Pray! Maybe God will hold the rain off a few more days.
Published on: 12-27-2022
If it rains, I cannot land. Rain would make the clay landing strip so slick that the plane would slide right off the end. Pray! Maybe God will hold the rain off a few more days.”
Actually, rain was not the worst of their problems. It was 1989, and Peru had become a dangerous place to operate a mission clinic and school. If you were helping people with education, health care, farming, or any other “kindness” activity, the terroristas were promising to kill you. Right now!
“We worried about it every day,” says Patti. “Knowing we might have to flee at any minute, we had our passports and Bibles packed in a small suitcase.”
Nearly seven years had passed since Dale and Patti Duerksen had opened a small clinic along the Pachitea River downstream from the small town of Puerto Inca in Peru’s Amazon basin. The people were thrilled to have good basic health care and had welcomed the missionaries with open arms. Before long the clinic had added a school that was packed with eager students.
“Our mission center was developing just as we had hoped,” remembers Patti.
Patients, and students, poured in every day. Some walked miles down jungle pathways. Others rowed up or down the river in boats their parents had built. Everyone came eager to learn, to find balm for aching muscles, to talk with Dale or Patti about the health of their children, or just to play games in the field behind the new school.
“We didn’t really have much, but we offered the best we could for the people,” Dale says.
* * *
Dale and Patti had been inspired by reading about George Müller and Hudson Taylor living sacrificially so that people in distant lands could learn the good news of the gospel. They had previously served in Bolivia and Puerto Rico. Now they felt God calling them back to a mission field, but weren’t sure where, when, or how their dream might come to life. Then they discovered the needs of the jungle people along the Pachitea River, and they knew it was the right place. Now their calling had a name, a river, and hundreds of people who would be thrilled to have a clinic and a school.
“We were an hour by boat from where we could find basic supplies, and it was a long day’s trip out to Pucallpa, where we could purchase medicines. Every three weeks we’d make the trip, especially to purchase the medicines I needed in the clinic,” Patti says. “The medicines cost about US$1,000 every month, and we depended totally upon the Lord to provide. It was very faith-building, and somehow there was always just enough money in the bank so I could buy the medicines for my patients.”
The school grew. The clinic prospered. And the garden provided fresh vegetables. Then the politics of Peru began to unravel. The history books describe a conflict over profits from the cocaine trade, mixed with a thirst for power and a terrorist group that was determined to destabilize the country. Before long the terrorists were winning, and they decided anyone doing “kindness” for the people had to leave the country. Or be killed.
That included Dale and Patti—the clinic, the school, and the church God was growing in the region.
* * *
Across the jungle, in the city of Pucallpa, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had established a mission aviation program. The church plane carried pastors, teachers, and supplies from the city into the jungle villages. In 1987 the church asked Bill Norton to move to Pucallpa as pilot and mechanic.
Bill and Bonnie made the move, excited about the possibilities of ministering in the jungle. Bonnie was extra-excited because the mission plane could reach her parents, Dale and Patti, in just 45 minutes of jungle flying.
“They were in just a little niche on the river,” Bonnie remembers. “We visited them at the clinic, and they visited us in Pucallpa. But, as the terrorists gained power, all travel became much more dangerous, and we talked mainly by radio.”
Bill continued ferrying pastors in and out of the jungle villages, often being away from home for a week or more, carefully landing the plane where it would be safe from attack. If he was flying near Dale and Patti, he’d air-drop their mail into their backyard.
“Doing this work was the lifelong end of all our preparations to serve God,” says Bill. “But we were quickly in a world without law and order, where the terrorists were directly threatening the police, people in government, and all missionaries.”
Bill told Dale that they needed to find a place for him to land the plane near their clinic. That was a challenge, because there was no open space on the school’s side of the river, but Bill saw a pasture across the river that might work.
The rancher gave permission, and the school students began clearing stones, chopping out stumps, and chasing away cattle to make a landing strip just long enough for the mission plane. It was a field that needed tender care, but when the strip was 75 percent cleared, Bill flew in.
“I made a couple very light trips, and then told the folks that it was getting too dangerous to do much more. I told them to pack a suitcase and be ready to leave with an hour’s warning. Then we all prayed for God to hold off the rain.”
* * *
The rainy season dumps barrels of water onto the Peruvian jungle, and the rains were already a couple weeks late. Any day now the carefully cleared landing strip would turn into a clay quagmire. Landing, and taking off, would be impossible.
Every time he’d land at his home airbase, Bill would put just enough fuel in the Cessna 185 for a round trip to the clinic. Ready to carry two passengers and a small suitcase.
Three terrorists showed up at the clinic on a Sunday morning. Walking slowly. Asking hard questions. Wanting to know details about Dale and Patti’s lives. They finally left. The next morning Dale called Bill on the radio. Bill listened, and said, “This is it. I’ll be there in 45 minutes. Just the suitcase, OK?”
“I flew 50 feet above the trees that day,” Bill chuckles, “not wanting to advertise that I was coming. In fact, I flew behind a couple hills and then popped up when I was near the too-short landing strip. Patti and Dale had come across in the clinic’s small boat and were standing motionless on the grass. If they were still, that was the signal that it was safe to land.”
Dale and Patti climbed in and wept as Bill bounced the plane into the air.
Seven years on the Pachitea River. Thousands of people treated at the clinic. Scores of children in the school. Songs sung, sermons preached, families baptized, lives changed. All knowing God’s love down there in the jungle.