Between Heaven and EarthEssays from a decade of missionary flying
— by Mike Delorenzo
“Through the eyes of a pilot and a plane, these years have offered a window into what God is doing here. And they have revealed His purposes in us amid the process – through the uncertain moments, the heart-stopping, the heart-wrenching, and the glorious.”
But sometimes, when the pilot flies sharp and smooth, I look down out the window. And here I see our shadow dip and rise with the contours of an African landscape. I am reminded of the harsh and unforgiving environment in which we fly, and I am reminded of why we train so hard; why we fly at all.
Some seven hours later, after exhausting our search for a chopper, after launching two airplanes and one doctor, after landing a 206 on a bit of dirt road in the desert, after a hundred phone calls, some pretty hard decisions, and all the emotional energy I could muster, Susan was safe.
Frank’s steady hand on the yoke of an airplane was but an extension of his heart. And his steadfast determination to follow his calling is what brought he and his family to AIM AIR. And to the far corners of Africa.
Time’s arrow points firmly forward, whether we recognize it or not. Our lives are fragile. Our days are numbered. And there is never enough time to do enough good with the days we have. Chances are, our last day will be a day very much like this one, and it will catch us by surprise.
From what I saw over the course of our journey, watching 3,800 miles of African wilderness tick by below my wings, and from what I witnessed on the ground in our visits from the cool Didinga hills in South Sudan to the stagnant waters of Lake Chad, the words in Romans chapter 10 rang true: How can a lost people call on the Lord if they’ve never heard of Him?
Andy, in the meanwhile, wove a web of wires connecting our three headsets over a voice activated intercom, and then wired in an iPod and a Grisham “book on tape”. We soared around puffy fair-weather cumulus, and occasionally around a small thunderhead and a blast of rain. If the seatbelt didn’t hold me through the turbulence, I thought surely the tangle of cords would.
Moving missions and missionaries over some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, to bring hope and the Good News to some of the world’s most forgotten peoples.
I’ve been here before. Disheartened at this very picture. The calculations say it will be fine. My heart says, “whoa!” You can only account for so much with a cardboard slide-rule from the bottom of your flight bag.
As I maneuvered around mounds of dirt and spots of soil that looked soft enough to sink into, I hit a little rise with the right wheel and spun around to the left, burying my right wing in the shrubbery. Stuck on a dry airstrip.
With the throttle pushed wide open, my little Cessna rocketed past the compound and caught the children by surprise. For one second suspended overhead, as the late Pope’s picture rattled on the wall, I rolled the gleaming white wings left and right in a raucous wave – my salute to the soaring spirits of a bunch of really great kids.
My love for flying – from a child day-dreaming through the chain-link fence at the local airport, to a young man commanding a sophisticated machine with skill and a clenched jaw over Africa – has slowly progressed. I have come to appreciate the hours “in between.”
Chiseled muscle, balding hair, old folk wrap-around sunglasses, endless energy, a mind for serving God, and a heart for the Dinka people – he wanders the landscape in a white Land Rover with bull horns lashed to the grill.
I caught glimpses of him every few moments, bobbing in and out of a sea of excited people. His expression was sometimes joyous, sometimes pensive. But the instants of recognition or disbelief over the faces of his fellow Sudanese were the moments when I saw a man like Joseph.
As I listened, I was reminded of another world, right there in front of us, but beyond our sight. The world apart from my aluminum airplane and the smell of Sudan. A world of spirits and souls, where a battle rages, and those who dare run to the fight come back with tales of war.
My back made a familiar popping sensation as I tried to pull the 50 kilo sack of sugar from the pod. My first flight back. My very first bit of cargo, and my back dutifully gives out on me. Here in Sudan the land is so tortured and pained itself, it almost seems fitting that I should be in agony as I fly over it.
It has something to do with this work of building God’s kingdom not being easy. And it has something to do with people who are willing to join the fight and be spent in the effort—sweat, and tears.
The uncertainty, apprehension, and lack of control are all part of the package. But, even at the onset, there is a suspicion that what a person takes away from two weeks in Africa will be much more than what he leaves behind.
As for me, I get down to see Sudan as God does from time to time. It is a rare privilege to walk with some of the Christians here when I do, and always a joy to have a few scruffy, smiling children at my heels. Once you have walked here, it never does look the same again from the air.
These were my teammates at AIM AIR, some of the best men I’ve ever known. What struck me standing there was not so much the satisfaction in watching them, but the privilege in being counted among them.
The reports had put me through a range of emotions… anger, sadness, disbelief, insomnia. I thought about those who were tortured, and about the poor woman and her four-year-old child (who was probably very much like my four-year-old child) who was brutally killed before her eyes.
Behind me are my wife and two precious children. Before me are two thousand miles of war, poverty, unbelievable need, treacherous jungle airstrips, and bad weather. Just another day (or two) on the job.
Out my window are only the pale green tops of hundred foot trees. No fields, no roads, no clearings. I come to the realization that “going down” out here would mean being swallowed up by the rain forest and very likely never being found.
The noise of my typical flight is the throaty rumble of our smaller Cessnas, and the snap, crackle and pop of the HF long-range radio. It is the voice of Nairobi Air Traffic Control giving instructions in a curious form of English with Kenyan accents using British vocabulary.
It’s about flying and fixing airplanes, mastering them and making them useful tools. And it’s about opening your heart to things beyond your control – being, at times, afraid or discouraged.