Saturday, September 29, 2018

Marbata Mama

After 30 minutes of hiking pretty much non-stop uphill, we came to a bit of a clearing.  I looked back at the airstrip where we had started the hike, now clearly in view.  We had made it to the ridgeline that marks the last section of the final approach to Omban’s short little runway.  My mind did some quick math: the airplane passes over this point 10 seconds before touchdown.  It had taken us 30 minutes to cover the same ground.  Flying from Omban to overhead our destination of Marbata takes 2 minutes.  So, at this rate we should get there in… my head began to hurt.  

Five hours later, when we crested the last of many hills and finally saw the hamlet of Marbata, my head hurt far less than the rest of me.

30 minutes in to the hike, with the Omban airstrip behind us
There are hundreds of isolated communities in Papua’s rugged mountainous interior whose people make hikes far longer than ours to get to the nearest airstrip for access to supplies, medicine, education and a connection to the outside world.

The people of Marbata were willing to literally move part of their mountain to eliminate that isolation.  My colleague, Mark, and I made the hike from the closest existing airstrip to ensure that they had sufficiently rearranged the mountain to make landing an expensive 5000 pound projectile on it a relatively safe proposition. 

The welcoming committee was something that is better experienced than described.  Ecstatic.  Rhythmic.  Deafening.  

Here's fifteen seconds of it:

With the hubbub somewhat subsided, they led us to a roofed platform that they had special-built for the occasion.  The pastor who had made the hike with us from Omban (and didn’t appear to have broken a sweat in the process) pulled out his Bible to share from the Word of God, as the entire community sat on the airstrip.  Before he spoke, a tiny old woman slowly climbed the steps to the platform and came over to Mark and me.  She had an ancient face but her eyes held sparkle.  Someone translated the words she spoke:

I have been praying that before I die, God would allow our airstrip to be opened.  Thank you for coming.  I will die in peace.


Four weeks after walking through the mountains to inspect the runway at Marbata, I had the privilege of returning.  This time I took the easy way, landing an airplane on Marbata’s runway for the first time.  I marveled again at the amount of work these industrious people had accomplished.  They had moved truckload upon truckload of earth by hand.  Crowbars--and sticks sharpened to impersonate crowbars--were their only tools.

After working with the community to install runway markers, we were preparing to leave when I saw a familiar figure shuffling across the top of the runway towards the airplane, steadied on the arm of her adult daughter.  She looked more feeble than when I’d last seen her a month ago, and her eyes seemed to have lost some of their sparkle. 

Reaching the airplane, she clasped my hand.  She came to thank us again, but this was my time to speak.

Mama, you prayed that God would allow your runway to get opened before you go to heaven.  God heard your prayers.  He listens to you just like he listens to me.  

The folks standing around us did a quick translation.  I saw the flash of recognition on her face, and those eyes sparkled once again.  Speaking with passion, she pointed her walking stick at the heavens and said: 

I prayed and God heard.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

They Will Inherit The Earth

Getting checked out as a missionary pilot in Papua is a lot more than learning how to land on short, slippery runways or navigate mountain passes.  For many of us, learning to interface well with the many different people groups of Papua is a steep learning curve.  So, having passed along as much knowledge I could dig out of my aging mind to my new colleague, Andy, it was time for me to quit getting in the way and allow him to handle a complete ‘turn-around’—the time we spend on the ground at a remote village.

The people of Maksum come out to meet the airplane.

I turned to my friend Pies and said, “Let’s take a walk through the village.”  Pies led me down the path that led to the picturesque village of Maksum.  Weaving our way through the patchwork of huts, Pies and I caught up on each other’s lives.  Floating through the open doorways came smoke from the morning cooking fires and the warm Ketengban greeting, Telebe.  I felt among family.

As we approached the center of the village, I noticed a large, obviously temporary thatch-roofed structure that had been erected in the center of the village and asked Pies about it.  “That’s where I’m taking you.”

Pies began to explain that one of their elders had just passed away.  The large hut is where folks could gather and pass the hours of mourning together.  Most of the mourners had gone up to meet the arrival of our flight, but a few men were still gathered around a fire chatting quietly.

“He must have been an important person.”  Half statement, half question, I waited for Pies to respond.  

“Yes, he was.” Pies’ eyes lit up.  “Gerson was the first person to receive the Good News in Maksum.  When the missionaries first came, Gerson protected them from hostility and told our people that we needed to listen to the message these strange people were bringing into the valley.”

Pies told me that Gerson was the first person in Maksum transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He turned away from the darkness that had gripped his people for millennia and towards the light of a restored relationship with his Creator.  Gerson spent the rest of his life encouraging his people to do the same.  And they had responded.  It was obvious to me how cherished this man was to his people.

Instead of heading to the mourning area, Pies grabbed my arm and led me down a side path to a hut.  Inside, in a handmade coffin of rough wooden planks, lay Gerson’s empty shell.  On a rough shelf in the corner there’s a book--a reminder that Gerson lived to see the day when God’s Word could be read in his Ketengban language.  Some of his family sat on the floor around the coffin.  They would bury him later that day.

I expressed my condolences, asked a few questions, and took a photograph.  As I put my phone back in my pocket, I was reminded of images of the kings of this world lying in state.  Gilded caskets, honor guards, vaulted cathedrals, the world’s leaders lining up to pay their respects… and here?  In a simple hut, in a tiny, isolated village, totally hidden from the view of the powerful of this world, I can’t help but wonder if I’m looking at one who will be a king in the next version of this world.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.