Beyond ‘Ends of the Earth’    

What telling MAF’s story taught me about following God

 

By Chris Burgess

 

One day in the summer of 2020, I walked out of my home office/laundry room, plopped onto our couch, and put my head in my hands. The email I had opened seemed like the final blow to a sputtering documentary film project. Four years of work, down the drain.

As I sat there, wallowing on the couch, a phrase I heard from a seasoned director early in this project rattled around in my head: “In a Hollywood movie, the director is god. In a documentary, God is the director.”

If that was the case, it seemed God and I were having some creative differences.

The Power of Story 

Jesus would often respond to His disciples’ questions with parables. I don’t believe Jesus did this to frustrate them—although I get the sense that heads were occasionally scratched. Jesus understood the power of story. Stories capture and shape our imaginations. Parables about sowers and seeds, farmers and treasure, and Samaritans and robbers leave lasting impressions.

In 2016, several of us at MAF dreamed of telling MAF’s story to a larger audience—people who might not have heard about the incredible work God is doing through this ministry. Alongside partners Change Media and Collide Media, we explored the idea of creating a documentary film that would be released in theaters across the country with the goal of challenging audiences to rethink global missions and wrestle with what Jesus is calling each of us to.

Back then, none of us knew where this adventure would lead.

Finding the Plot

Over the years that followed, we picked stories, talked to potential partners, created storyboards, did initial interviews and eventually went back to the drawing board.

We felt that focusing on details in a few stories would allow audiences to get to know the characters and join them on their emotional journeys. But it was challenging to narrow down the number of stories due to MAF’s work, which holds a treasure trove of God’s amazing work.

After much discussion and prayer (and a few fits and starts) we settled on a direction.

Making a Movie in a Pandemic

By late February 2020, we were ready to begin production. I boarded a plane and took off for Indonesia. I remember walking through the Tokyo airport to catch the next leg-cramping flight. Crowds of people flowed past me wearing masks to protect them from a strange virus coming out of East Asia. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Chris Burgess in Papua, Indonesia, in early 2020. The Mokndoma airstrip is in the background. Photo by Mark Hewes.

I made it to Papua, met Mark Hewes, a long-time video producer with MAF, and we headed to the villages of Mokndoma and Puluk and for the next week we were cut off from the outside world. We filmed the Wano believers, missionaries, and MAF pilots going into Puluk to inspect the airstrip there. This was to be a preliminary shoot that would set us up to come back in a few months with a full documentary crew.

Mark Hewes films Liku and his son in Mokndoma, for the documentary. Photo by Chris Burgess.

We got out of the villages in early March and discovered COVID-19 was quickly becoming serious. We made it back to the U.S. days before the world shut down.

It soon became clear we were not getting back to Papua anytime soon.

Before we left, Mark filmed a quick interview with Joyce Lin to acquire footage of her first flight for a different video project for MAF. Weeks turned into months and then early one morning, we heard tragic news—Joyce had passed away.

It looked less and less likely that the MAF documentary was going to ever see the light of day. Even if we finished it, the future of theaters looked very uncertain.

But it seemed God was taking His place in the director’s chair.

A New Story Emerges

The disruption of COVID-19, the story of Joyce’s sacrifice, and the faithfulness of the Wano believers made their way into the story—shaping this documentary into something bigger and more compelling than we could have imagined at the start.

Over the next few months MAF leadership’s commitment to this project never wavered. And partners like Moody Bible Institute, Radical, Christian Community Credit Union, The JESUS Film Project, and Our Daily Bread, still wanted to make it happen.

Collide Media and Change Media felt the time might be strategic for a theatrical release. The Lin family graciously allowed us to share Joyce’s story. The work in Puluk moved forward. And even though we were not able to get over there to film, MAF pilot Joel Geaslen and our missionary partners were able to shoot the first landing in Puluk.

There was no need for a pity party on my couch that day—God had always been in control.

MAF’s first landing at Puluk. Photo still by Tim Ingles.

You Will Be My Witnesses …

This October, I sat in a theater surrounded by friends and family and watched Ends of the Earth. At the same time, people around the country sat in similar theaters and engaged with the stories of how the gospel is being shared in the farthest reaches of the world. Audiences wrestled with what God is calling each of them to as a part of His Great Commission.

As the story takes on new life and continues to reach new people, connecting them with MAF and the work God is doing around the world, I am thankful to have gotten a small glimpse of what happens when we let go and God writes the story.

 

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Story appeared in FlightWatch Vol. 1, 2022. Read the full issue here:

 

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