In a remote village on the side of a mountain in Papua, a man has been writing letters.
“I’ve written so many letters asking for teachers to come,” he says. “I’ve written so many letters, my pens have all run out of ink. I don’t have any more pens to write with. But then all of the sudden I heard you guys were coming. I was so happy hearing that I could not sleep at all last night.”
A new documentary tells the story of that arrival and the missionary pilots who support the work of Bible translators, church planters, and Christian teachers in the remotest mountain villages. Ends of the Earth will be playing in about 700 theaters across the US on Monday, October 18, and Thursday, October 21. It is also available to churches.
CT talked to Mission Aviation Fellowship President and CEO David Holsten about the importance of the documentary, his theology of missions, and the challenges of flying small planes in and out of mountain villages like Puluk, where it took the people 15 years to build a runway with picks, shovels, and crowbars.
What are your hopes for this documentary?
We want people to see with clarity how the gospel can bring lasting change to somebody living in great isolation—isolation that isn’t just geographical. They are spiritually isolated, linguistically isolated, ethnically isolated. In some of these villages, infant mortality is 80 percent, women and children are abused, and there’s constant war. It’s pretty horrific.
Liku, a Wano Bible teacher, says this in the documentary: “People in America might think we live in a pristine, beautiful place, but they haven’t seen for themselves what it is really like here.”
The gospel and the values of the kingdom that follow change people’s lives in a deep and impactful way. And we want that story to be told. That’s good news.
It’s a mysterious part of the gospel that says God loves the people at the very edge of what the world thinks matters, the people who are marginalized. You know, even among Christians there’s a kind of calculation about return on investment (ROI) and “bang for our buck.” You hear this with mission work too. But we can’t really approach this from an ROI perspective. The gospel is costly. Jesus comes and he gives his life so we can have life. And he’s the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep.
MAF lives in the world of that one: This little tribe of 100 people, 150 people, living on the top of a mountain—to most of the world, they don’t exist and they certainly don’t matter. From a financial standpoint it doesn’t make sense. It’s costly to take an aircraft up there that’s a worth a few million dollars.
But what’s the price of a soul? We wanted to show that story.
How is mission aviation different from other kinds of flying?
You’re flying in areas that are remote, and because of that, there is minimal infrastructure, whether that’s communications equipment that allows regular contact with air traffic control or weather-reporting equipment that can give you an accurate picture and forecasts weather conditions.
Maintenance is challenging too. You can’t just order a part and have it show up the next morning on a FedEx truck. You have to anticipate changing a component, in some cases, up to four months before you need to change it.
The pilots do everything pretty much on their own. Airline pilots get on their planes, and the load, the weight of the load, the balance of it has been calculated for them. A missionary pilot has to compute the load of the aircraft. They have to load and unload it. The passengers come aboard, and they have to brief them in their language. You may even have to climb up on the wing to put the fuel into the plane. It’s pretty different.
And then probably the most significant differences are the airstrips themselves. As you see in the documentary, these airstrips are made by villages with hand tools. They are grass or dirt or rock; they can have slope—they tend to slope—and it’s a very dynamic setting. Every time I get ready to land, I’m circling, looking for a wild pig or a water buffalo that’s going to come out on the runway.
It’s really quite challenging. You have to be able to fly your aircraft with a high level of precision, which I think most pilots enjoy rising to that challenge. But it’s unforgiving of any significant mistakes.
I think it’s one of the most gratifying ways to use an airplane.
Mission aviation requires such precision and careful planning. Is there some tension between that and the ethos of the missionaries on the ground? Especially in these remote regions, missionaries often place an emphasis on adapting, making do, and being creative and flexible.
Oh, it sounds like you’ve had some experience with missions! There is an interesting tension there. Flying requires a lot of planning. It requires a lot of resources and a lot of systems and infrastructure. I’ve seen that raise the eyebrows of our missionary peers. Some people see that as being very business-like and—maybe this is an inelegant way to say it, but—nonspiritual.
But it’s what is required. It’s what you have to do in order to have a service that people can have confidence in. And you know when people are putting their kids on an airplane, they really appreciate the preparation and how careful we are.
I think for the most part we work together and people understand that different contexts need different approaches.
CT reported on the one fatal accident that MAF has had in the last 20 years, when pilot Joyce Lin died in a crash in 2020. The investigation is still ongoing, so I know you can’t talk about the details of what happened. But can you talk about how that tragedy has impacted MAF?
An event like this, as difficult as it is, forces you to wrestle with, really, what is the price you’re willing to pay? Everybody who does mission aviation wrestles with that at some level, but it became a whole lot more real to everybody: If that were to happen to me, if that were to happen to my husband, if it were to happen to my friend, would I believe that loss was for a worthy thing? Is it something I would ultimately be willing to give my life to?
In aviation it’s sort of anathema to say it’s okay to give your life for something. You’re always seeking to make it as safe as you possibly can. We invest a tremendous amount of research and effort so that we don’t have to pay that price. But the truth is, you assume a certain level of risk anytime you take off and fly in an airplane in the places that we fly. There’s a reality—that’s one of the tensions in mission aviation ministry.
Joyce’s team really had to wrestle with this. And I think they would say, and they will say, “Yeah. Yeah, this is something that is worth it.”
When you see the impact of the gospel, the airstrip being opened so Wano Bible teachers can go in and begin their gospel presentation, you say, “Yes, this is a priceless thing.”
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary, to me, was seeing the Wano Christian leaders setting priorities for the mission work. Liku is shown making decisions, for example, about where the next runway should go. Can you talk about the partnership between Western missionaries and Papuan believers?
Liku is our brother. He’s our brother, and I can hardly talk about him without crying. But if you go do this sort of work and you think, I’m here with all the answers, you will be humbled. If your eyes are even remotely open, you will quickly think, I have so much to learn from these guys. And that’s one of the highlights of the time overseas: to learn from these brothers and sisters.
This is my opinion, but I think God has called us to work cross-culturally with brothers and sisters. That’s part of the Great Commission, that we need to be cross-cultural.
Just recently we had a gathering, and a young woman raised her hand and said, “What do you think about the Western colonialism that’s been attached to mission work?”
I said, “In my journey that I’ve been on the last 20 years, I haven’t seen that.” I’m not saying it didn’t take place. I know it has. I know there have been flawed approaches and sinful behavior—that is absolutely the case. But what I’ve seen in the last 20 years is a journeying side by side. I see humility far more than arrogance, people across cultures saying, “How do I walk with you? Teach me a way to appropriately contextualize this in this setting.”
And it’s a beautiful thing. You are forced to wrestle with your inadequacies and the gifting of brothers of sisters who haven’t had anywhere near the access to resources that you’ve had. It’s inspiring. It’s humbling. And praise God for it.
In some ways the documentary is like a recruiting film. Does MAF need more pilots? Do the missions you serve need more workers?
Oftentimes we find ourselves saying things like, “We could use twice the number of pilots we have.” Globally, right now we might have 80 or 90 pilots. We could use twice that amount.
When I visit a team in Papua or the other places we serve, like Haiti, Lesotho (which is in Africa), or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I often find one person doing several jobs.
We recruit mostly from the Christian colleges with training programs for missionary pilots: Moody Bible Institute, Liberty University, LeTourneau University. But it’s a challenging process and a long process. Most folks, on average, enroll in a flight training program, which is five years long. They’ll go through that program; then they’ll often work for a year or two to get experience. They join us and go through support raising, all of that. It’s not unusual from the time they started the program to the first flight overseas to take eight or nine years.
It takes a lot of focus and drive to get through that.
And there are other folks who know how to fly, but they don’t have the commitment to incarnational presence and the spiritual aspect. We got calls from some airline pilots early on during COVID. They were seeing the downturn, and they would reach out intrigued by what we do and approach us to see if this is something they could do for six months until airline business picks back up.
But they lacked the understanding and what it demands spiritually. To do this, you have to learn another language, uproot your family, count the costs, and really say, “God has called me.”
Our prayer is “Lord, stir the heart of this generation.”
We think people will be intrigued by what we do. Ultimately, we would love to see people get behind our ministry, and we hope the young men and women who are intrigued by mission work—we pray their hearts are stirred.