May 27, 2017

At 95, Maranatha Founder John Freeman Passes to His Rest

John Dodd Freeman, the founder of Maranatha Volunteers International, a charitable organization and a supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, passed to his rest on May 22 in Salem, Oregon. He was 95.

“It takes a special kind of person to begin something—to take an idea and bring it to life,” said Don Noble, current president of Maranatha Volunteers International. “That’s who John Freeman was.”

Freeman and Maranatha

John Dodd Freeman was born on November 16, 1921. A commercial photographer and amateur pilot, in 1969 he was living in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States when he decided he wanted to take his family on a mission trip. What he desired, above all, was for his daughters to have an opportunity to understand the value of service.

“It takes a special kind of person to begin something—to take an idea and bring it to life.”

According to the Maranatha website, the concept of a short-term mission project wasn’t new, but Freeman put a twist on it: he decided he would invite other amateur pilots for a mission trip, and that everyone would fly their planes to the project site.

The story, which would be later told in the book Here Comes Adventure (Review & Herald, 1984), by the late president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Robert Pierson, has become almost legendary. Freeman contacted all the private pilots he knew and asked them to fly down with volunteers to help build the Eight Mile Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church in Grand Bahamas.

Over Christmas break, a small team of 28 young people flew to the Bahamas and built a church.

The project inspired the creation of Maranatha Flights International, an organization of volunteers who would fly their private airplanes to build churches around the world. People called it the Christian Peace Corps, and the concept grew in popularity among Adventists.

In 1973, Maranatha organized a large-scale project in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, to build a church. Nearly two dozen small planes flew into the Northwest Territories, and the event caught the attention of Adventist Church leadership. Maranatha was brought into the spotlight, and the concept gained traction in the public eye.

In 1989, Maranatha Flights International, led since 1982 by Don Noble, merged with Volunteers International, a Virginia-based humanitarian organization. The organization was renamed Maranatha Volunteers International; in the same year, Maranatha headquarters moved from Berrien Springs, Michigan to the Sacramento region of California.

A few years later, Maranatha embarked on a project in the Dominican Republic that changed the organization’s approach to construction. In 1992, 1,200 volunteers converged on the capital of Santo Domingo to construct 25 urgently needed churches. The effort was a huge success and a watershed moment for Maranatha. From that moment on, the organization moved from doing a couple of projects a year to concentrating efforts to build multiple churches in each country it entered.

“God used John to start this ministry—a vision to introduce everyday people to the mission field,” said Noble. “Forty-eight years later, Maranatha Volunteers International has become more than a mission organization. It’s a way of life, a community, and a commitment to share the Gospel through service.”

A Life Well Lived

John Freeman was a devoted husband to Ida Mae Freeman for 74 years. His family describes him as “a fun-loving, adventurous and loving father to his five daughters, grandfather to his ten grandchildren, great grandfather to his 14 great grandchildren and uncle to his six nieces and nephews.” Freeman is survived by his wife, his daughters Kathy Clough (Jim), Melody Durham (Bob), April Stevenson, Cherry Freeman and Jonna Davis (Clint), ten grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren (two more are coming later this year), and nieces and nephews.

While a memorial service will be announced at a later date, Freeman’s family is asking that instead of flowers, people send donations to Maranatha Volunteers International. The organization is planning to build a church in memory of John Freeman, and any additional donations received will go to further Maranatha’s projects.

Noble summarized the general feeling of many who knew John Freeman personally. “We mourn John’s death, but his life reminds us of what it means to answer God’s call,” he said. “God not only used John to start this ministry, [but] He chose John to change the world.”