Most days, missionary aviation activities operate so efficiently and routinely that, despite its importance, it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
But every once in a while, a story emerges that dramatically highlights the importance and transforming power of mission aviation. This is one of those stories.
“First contact” with the Moi people of Papua took place about 10 years ago when New Tribes Mission (NTM) began its work with two missionary couples, one of which was involved in Bible translation.
Initially, MAF – Mission Aviation Fellowship – helped by providing radio interface. MAF wives would compile orders for supplies and then relay the requests by e-mail over the MAF communications network to HeliMission.
Using helicopters, this partner agency kept the remotely-based missionaries supplied on a regular basis.
But helicopters are very expensive. So, NTM and MAF decided to partner to build an airstrip, but they didn’t know where they’d find a suitable place. The area was so remote and the terrain so difficult that even radio communications and satellite phones didn’t work well there.
After careful evaluation, a site was chosen. It would be a rather difficult landing area, centrally located near the Moi people. The strip would be very short, but the only option.
A BobCat earth mover was ferried in piece-by-piece via helicopter and, with the help of the Moi people, reassembled on site.
Once completed, the airstrip proved to be a godsend. But MAF staff felt it needed to be lengthened by another 150 feet to add a margin of safety. Not only was the airstrip going uphill, but treacherous local winds frequently buffeted the area.
With the BobCat inadequate to finish the job, help would be needed from the Moi.
But there were still problems, because the Moi are a semi-nomadic people. The soil in that region is poor, and the Moi have not developed methods of land or crop management. When the soil is depleted in an area, the Moi simply move on, finding a new place to plant a garden of sweet potatoes, their subsistence crop.
Now, however, it was becoming more important to keep the Moi in one place, not only to help lengthen the airstrip, but to keep them near the missionaries’ base so they could have more time to grasp the Gospel. After 10 years of hard work by NTM missionaries, only four or five people had come to Christ. In terms of transformed lives, they were still largely “unreached.”
The missionaries wondered how they could keep the Moi close without hurting the people group they were trying to reach for Christ. Then, MAF and NTM worked out an elegant solution.
They “hired” the Moi to extend the strip, paying their wages in food. MAF flew in supplies like rice, sweet potatoes, cooking oil and other staples to be “sold” in the local store, in return for their labor.
Lengthening the airstrip was hard work, but the Moi stayed. Working for food preserved their dignity and gave them a sense of ownership.
A neighboring tribe also came to their aid. They urged the Moi to listen carefully to the story of the Gospel and to give the missionaries more time. The Moi heeded this advice from their neighbors.
Soon, the airstrip was complete, and the Moi were able to see an immediate benefit. Within weeks of completing the extended airstrip, a man in the village became very ill. According to the Moi’s primitive understanding of how the body works, they thought that the sick man had too much bad blood.
So, using knives, they cut several long gashes into his back to “bleed him out.” One of the blades cut an artery, and he began to bleed profusely. The man was near death when a call for help went out.
MAF flew the weakening man and a close relative to a clinic in 35 minutes, a journey that would have taken seven days (five by foot and two by boat) and certainly would have been fatal. Once at the clinic, a transfusion replaced his lost blood with blood donated by his brother.
One of the missionary couples later explained to him and the Moi that Jesus was their great brother. He had given His blood to forgive their sins so they could live. MAF pilot Steve Richards said that it was a watershed moment in their understanding of the Gospel. Because of their willingness to help the tribe through this medical emergency, the Gospel took root in their hearts and minds, and about 60 Moi came to Christ.
One of these missionary pilots, Steve Richards and his wife Jodi, are now on furlough in Colorado, but they use the Internet to talk with their friends in Papua.
Recently, when one of the new believers heard Steve’s voice over the Internet, he said, “Pray for us, because it is difficult to learn to read, but we really want to be able to understand what the Bible says to us.”