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On Approach

A unique perspective on how MAF donors support the “long approach” to Bible translation


Story by Gene Arnold, MAF staff on-loan to Moody Aviation Institute’s missionary aviation training program in Spokane, WA.


This season I am teaching instrument flight to our senior class. Instrument flying allows a pilot to navigate through the clouds and other weather without seeing the ground, except for the moments of takeoff and landing. As amazing as blind navigation is, the moment-by-moment control of the airplane is even more critical. The reason for this is that once humans are in flight, our bodies are completely incapable of telling the difference between gravity and the other forces associated with motion. In short, without seeing the ground, we can’t tell which way is up! Students learn to read and trust the instruments even when everything inside them is screaming that some other direction is up.

Luke Nelson, left, after he successfully completed the Commercial check that Gene Arnold gave him last week. Luke and his wife, Amy, are scheduled for a technical evaluation and interviews with MAF this summer. Photo courtesy of Gene Arnold.

Recently, my students proved this to themselves as we flew from Spokane, WA, to Lewiston, ID, to Moses Lake, WA, and back to Spokane on instruments. Throughout each flight, the student piloting the plane wore a hood on his or her head, allowing a view of the instrument panel only. There was a lot of joy in the airplane when I let the student look outside a few seconds before landing and there was the runway right in front of us! I think you can see there’s a spiritual lesson here, too. Just like with instrument flying, when we set aside our natural inclinations and trust the truth set before us, we can arrive at the right destination.

After a long trip

When the trip is long, it makes that final approach to land even more joyful. In a way, this happened recently in Papua, Indonesia. Let me set the stage with a little background.

In 1956 missionaries Gordon Larson and Don Gibbons hiked into the Ilaga Valley in what was then Netherlands New Guinea. The valley was shared by two tribes, the Dani and Damal. Gordon Larson turned his focus to the Dani, and Don Gibbons to the Damal. They had worked toward this event for three years, but God had been at work even longer.

Although Don didn’t speak any Damal, God prepared a translator in the form of the Damal chief’s son, Sam, who had studied in the Indonesian language at the government school. But even more significant, years before, God had placed the thought in the heart of Sam’s father, Chief Den, that someday someone would come to give the Damal people the key to heaven. Over the months, Don Gibbons learned enough of the Damal language to present Bible stories and the gospel. Finally, Chief Den became convinced that this gospel was the key to heaven he had been looking for. He and his people were animists, believing that spirits lived in everything around them and influenced all aspects of life. For this reason, all the people kept fetishes designed to appease these spirits, but in a great act of faith, Chief Den led his people in burning all their fetishes.

Historical photo of Beoga airstrip in Papua, Indonesia served by mission aviation fellowship charity
Gene grew up in Papua (then Irian Jaya), Indonesia, where his parents served as C&MA missionaries. He and his family visited the Beoga airstrip (shown here) several times. “Although it’s now paved, not much else has changed with the runway Don built on an old landslide,” said Gene. “Pilots will understand how challenging this airstrip is: Elevation – 5,600 feet; length – 1,857 feet; slope – 12%; surrounded by mountains that rise as high as 16,000 feet.”

Don and his wife, Alice, built their home in a place called Beoga, deep in Damal territory. There, supported by MAF, they lived for the next decades and continued to teach the Damal. They also started to translate the Bible into the Damal language. The Damal received these early portions of God’s Word gladly.

In turn, they preached it through their villages and then to the neighboring Dani and beyond. Eventually, the Gibbons retired and have now passed away, but others continued translating the Bible into Damal. At last, a few months ago, the translation of the entire Bible into Damal was completed! This has been a long approach and was celebrated with great joy!

Gene and Jen Arnold with their sons, Andrew (left) and Nate (right).


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