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Jesus and Planes: Making Missions More Accessible

The end of World War II in Europe occurred in May 1945, known as VE Day (Victory in Europe). August 15th of that year saw VJ Day (Victory in Japan), the end of World War II in the Pacific Ocean. Just as World War II propelled America to greatness, it also produced an effect on Christian missions. Three different situations combined to produce a new thrust in missions: international experience for many young men and women who would not otherwise experience it; increased airplane technology; and an increase in the number of pilots (needed during the war). These three combined right as WWII ended to produce a new tool for missionaries: Christian missions aviation.

In 1943, with the end of the war still a year-and-a-half away, three pilots began meeting for Bible study. They realized that this new skill they had, as pilots, could be used in serving missionaries in foreign countries. On May 20, 1945, just weeks after VE Day, they launched a new mission organization: the Christian Airmen’s Missionary Fellowship. [In 1947 this name was changed to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF).] Really, though, it was the idea which was launched because they did not own a plane! The next year, on February 14, 1946, they did purchase their first plane. [Ironically enough, they did not purchase a plane left over from WWII, but a 1933 plane.] About a week later the first flight was made by a woman who had belonged to the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and had joined MAF, Betty Greene. She flew two missionaries to a remote jungle location in Mexico.

In the early 1950s, MAF purchased more planes and began to expand its operations into South America and New Guinea. One particular flight into New Guinea on January 3, 1956 would change MAF. On that date, Nate Saint from the MAF and a small group of missionaries landed close to a tribe known for being violent, the Auca Indians, in order to bring the message of Jesus to them. Five days later, nine of the Indians killed them. Eventually many of the tribe would become Christians, including seven of the nine original murderers. This story of the supreme missionary sacrifice was told and retold and inspired many people to become involved in MAF.

MAF has continued to grow, and today it has 140 aircraft with 1000 staff members who serve in 31 different countries.

Those three WWII pilots were not the only ones who dreamed of marrying planes and missionaries. A giant in the missions field is William Townsend. In the late 1910s, Townsend became interested in translating the Bible into little-known languages as a tool for missions to individual tribes. Eventually this would grow into the Wycliffe Bible Translators. By the late 1930s he realized how important the plane would be in aiding missions. Yet WWII put a halt to his plans. After a near fatal small aircraft accident in 1947, flown by an inexperienced pilot, he revisited his dream. The result was another missions aviation organization, Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS). The international headquarters for JAARS and its 35 aircraft, 3 helicopters, 64 pilots, and 41 mechanics which serve in Africa, South America, the Asian Pacific and the US is right outside—you would never guess—Charlotte, North Carolina.

©2006 Mark Nickens

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