HELP & HOPE: Retired missionaries recall flying with faith

PHOTO BY CHRISTINA McCUNE | DGKN

Steve and Carol Lehman, of Nampa, Idaho, visited family and friends in Wayne County this summer. Lehman, who is originally from Kidron, retired last month from Mission Aviation Fellowship. Carol, who is originally from Orrville, retired last year from MAF.

PHOTOS PROVIDED

Steve and Carol Lehman, and their sons Daniel and David, went to Honduras in 1988 to serve through Mission Aviation Fellowship.

The Lehmans lived in a village called Ahuas on the east coast of Honduras, La Mosquitia. One of the airplanes Steve Lehman flew while the family served for MAF is shown here in front of the house where the family lived in Ahuas. Water was pumped from a well into the large containers on the side of the house and then gravity fed into the house.

For nearly 10 years, Steve and Carol Lehman and their two sons lived in Honduras.

As missionaries for Mission Aviation Fellowship, the couple was sent to the remotest areas where the needs were greatest.

A typical day included Steve completing 10 to 15 flights in a single-engine piston Cessna. He picked up patients, flew medical teams and supplies, and even transported some cargo that may seem unusual here. A friend or family member accompanying a patient may pack pots with iguanas as fresh food for the patient during recovery. One time, Lehman and his passengers were accompanied by a live pig on the small airplane.

Steve remembers a baby born on one brief flight. Carol recalls one instance when a young boy traveled two arduous hours on his own by foot to find the Lehmans because someone was sick and needed help in his village.

Through all of Steve’s trips and the interactions the couple had through outreach ministries, the missionaries not only provided life-saving services in areas with no roads and little infrastructure, but they also spread God’s message, and they delivered hope.

Lehman, a Kidron native and 1970 Dalton High School graduate, retired last month as safety manager after 34 years serving through MAF. He and Carol, a 1971 Orrville High School graduate, live in Nampa, Idaho, headquarters for MAF.

The couple, who recently celebrated 47 years of marriage, agrees that they are grateful for experiences their family had through MAF. They shared some of their own stories during a visit this summer to Wayne County. They hope to raise awareness about how aviation can be combined with missions, and the important work MAF continues to do around the world.

“Mission Aviation Fellowship – essentially what we are – missionaries who fly,” Steve Lehman said. “Flying is a big part of our ministry, but first we are missionaries. I think that’s a key part of who MAF is. MAF’s mission statement explains it is sharing the love of Jesus Christ through aviation and technology so that isolated people may be physically and spiritually transformed. That’s what we do.”

For the past 75 years, MAF has used airplanes and technology to deliver “help and hope” to places where the terrain is so rough that an airstrip may be a crude clearing through a jungle, or the side of a mountain, according to maf.org.

Lehman said three things are important to note. First, “Jesus is the center of MAF – that has always been true and the current leadership always emphasizes Jesus is the center of who we are,” he said.  Second, he said the word “isolated” means ministry is focused on remote areas.

“A lot of places where we go no one else goes,” he said.

Third, he notes that “spiritual transformation is giving people the gospel so that they can trust Jesus for forgiveness of their sins past, present and future. But we also minister to the physical – when people are hungry or they’re hurting … So in all the countries where we serve we do medical flying … it’s physical and spiritual.”

Lehman completed more than 3,000 consecutive flying hours without accident or incident serving missionaries, the Moravian church, and people with medical needs in La Mosquitia, according to maf.org. During his last two years in Honduras, Lehman served as MAF’s Chief Pilot for the region.

Carol Lehman stayed on the ground most of the time but she was never rooted in one spot. She played keyboard at their church, worked with a Spanish professor to put music to words for a Bible Institute, assisted a dentist, and helped in a children’s malnutrition ward and a women’s cancer ward. While her husband was on his flights, she held down the fort – which only had six hours of electricity each day – and raised their two sons while also providing hospitality to visitors who may be coming from even more remote areas.

After serving in the Latin American region, the couple worked out of MAF’s headquarters for the past two decades. Steve traveled to every country served by MAF to conduct safety audits to encourage high standards of flight and maintenance safety. MAF has 47 aircraft in eight countries. He said he appreciated those trips because they always provided a sense of renewal in the work MAF was doing.

Carol retired last year after more than 20 years as administrative assistant for recruiting and mobilization.

“I always felt if I couldn’t be on the field serving I wanted to be part of the department that helped people get there,” she said. “To me, it wasn’t a job, it was a ministry.”

How they got there
In the early 1970s, not too long after graduating high school, Steve Lehman attended a local Missions at the Airport event hosted by Jungle Aviation and Radio Services (JAARS).

Lehman already had been bitten by the flying bug.

“I always wanted to fly and I soloed when I was 16,” he said.

He was surprised when he discovered he could pursue two passions at the same time.

“Until that point, I didn’t know you could combine missions and flying,” he said.

Lehman was excited about the possibility of serving the Lord through aviation. His young bride, on the other hand, was reluctant. They were facing a life-altering decision that would require much preparation and hard work. Years of education goes into becoming a missionary and the aviation path is costly.

“There’s a fair bit of training that goes on,” Steve Lehman said.

Carol Lehman turned to God to help with the decision.

“I laugh at it now – I think God has such a wonderful sense of humor,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be the bucket of cold water on his dreams,’ so I thought I would be smart and God could change his mind. So I started praying. And it is my only time in my walk with the Lord when he was truly silent. I wasn’t hearing anything back from him.”

She prayed harder – and her husband’s enthusiasm seemed to grow proportionately.

Over the weeks, she came to a realization that it wasn’t her husband’s heart that needed to be changed. She finally found the comfort she was looking for.

“When I finally said, ‘Lord, I’m willing, if you have this for us then help me do this.’ And then it was just like the floodgates were open and God was really able to look in my heart and create that desire,” she said.

Carol said she remembers both of their mothers struggled with the decision to pursue missionary work. She was able to say it was something they agreed they were going to pursue.

“In the end, they both came on board very much,” Steve Lehman said. “They supported us.”

The couple moved to Chicago for a couple of years to take courses at the Moody Bible Institute. Next, they moved to Tennessee for three years for flight and maintenance training through Moody Aviation. Carol Lehman continued to work while Steve was in the flight program and she completed her Bible courses through evening classes and correspondence schools.

After those five years of preparation, the couple still had one more thing to do before officially heading out to the field. They went to Costa Rica for a year to learn Spanish.

Even after language training, pilots fly with another pilot at first to get used to the language on the radio and to learn routes and procedures, Steve explained.

“It’s a well thought out long process to get someone operational and functioning on the field,” he said. “It takes years.”

Finally, in 1988, with sons, Daniel, 9, and David, 7, the Lehmans began nearly a decade of service in Honduras. At the time, it was common for missionaries to spend three-and-a-half years in the field, followed by six months back in the United States for rest, more training, and to visit with supporting churches and individuals who back them financially and with prayers.

Life in the field
The family of four lived for six years in the city Tegucigalpa, which is the capital of Honduras in a valley surrounded by mountains, before moving to the more remote La Mosquitia area for three years on the eastern coast.

“There are no roads out there, you either get there by boat or airplane,” Steve Lehman said. “For those three years it was very remote … the houses are all on stilts. Eight or 10-foot stilts and they’re obviously wood and the walls are not tight together – they have cracks and the wind can go through.”

The family had a finicky kerosene-powered refrigerator and electricity only ran six hours a day. Surrounded by jungles and savannah, it wasn’t possible to hop in a car and run to a store or a restaurant or to get a haircut.

Carol Lehman worked hard to be exceptionally organized. She made all bread from scratch – everything from loaves to sweet rolls to hamburger and hot dog buns. Small stores were nearby to pick up flour or rice, but Carol scrupulously prepared lists in a notebook where she kept track of everything used and quantities needed. Every month-and-a-half or so, she would be able to take the flight to a town with a store 150 miles away for groceries and other necessities for their family and other missionaries.

“Because we lived so remotely I kept five to six weeks of supplies on hand,” she said. “We had six hours of electricity Monday through Saturday. Sunday only had three hours in the evening. Anything I had like a mixer, washing machine (she didn’t have a dryer) – you learn to use those types of things when you had electricity, and then when it was turned off. You waited until it came back on.”

The Lehmans noted how the people in the society where they worked were always very courteous. Their “missionary kids,” as Carol calls them, Daniel and David enjoyed the wide-open spaces to run and play.
“They had to watch for snakes and bugs and stuff like that,” she said.

But she said the experience broadened their perspective.

“I think … when they grow up in another culture, their world view is so different than counterparts here in the states who have never experienced anything like that before,” Carol said.
Soon enough, with some time and understanding, the family became immersed in the rhythm of life in Honduras.

Carol became involved with outreach ministries. A cancer survivor herself, Carol shared the Gospel with cancer patients and also brought them plastic eating utensils, which the hospital didn’t provide. She also helped to feed children at lunch time in a malnutrition ward who were too weak to feed themselves.

“You just hold them in your lap and help them eat,” she said.

She went out with a dentist and cleaned instruments while the dentist mainly numbed gums and pulled teeth.

Carol also teamed with a Hispanic professor to work on a hymnal where she figured out the melody and he put Mosquito words to music they taught at the Bible Institute.

“That was never on my radar but it was something I could do,” she said. “I believe God had opened up that opportunity.”

In the mornings and throughout the day, Steve Lehman had a common prayer. He would ask the Lord for “wisdom, good judgment, and being able to identify potential hazards before they happen. Whether it’s weather or a wet slippery air strip, or horses on the air strip.”

He noted that they couldn’t land before horses were secured because they would be startled easily by aircraft and could dart across the landing strip.

Lehman’s days included several takeoffs and landings as he took short trips between villages. He flew patients from villages to clinics and then home again when they recovered. He flew health care workers to remote villages and he transported medicines. In La Mosquitia, he may take 10 to 15 flights a day with some only lasting 15 to 30 minutes. In Tegucigalpa, he completed more 45-minute to hourlong flights.

Lehman remembers one difficult flight during the rainy season when the weather was becoming increasingly dangerous and the clouds were closing in.

“I knew this was a medical emergency,” he said. “I had a strong desire to go down through the hole … I reluctantly turned around and went home and felt terrible. In the end the person survived and came by road 10 or 12 hours later. Our principle is gravity and aerodynamics apply to missionaries the same as they apply to anyone else and we have to weigh the risk. We don’t presume upon the Lord’s goodness by doing something stupid. We still have to make decisions and ask him to take care of that person. It was a tough decision. But it was the right one.”

Some nights when weather was poor, Lehman would choose to spend the night at a refugee camp and his wife and other pilots understood. The next morning, the skies would be clear and blue and he was glad he made the decision.

The missionaries provided medical service to a refugee camp, which was on the border with El Salvador while war was going on.

“One day we got a call to go out to the refugee camp and there was a lady who was in labor and was having problems,” Lehman said. “They wanted to send her back to the hospital in Tegucigalpa with me by herself. I refused to take her by herself and so they sent a mid-wife. And I’m glad they did.”

The baby was born in the airplane about halfway back.

“I kept looking back and I knew the baby was coming,” Lehman said. “I’m glad I insisted on having a mid-wife. We don’t have auto pilot so there’s nothing you can do.”

A couple weeks later, Lehman remembers flying the woman and her newborn back to the refugee camp.
The Lehmans also have some memories that are reminiscent of how life has been altered recently with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lehman remembers picking up patients in surrounding villages during a cholera outbreak in La Mosquitia. Cholera is usually spread through contaminated water.

“They would look really bad but once they got an IV they recovered,” he said.

They had to use a plastic tarp in the airplane for the patients and would use bleach to clean the tarp. Lehman also had to transport health care workers to train villagers how to wash and to follow practices to prevent the life-threatening disease from spreading. Soon, the case numbers went down, and, thankfully the family never got cholera, which is easily transmittable, Lehman noted. The family had to have a good filter for water and they cleaned vegetables carefully.

Lehman mainly flew Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings. He was always on standby for emergency calls.

“There was one Sunday morning there was a knock on the door,” Carol Lehman said. “It was a little boy from another village and it had taken him about two hours to get to our house. Somebody was sick in their village and their high-frequency radio wasn’t working. So he came to let Steve know and Steve put him in the plane and it was like a five-minute flight back to the village. He couldn’t believe it. He trekked through jungle, probably swam across the river just for him to get there.

“I think that’s pretty typical worldwide the plane is so much faster. If somebody is really sick and it’s a life and death thing it can make the difference between somebody surviving or not.”

The couple has no regrets about their time spent in another country and their years dedicated to their mission work and helping other missionaries at MAF. They said unfortunately their sons were separated from their grandparents and other family members for long stretches of time, but in those days before cellphones and laptops were common, they were able to write letters back and forth.

“Life is life no matter where you live it,” Carol said. “If you live in the states you’re going to have hard times and if you live in another culture you’re going to have hard times because the Lord wants to transform us and he’ll bring things into our lives to make that happen. And I just have not had any regrets. I’m so thankful for our years that we lived in another culture. It broadened our thinking.”

The couple is looking forward to retirement. Their sons are now grown and married. Daniel and his wife, Alexia, live in California. David, his wife, Krista, and daughter, Abigail, live in Idaho.

“I feel very fortunate because the type of flying we did it was all hands-on flying, no auto pilot,” Lehman said. “I feel like the Lord really honored my desire to fly.”

Steve noted that missionaries who have lived in different countries and continents will all have different stories, but people can see God’s hand in what they do and the ministry MAF is doing.

Carol said she has learned about having faith in God and having a willing heart to be flexible to do what God asks.

“I feel so incredibly blessed,” Carol said. “I got to do so many things I never dreamt of doing. I don’t focus on what I didn’t get to do. I think we have lived a very blessed life. … If we were to do it again we would do it without hesitation.”

For more information about the history and work of Mission Aviation Fellowship, missionary profiles, and how to help, visit www.maf.org.

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