Missionaries Lost at Sea

A tragedy may raise questions about faith in God, and it may do much more.

Joe Reeves
<strong>Missionaries Lost at Sea</strong>
Jasper Iturriaga speaks to students at the Adventist University of the Philippines on March 11. [Photo: courtesy of Jasper Ivan Iturriaga Facebook account]

On March 1, a medevac helicopter piloted by Adventist volunteer missionary Daniel Lui went missing over the Pacific Ocean near Palawan, Philippines. With him on board were missionary volunteer nurse Janelle Alder; a patient being transported to the hospital; and two other accompanying passengers.

The last GPS signal received from the helicopter was in line with its route to Brooke’s Point, Palawan.

Within hours of their expected arrival, fellow pilots from Philippine Adventist Medical Aviation Services (PAMAS) were flying over the sea searching for their missing colleagues. Over the next week, missionary pilots flew a combined 200 hours combing 5,000 square miles around the suspected crash site.

The Philippine Coast Guard dispatched helicopters and boats to carefully search the area. The United States Embassy sent a plane that scanned 7,000 square miles of open sea with high-tech thermal imaging equipment, looking for warm bodies floating in the water. Nearly two weeks later, the head pillow of the patient on board the helicopter and the shoes of nurse Janelle are still the only verified pieces of evidence recovered during the multi-agency search-and-rescue operation.

As air searches slowed down, exhausted pilots and desperate friends hoped that an underwater search might be more successful in finding answers.

An expert sonar imaging team aboard a navy vessel scanned the sea floor at a depth of 300 feet near the suspected crash site, looking for evidence of a sunken helicopter. Unfortunately, the work of the sailors and technicians was severely hampered by stormy weather and rough seas, producing incomplete scans under very difficult conditions.

As I write this, the sonar operation has been paused until weather improves and calmer seas return. For now, the sonar team and the navy remain on standby while PAMAS missionaries together with friends around the world lie awake at night haunted by unresolved questions, feelings of failure, and immeasurable sorrow.

Meanwhile, relatives of the lost patient onboard the helicopter continue visiting the PAMAS base asking for updates. This local family has friends in 30 boats that continue scouring the seas looking for clues. It’s hard not to have answers.

The tragedy has captured the hearts of tens of thousands of people around the world who are praying, hoping, and believing that the missing missionaries will be found. Social media posts about this story have produced hundreds of thousands of engagements. Videos documenting the inspiring story of captain Daniel Lui have gotten hundreds of thousands of views around the world.

Darryl Hosford speaks at the PAMAS missionary airbase hangar on March 11. [Photo: courtesy of Mel Rich Miscala Facebook account]

Just weeks before the incident, Adventist Frontier Missions released a video of Janelle Alder sharing her love for the people that she serves. Daniel and Janelle both belonged to a group of missionaries who have sacrificed comfortable lives and lucrative careers to risk everything for the sake of lost people in need of Jesus.

Everybody who knows Daniel and Janelle recognize that these are the very kind of young professionals that the church needs more of, not less. These young people are willing to sacrifice and to risk what the great majority of us would never consider. The Holy Spirit is pleading with us through missionaries like Daniel and Janelle. Does it take a tragedy like this to get our attention? Now that this story has arrested our attention, can we ask ourselves some heart-searching questions?

Why are not more of us going? And for those of us that God has called to stay, why are we not doing more to support our friends afar? Why has God permitted such a terrible calamity? How is God going to bring blessings out of this curse? What if God allowed this to change me? How can I be sure that this event of missionaries gone missing is not wasted? Am I where God wants me to be? Am I giving what God has called me to give?

When One Suffers, All Suffer

Perhaps, all these questions are for somebody else. After all, I’ve never been to the Philippines, and I am watching this story unfold 13 times zones away from me. And yet, I read from Scripture, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Reading the social media response to this developing story has reminded me that the church is still a family.

On Saturday (Sabbath), March 11, Darryl Hosford stood before a tired, grieving audience in the PAMAS airplane hangar at Brooke’s Point, Palawan. He said, “I want to affirm the church who prays for missionaries. I want to strengthen the faith of a high schooler considering how he or she can serve in the mission field. I want to pray for the nurses ready to graduate, that they consider mission service — not because it is easy, but because it is hard. I want to pray for every Christian doctor to consider life in missions. I want to pray for dentists to start missionary clinics. I want to pray for masons and builders to help build a new hangar for the new helicopter, and more housing. I want to pray for young people with skill and interest in media to focus their cameras on missions. I want to pray for pilots to come. I want to pray that every young person decides to devote their lives for missions. I want to pray for a church to send significant support to the mission field. And I pray for 200 new missionaries this next year to fill the shoes of those missing in action. And I want to pray to soon be reunited with Daniel and Janelle and their passengers.”

While Darryl Hosford shared on Sabbath with a familiar team at the missionary airbase in Palawan, Jasper Iturriaga, one of the team members who has been part of the search-and-rescue efforts from day one, spoke to hundreds of eager students at the Adventist University of the Philippines, sharing about the work and sacrifice of Daniel Lui in the jungles of Palawan.

Deepening Faith

Perhaps this tragedy is seed. Perhaps people who are listening will go. Perhaps those who are asking why these beautiful lives could be so easily wasted will realize that it’s actually many of us that are wasting our lives.

Dark moments like these require a deepening level of faith and trust in God’s plan above our own. “Often our plans fail that God’s plans for us may succeed” (Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 473). “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). We have to remember that while we only see a few pixels, so to speak, God alone sees the whole picture.

When we have done everything that we possibly can, we choose to leave it in God’s hands, which takes a new level of faith. Jesus said, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17, 18).

Sometimes it takes more power and more faith to lay down a life than it does to raise up a life. For Jesus, His power was just as much at work on that dark Friday as it was on resurrection Sunday. With hearts full of faith, hope, and love, we pray that Jesus gives us sufficient faith and power for whatever He wills. It’s only the power of God that makes tragedies like this lift us rather than ruin us.

Joe Reeves is editor of InVerse, the Bible study guide for young adults produced by the General Conference department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries.

Joe Reeves