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Where They Were Planted

Named Centurions of the Year by the National Association of Evangelicals, this couple didn’t set out to minister in the military. by Dawn Kotapish ’92

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reifsnyders-wheatonAlthough Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Robert ’57 and Billie Jean “B. J.” Marsh Reifsnyder ’56 grew up on separate continents, both were deeply imprinted by the Christian service of their parents. 

Born in Texas, Bob traveled to Peru at the age of four months—as a baby in a basket carried on board a ship by his parents who were missionaries to the Shipibo Indians at the headwaters of the Amazon.

On his 11th birthday, Bob went into the jungle with a 16-gauge shotgun. He later returned to the village carrying the carcass of a monkey taller than he was. 

“It was tough, dry meat,” Bob recalls. “The tail cooked first, so we all chewed on the tail while the rest of it roasted.”

According to Shipibo culture, Bob became a man that day.

Back in the United States, B. J. grew up a preacher’s daughter in Brooklyn. In high school, she served as chief cook for 120 people at a Christian camp for children, 80 miles outside New York City.

Bob and B. J. met at Wheaton College while working for WETN. Bob was so busy with WETN, ROTC, and working as a janitor for Wheaton Bible Church that B. J. had time to sew a new dress for every one of their half-dozen dates.

The couple married in 1956. After graduation Bob embarked on what became a 22-year career with the U.S. Army. He served as commander of units in the 24th Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 82nd Airborne Division.

“We had initially planned to pursue missionary work after my three-year commitment was through,” says Bob.

Uncle Sam, however, had other ideas. Bob was retained because the Berlin Wall had just been built. Feeling then called to serve the military community, they embraced words adapted from Joshua 14:9-10 (NIV) as their mission: “To follow the Lord our God wholeheartedly.”

Over the years, Bob and B. J. took advantage of their frequent military moves to travel widely with children Daniel ’78, Donna Reifsnyder Price ’80, David ’82, Dwight ’88, and Dawn Reifsnyder Mestry ’90. Within a month after Bob retired from the military in 1979, his ministry went international, and he began working for the Association for Christian Conferences, Teaching, and Service (ACCTS) in support of the worldwide Association of Military Christian Fellowships (AMCF). He’s been with the organization ever since—Bob and B. J. currently serve as ministry coordinators for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The couple was also instrumental in founding the International Association of Evangelical Chaplains (IAEC) in 1997. They and others responded to what they felt was a “Macedonian Call” from an Angolan Air Force Major who wanted help to become a military chaplain in his communist home country. Bob serves today as IAEC board member and associate director for conferences, communications, and membership.

In 2012 the National Association of Evangelicals’ Chaplains Commission named the couple Centurions of the Year for their exemplary commitment to the ministry of military chaplains. 

Growing up, son David says he and his siblings always knew that their father had one day hoped to return to South America as a missionary. By embracing his career as ministry, Bob says he and B. J. found the mission field to which they’ve been called.

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