would fall off the shelf in the kitchen. We've been under curfew. We've tried to get to people to help them and have seen them die on the way just because they couldn't get out from where they were. It hasn't all been easy."

However, their determination was not broken. In tense times Sylvia reflected on her experience at OBU: the service opportunities she gained through the Baptist Student Union that helped her prepare for her tenure in Peru, and the lessons she learned which deepened her commitment to God's will for her.

"The safest place to be is the center of God's will. I don't care where you live, if it's Podunk USA, or the heart of Africa or Peru," she said. "That is one thing that OBU really put into me. We had some tense times, but you really just don't think anything about it. You just do it. Things didn't seem to faze us like that. We had a job to do and we wanted to do it."

After being available for service in very remote locations for nearly a decade, the Fletchers lived in Lima for the last 15 years of their tenure in Peru. She led Bible studies and Woody served as director of a theological institute. They worked with the sub-poverty population, helping meet basic needs and providing much-needed love.

In Lima, as they did in other location where they were stationed, Sylvia and Woody also worked to train new missionaries and help with their cultural experiences and language learning.

"We were able to train a number of church leaders and start a number of works," she said. "Our philosophy was, 'Don't do anything that a national can do.' We worked in churches with dirt floors next to garbage dumps right at the foothills of the Andes, in some rugged areas with no trees but just solid rock. I told Woody, 'You know, one of these days the rocks are going to cry out and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and that just gives me goose bumps.'"

Sylvia's departure from Peru was unexpected. While visiting family in the U.S., she became sick and was hospitalized for 10-1/2 weeks. The IMB advised her to not return to Peru. Woody gathered their belongings and came and met Sylvia in America, not knowing where they would end up.

Because she never met a challenge she did not think she could take on, Sylvia approached the situation with the same positive spirit she carried with her for 30 years in Peru. She saw their departure as an opportunity for their work to grow.

"You know there is a time that you have to leave, not only for yourself, but for the work to move out," she said. "That is what we did a lot of while we were there, helping work move out - training and taking off. It's been neat, just like watching your children grow, to watch the new believers grow, too. People you have prayed for, for so long, that were just too rebellious to the Lord, finally are very active in the church."

Now connected to Peruvian Christians through their church in Golden, Sylvia continues to see how her family's work moves on, and how her drive to be a bright light influences people around the world.

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.