August 3, 2016

​Young Adventist Missionaries Find Real “Higher Ground” in Bolivia’s Andes

Where adventure and service go hand in hand.

Mark A. Kellner

At the age of 30, David Knott—known as DJ to friends and family—could be enjoying a happy life in commercial aviation, perhaps as the Alaskan bush pilot he’d dreamed of being at age 12. Knott’s wife, Jodi, 28, easily might be the schoolteacher for which an elementary education degree prepared her.

God, however, had other plans for these alumni of Adventist-owned Andrews University. They regularly travel into villages thousands of feet above sea level in western Bolivia, bringing medical assistance and a Christian message. Their current home city of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, has an elevation more than twice that of Denver, Colorado, itself known as the “mile-high” city.

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Rugged Terrain

Pilot Knott had visited Bolivia as a student missionary during his college days. “I went here because I was sure that’s where God wanted me,” he explained. He was fascinated by the remoteness of some areas in the country. In 2011, two years after graduating from Andrews, he and his wife returned to Bolivia, then moved to Guyana for a year to serve with another mission aviation group. Two years in the U.S. followed as the Knotts laid the groundwork for a return to the mission field, and in January 2015, helming their own nonprofit, Gospel Mission Aviation, they relocated to Bolivia’s capital city. Supporters track their progress on Knott’s Bolivia Highland Ministries blog.

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“When we first got here, we were first-class wimps,” DJ said via telephone from La Paz. “We’re living in a city at a 12,000-foot elevation, and with the pollution, that means extra trouble for the lungs.”

He said the Andes Mountains “split the country in two,” between the low-lying plains on the east and the mountains in the west, with many remote villages that even today require perseverance and skill to reach.

“You have to cross a pass of 15,000 feet to even get into the mountains,” he explained. “The remote villages we ended up finding around here are around the 10,000- to 12,000-foot range. . . . You’d probably have to go to the Himalayas to find anything similar.”

Interestingly, Seventh-day Adventist missionaries—including South American pioneer Fernando Stahl—had trekked into the highlands as recently as the mid-twentieth century, teaching and baptizing believers, and establishing congregations and schools. Education was, and still is, prized in Bolivia as a way for people to improve their lives and escape poverty.

Embracing the Challenge

But more recent years have seen a decline in Adventist activity. Lack of funding has caused the closure of church-run schools in the highlands. Many who had been baptized as youths—from their educational experience—had fallen away, Knott said.

Among non-Adventists, Knott said, “It’s a tough area. The people are very guarded, because they’ve been taken advantage of by mining and other industries.”

How to break through? The young couple found a key on page 143 of Ellen G. White’s classic book The Ministry of Healing, where the author encourages the imitation of “Christ’s method” in reaching the unsaved: “The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ ”

For Jodi and DJ Knott, this means treks into the mountains with medical volunteers, bringing as much care as they can, making friends with the help of Bolivian Adventist medical volunteers.

“Once you get in there, they are more open,” DJ said of the people they encounter. “Some are backslidden Adventists, from the work of early missionaries. We’ve happened to stumble into a few of these and learned about the Adventist heritage there. . . . We’re finding that a part of our ministry is bringing back those people to the church.”

Mission With Purpose

But it’s not just lapsed church member the Knotts encounter. The “large majority of the people are unchurched and have animistic and spiritualistic beliefs,” DJ explained. “They are into the dark spiritualistic stuff: for example, eating fox meat to ‘help’ with postpartum problems,” or other ills.

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The work requires patience and perseverance, qualities Jodi Knott acquired as the daughter of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in Indonesia, which today is the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Asked what made her go to Bolivia, she said, “I just want to see Jesus come. I want to see this world and the troubles we are in finished. I want to see the world reached and Jesus to win the battle. . . . When you get to know Jesus for who He is, you really want to share Him.”

The privations of the mission field—including multiday treks through the Andean highlands—aren’t lost on Jodi, but neither are they oppressive, she said.

“Whenever we surrender ourselves to God, He shows us what he has for us. He brings us through whatever He has for us. Whatever we need, He provides for,” she said.

For now, the Knotts are continuing their patient, persistent work, going into fields that might be choked with weeds, but under which is good soil ready for cultivation.

“We’re raising money for a Medivac airplane that would reach places without a runway,” DJ said. “A plane that could land in very small spaces. We are hoping to take what we’ve got going now, and the airplane could expand that.”

Such a craft could reach three remote villages in a single day, instead of the 10 days it now takes using a 42-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser and hiking on foot. The Knotts hope to relocate to Cochabamba, one of Bolivia’s largest major cities and the home of an Adventist university. There they would host local and overseas medical volunteers for future journeys into remote areas.

DJ adds, “From there, that opens doors for the gospel, and we want to follow up by bringing Bible workers. Our pastors typically have about 35 churches [to supervise] and no transportation of their own. Our dream is to help them and plant and sustain Bible workers to help in their districts.”

It’s not the life of an Alaskan bush pilot, nor that of an elementary schoolteacher, but DJ and Jodi Knott are aiming for a spiritual—and literal—higher ground.

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DJ and Jodi Knott, through their ministry, Gospel Mission Aviation, recently joined the Southern Union chapter of ASI. DJ is the nephew of Adventist Review executive editor Bill Knott.

Mark A. Kellner is online content editor for Adventist Review.