For over 30 years, Katheryn Miller served as a teacher of missionary children in Africa. She taught in Mali, even in the midst of rebel activity and war. She taught in Niger, even after the school flooded twice and the COVID-19 pandemic closed classrooms.
Now retired and living in Grand Rapids, Mich., Miller doesn’t miss the homework assignments or the lesson plans, but she does miss her students.
“I always looked forward to the next year of teaching,” Miller said of her time in Africa. “What would my students and staff be like? When I was home in Michigan for the summer, my suitcase would always be open, ready to pack.”
Miller’s career as a teacher overseas concluded in spring 2021, but her stories and memories are still at the top of her mind. On a simple printed sheet of paper, she’s typed out her entire journey as a missionary teacher—each country, each ministry that sponsored her and each time she returned home. The list covers an entire page. Each name and location has a story, stories that Miller is eager to tell and never wants to forget.
When she was 9, Miller heard the clear call of God to serve as a missionary. Her parents were very interested in missions and often hosted missionaries in their home. After graduating from Grand Rapids Baptist College, Miller spent the first 10 years of her career in the states, teaching in both Ohio and Michigan. She knew there was something more that she was called to do.
“I knew the LORD was leading me to missions,” Miller said. “I didn’t know exactly when, but I knew that’s where the LORD wanted me to be.”
One day, a friend of hers told her they were in desperate need of a schoolteacher in the Timbuktu region of Mali in northwestern Africa. So she raised support, and from 1989 to 2011, Miller served in Mali, teaching missionary kids out of her home.
The region of Mali has been in conflict for many years, so Miller often had to evacuate with the missionary families, regularly traveling to villages with no phones or electricity. This often left Miller with no way to tell her family in Michigan that she was safe.
That didn’t stop Miller from living out her calling. By 2011, God had brought her to the Sahel Academy in Niamey, Niger, in northern Africa, where she spent the final 12 years of her teaching career. Though Miller began teaching missionary kids, in Sahel, she taught children from numerous religions and nationalities, children whose parents typically worked for the local government or embassy and who wanted their children to learn English. And although it was a Christian school, many of the children didn’t know the LORD. Miller had the privilege of guiding them through the Holy Spirit to His grace.
“I saw children understand the way of salvation for the first time,” Miller said, “and say they want Jesus Christ to be living in them and be the master of their lives.”
She recalled a third-grade girl from a Muslim family who approached her after class to read Proverbs 3:5-6—“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” She told Miller, “I want to do what the verse says.” Miller prayed with her, and now the girl is in eighth grade and still credits Miller for guiding her to a personal relationship with Jesus.
Miller’s final years as a teacher were not always easy. Sahel Academy, which sits on the banks of the Niger River, flooded twice. She had to find new support for her ministry. She knew nationals who were killed during the rebellion in Mali. And in 2020, she had to navigate the challenges that all teachers faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her father had passed away in 2017 from cancer, and her mom was aging. The LORD prompted her that it was time to go home and be with her family.
“I couldn’t get out of the country at the time,” Miller said. “But I called my mother and said, ‘I’m going to finish out this year, and then I will be home with you.’”
Miller is happy to be home with her 89-year-old mother, living in a quaint Tudor-style home in southeast Grand Rapids. She misses her students. She misses hearing multiple languages in her classroom.
“And I love the winter, but it’s been cold,” she added. “I’m used to temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year!”
God is still using her today. His plan for her life didn’t end when she retired from teaching overseas. Miller understands that our work as followers of Christ is always ongoing. Just last summer, she helped a neighbor—also a retired schoolteacher—mow the lawn. Unprompted, he talked about his battle with cancer and asked her about her faith. Throughout his illness, Miller has been able to minister to him and plant seeds to help him rekindle his faith.
Miller is grateful for the many years she was able to be a part of God’s kingdom work in Africa. Still today, in between helping her mother, sharing the gospel with the neighbors and inviting old friends over for lunch and coffee, Miller keeps in touch with teachers from Sahel. She always tells them to say “hello” to the students for her.
“I was able to witness children’s eagerness for learning and their acceptance of Christ,” Miller said. “It taught me that God’s Word does not return void. It is in their minds and hearts long after they leave my classroom.”