When Rachel Sybor told her family and friends she was going on mission at the age of 22, they were more than surprised. They thought she was nuts.
“‘Three years in Africa? You just graduated college! Are you crazy?’ That’s all I heard before I left for Cameroon,” she says. Rachel spent three years teaching math and physics to junior high students in Kumbo, Cameroon with Lay Mission-Helpers Association.
Rachel wasn’t crazy. She was answering God’s call for her life.
“I felt a call to go to Africa before I even graduated from college,” she says. Rachel hadn’t always heard God’s voice clearly. Growing up, her religious experience was all over the map. Her dad was Catholic, but the family attended Episcopalian, nondenominational, and charismatic churches; but when it came time for college, she choose a Catholic institution. It was there that she converted to Catholicism and first felt the desire to serve.
“I didn’t know much about being a missionary, but when I met with the staff at Lay Mission-Helpers, I felt a connection,” she says. “Being a missionary is about how you live your life. It felt so normal.”
Acclimating to the mission field had its challenges, but not in ways she expected. “At first I was overwhelmed. I had 60 students in a classroom at a time. I couldn’t tell the students apart. They all wore navy blue sweaters, white shirts, black pants, and black shoes; and they had these beautiful shaved heads,” she says. “I remember somewhere in my second year sitting in the back of the chapel and I could tell who they were from the back of their heads. I realized that I knew them, individually, and that we had built relationships.”
During her teaching term, Rachel lived on the campus of the school. Every afternoon during free time, two or three of her students would sit on her porch and review homework. “I loved those one-on-one times and that moment when they got what I was trying to teach them.” Rachel didn’t know it, but God was slowing knitting together her passion for teaching, her belief in the value of each life, and her desire to serve in a nursing career.
During one summer in Cameroon, Rachel got her first glimpse into nursing when she volunteered at a local hospital. “I was essentially a candy striper,” she says. “I played with the kids, took the blood pressure of pregnant women, assisted with well baby visits.” Something started to change in her. “When I was helping as a nurse I realized what I was missing in the classroom—touching patients and working with them one-on-one filled in these gaps and made me feel more present in their lives.”
She began to make a transition from being in a classroom to being at a bedside. When she returned home from the mission field, Rachel was already enrolled in a nursing program. Now at age 32, she has been a certified pediatric nurse and clinical nurse leader for four years. She works in the pediatric unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, and is currently a board member for Lay Mission-Helpers.
You might not know from looking at her that she spent time as a missionary, but to Rachel, her years in Cameroon are woven into the fabric of her being. “Because I went to the missions when I was younger, the experience helped form my adult self—my desires, what I am passionate about, what moves me and what makes me angry.”
The unifying piece between teaching in Africa and nursing now is her Catholic faith. Each day brings an opportunity to live her faith, just like she did while on mission. “In my job, we take care of kids that are dying or have a baseline disorder and will never get better,” she says. “These kids are going to be sick whether I am here or not, or get chemo today whether I am their nurse or not,” she adds. “My faith brings optimism to my job. Whether it is for the next 12 hours or 3 days, my job is to be present to them and show that they can be cared for in that moment.”
These days, no one thinks Rachel is crazy for having followed her heart. Whenever she tells her story, she hears “Three years! That’s amazing! Did you love it?” Her answer is always, “Yes.”