Feature

Wings

Bongolo's aviation ministry is grounded in faith

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Sometimes it’s in an instant, sometimes we wait for years./But it comes down to the moment when faith eclipses fear./Your wandering is over; the other side is real./You’ve broken through, your mountain moved, and mercy is revealed./His mercy is revealed.

These lyrics from a TobyMac song sum up the journey our family has been on since 2006. We live in Libreville, the capital city of Gabon, a small country in central Africa roughly the size of Colorado. Nestled deep in the south of this country is an amazing place called Bongolo Hospital. This hospital, which has been growing steadily for more than 30 years, cares not only for physical needs but, more importantly, for spiritual needs as well. In addition, it has a nursing school and, in partnership with the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons, is a site for training African surgeons to U.S. standards. There is much activity in this jungle hospital.

Many years ago I read a book entitled On Call, which David C. Thompson, MD, wrote about his life as a medical missionary here in Gabon. At the time, my husband, Steve, was working both as a pilot of a single-engine Cessna patrolling buried pipelines and as a youth pastor at an Alliance church in Texas. I had no idea that the path my family took would someday cross Dr. Thompson’s—and Bongolo Hospital’s.

About a decade after I read that book, we were ministering at York Alliance Church in Pennsylvania. We loved our church and the team we worked alongside in youth ministry. At the same time, Steve was flying about three days a week as a pipeline patrol pilot. His company had even hired me as an “observer.” I would fly with him once a week—from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Bangor, Maine, and back—and point out such things as birds and towers.

In the summer of 2005, I had been reading Don’t Waste Your Life (by John Piper), If You Want to Walk on Water You Have to Get out of the Boat (by Jon Ortberg) and The Crime of Living Cautiously (by Luci Shaw). One day while we were flying, I asked Steve what his God-sized dream was. Steve responded that he would love to tie together flying and ministry, perhaps in Africa. We had always been very interested in mission work around the world, so Steve’s response was not too shocking to me.

Just a few months later we received a forwarded e-mail newsletter from Dr. Thompson. In the body was a life-changing question: “Is there a Christian pilot/mechanic out there?” As Steve and I read those words, we looked at each other and said, “Yes! Yes, there is!”

We began an e-mail dialogue with Dr. Thompson that has, after much prayer and preparation, ultimately resulted in our selling of most everything we owned, going to language school in France and moving to Africa. Why would we do such a thing? We became aware of a need in Gabon, a need to give Bongolo Hospital wings.

We started our journey with a short trip to Africa in December 2005. It was a scary time for me: Steve had come back to the United States after the trip ready to order the Rosetta Stone French language computer program. I felt overwhelmed with all that would have to transpire to leave everything we had ever known and move to the jungles of Africa. Steve and I spent four months praying and seeking after God with one burning question: Was it God’s will that we move to Gabon to start an aviation ministry for the Bongolo Hospital?

For four long months I heard nothing from God. Out of frustration one night I cried out to Him. He answered very clearly in my heart, Seek after ME alone, not just My answers. I realized then that I had been looking at God as a crystal ball of sorts. I wanted reassurance that all would go well.

That night, I realized it wasn’t about me, white-knuckled with fierce determination to “suffer for the Lord” if that’s what He wanted. Instead, I heard my Father’s loving voice reach out of the void and speak about His sovereignty over my need to know and have control. Steve had known that if God wanted us to go, He would give us unity in the decision. We felt assured to continue until God told us differently.

With that assurance, Steve and I began to research aviation options for Bongolo. We contacted all the missionary aviation programs to ask if they could service the hospital. We soon realized that we needed to move from being researchers and advocates of aviation for Bongolo to finding an organization that would help us build a program for the hospital. Wow! We had never fund-raised before! We had never started an NGO in Africa before! I had Dickensian images of my family in tattered clothing standing in front of a metal trash can fire, looking sheepish and pathetic as we begged passers-by to “spare a dime.”

Once again God spoke to my fears: You can trust an employer to cut you a paycheck but can’t trust in Me, the everlasting God? I was gently reminded that God can indeed take care of our needs. Dr. Thompson once told me, “Our God is a gentleman; when He invites you somewhere, He always pays.”

Not long into the process of dialoging with missionary aviation programs, Steve received an e-mail from Brock Barrett of Air Calvary. He had read our e-mail looking for partners to aid the hospital and felt our e-mail was an answer to a recent prayer he had prayed, seeking more bold Christian pilots. Air Calvary is based in New York and had been doing helicopter missions on a volunteer basis. We soon became their first full-time missionaries.

But still no plane. We began fund raising and asking for prayer to begin an aviation program for Bongolo. We toured Alliance churches for 10 months and raised our family support by late summer of 2007. We sold our house just a week before leaving for language school in the French Alps.

Our kids went to French public schools, and Steve and I attended class full time to learn French. It was difficult for all of us. Sam, our youngest, then 9 years old, was the only English speaker in his school. Joey, then 13, and Megan, then 11, started middle school for the first time in a huge public school that housed kids aged 11 to 19.

In the 10 months of language school, we continued to collect funds for the purchase of an aircraft. There were times that it seemed it would be easier to move the very Alps we were living in than to have an airplane! The mountains’ snow-capped peaks stretched formidably across the sky as a daily reminder of this steep climb we were on.

We moved to Gabon in August 2008. Still we had no airplane. We began homeschooling our kids with another missionary family, the Solvigs. The Solvig family and Tim and Meredith Brokopp, our great friends and new missionaries with the Short Term Missions Office, helped us settle in Libreville. What a blessing to have such a fabulous missionary community to ease the transition. Interestingly, it was Tim Brokopp who had forwarded us Dr. Thompson’s newsletter back in 2005. Who knew that the Brokopps would move to the same central African city just six months before us?

Steve’s full attention was directed toward the finding and the funding of the airplane. Months went by and still no plane. Steve felt we were waiting at the departure gate. Finally, in April 2009, our flight number was called! A completely refurbished aircraft was located, and, thanks to a generous donor, a new engine and propeller were added.

After more than three years of preparation, our plane landed on African soil December 22, 2009. You can imagine our joy at that arrival. It truly came down to the moment when faith eclipsed fear—just like TobyMac sang, we broke through, our mountain moved, and His mercy was revealed!

We took our first flight to Bongolo Hospital after getting the airstrip in the nearby town of Lébamba approved by the government. All our necessary and lengthy paperwork was done and fees were paid. On December 30, 2009, we touched down on the laterite-surfaced runway and taxied up to our cheering team. We brought with us equipment for the eye clinic that would not have fared well on the cratered, mostly unpaved road from Libreville to Bongolo. That trip went from a 9- to 12-hour bone-jarring drive to just under two hours by sky. For the first time in Bongolo, laser eye equipment is in use.

The plane will be used to transport medicines and equipment as well as fly our team and visiting doctors and nurses. We will start a fund to help establish the first-ever emergency air evacuation program in the country.

This journey has been epic. We could never have done this without our Heavenly Father and the faithful supporters who pray for us and give financially. What an astounding adventure God has called us to—and this is only the beginning.

The Workers Are Few

In November 2009, 23 members of the U.S. Christian and Missionary Alliance journeyed to Dakar, Senegal, on a short-term missions trip. After four days of business meetings we divided into four groups. I was on the medical team ministering in the villages of Dahra, in central Senegal, and St. Louis in the northern part of the country.

The team consisted of Dr. Ousmane Soh, a Senegalese church leader and Dr. Jamel Patterson from the United States, as well as Alliance international workers Michelle and Brian Davis and two short-term missionaries. In Dahra, we visited the medical clinic headed by Dr. Soh, with a staff consisting of a laboratory technician, pharmacist, registered nurse and nurse technician.

On the morning of our visit, we attended to 32 patients, including children. We monitored blood pressure and tended to other ailments, such as fluid replacement and dressing of wounds. In the afternoon we visited two villages in the desert, where we measured blood pressure, dressed open wounds and treated septic dermatitis and ear infections. I was intrigued mostly by the friendliness of the inhabitants, the togetherness of the families and the love they showed us. Although the people lacked water, housing and medical care, they seemed to be happy and were also willing to share with us what little food they had.

While we were sitting in the open air, we sang gospel songs, remembering that the people did not know Jesus Christ as their Savior. As the villagers prepared dinner, they were listening to us and enjoyed the songs. Were we able to communicate with them effectively, there would have been a great harvest of souls. Nevertheless, we left the village hopeful, knowing that Dr. Soh and the missionaries will continue to visit.

The next day we visited two other villages, giving them medical attention as needed and distributing the little medicine that was prescribed by Dr. Soh. We left in the afternoon for St. Louis, northern Senegal.

On Friday, we arrived at the medical center in St. Louis, where we attended to 121 Talibe boys from the Koranic school and two of their leaders. We checked their hemoglobin levels and blood pressure and performed other physical examinations on each of them. They were given medication as required. The boys were excited to see us. Each smiled and gave a nod of approval, obeying commands to “breathe in, breathe out” and “stretch your arm out.” We communicated through sign language, with the help of the missionaries and Dr. Soh.

This was an eye-opening tour for us; we see a dire need for long-term missionaries, medical personnel and supplies in West Senegal. We have decided to meet some of these needs by supplying a generator for the medical clinic, water wells for the villagers and clothes for the Talibe boys. “‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few’” (Matt. 9:37).

—Frances Brebnor

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