Sorrow to Joy

What happens when death and despair collide with everlasting hope

 

It was May 11, and the first day of a planned staycation for MAF president David Holsten. He and his family were hiking when he got the call: Joyce Lin’s airplane had gone down in Lake Sentani.

In his earlier MAF years as a chief pilot in Kalimantan, David had imagined getting that call. He’d always wondered how he would respond. “It was kind of surreal like, okay, here it is,” said David. “And then pretty quickly my mind went to, I’m going to have to have a really difficult conversation with her family.”

David went home, changed, and joined a crisis team that had gathered at MAF headquarters. Thirty minutes later they got the call saying Joyce’s body had been recovered.

“So then there was this new reality. It was heavy. It was emotional. We stopped. We prayed together,” said David.

And then it was time to call the Lin family.

The rest of the week David and the team were in crisis response mode. Local and national media outlets were requesting interviews, and David was at his standing desk doing Zoom call after Zoom call. Later in the week, someone left him a voicemail, said it was urgent. The man didn’t say why he was calling so David didn’t know what to expect, but he dialed the number.

“I saw the news story about your pilot, Joyce,” said the man.

Then he began to share his story.

 

Lassoing Fear

During language studies in the 1960s in Manila, Philippines, MAF pilot George Raney had just spent an hour on public transportation to pick up mail from the post office. He sat down at the kitchen table with his wife, Beth, and they began poring over letters from home.

George read one from the MAF office. “You’re going to want to read this,” he said, handing it to her.

It was written by the widow of an MAF pilot whose plane had gone down in Venezuela. The pilot and a single passenger were killed instantly.

After reading it, Beth told her husband, “Honey, I don’t know what I would do if something like that happened to you.”

George looked at her with tender love and said, “Always remember that our times are in His hands.”

That night Beth tossed and turned. She knew George had settled it in his heart. Now she had to, or she would live every day in fear. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, she was able to say, “Lord, though I don’t know if that is in our journey, I know you’re going to take care of us.” And she slept peacefully.

 

December 22, 1968

It was raining in the town of Quezon on Palawan Island in the Philippines. The local pastor, Ernie Dignadice, was at his church meeting with the youth. George had just picked up a Baptist missionary, Merle Buckingham, who had been visiting a barrio (village) to share the Christmas story. After that, George was doing a supply drop for another missionary family in Tabon before returning Merle to his home.

El Nido, Palawan Island, Philippines. Photo by Eibner Saliba.

Normally, Ernie accompanied George and Merle on these trips. George would land on a beach and work on building an airstrip in the jungle while Merle did medical clinics and Ernie translated. In the evenings, the men would hold worship services and tell people about Jesus.

Ernie heard the MAF plane pass overhead. He was expecting Merle to drop a letter for him detailing plans for evangelistic meetings they would hold at their barrio church plants in January. But a short time later, the letter still had not appeared. Did they forget? he wondered.

Just then two Palawano men rushed in. “Pastor, pastor, come! The plane crashed in Tabon!”

The first Faith Baptist Church building in Quezon, Palawan, Philippines, where Ernie served as the pastor; and where he was when he heard the MAF airplane pass overhead. Photo courtesy of Ernie Dignadice.

 

Clinging to Hope

“I wanted to offer my condolences to you on the loss of Joyce,” continued Ernie Dignadice on the phone with David Holsten. Ernie now pastors a church in San Diego, California.

He wanted to let David know that Joyce’s death was not in vain and shared how God had used George and Merle’s deaths in Palawan years ago to shape Ernie and his ministry.

“I was challenged by these two missionaries who gave their lives for our countrymen,” explained Ernie. “By God’s grace I carried on the work and stayed for 30 years.”

An early photo of Ernie Dignadice (left, front) with members of his church in Quezon, Palawan province. Today, his son serves as the pastor. Photo courtesy of Ernie Dignadice.

Ernie went from pastoring one church to nurturing the many barrio churches that were planted during those earlier outreach trips. And those churches have sent out more workers to other countries around the world.

“A lot of people were blessed because of what we brought them, the gospel and the medical missions that we were having through the help of MAF,” said Ernie.

Ernie’s encouraging words caused something to shift in David—from a pinpoint focus on the crisis to a wide-angle lens on the future. He imagined looking back someday and seeing how God used this tragedy to draw people to His heart.

“We can see he’s already redeeming Joyce’s accident,” said David. “It’s hard; we would never choose this, but we trust that God has a plan and He is good.”

This story ran in the Fall 2020 edition of FlightWatch. Read the entire issue here:

 

 

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