Well this is a new one. I check the airstrip list and scan a thousand odd names to find my next destination. With an often-repeated series of twists and toggles, I can program the latitude and longitude into the GPS computer and instantly get a course, distance and ETA – only fifteen minutes away, roughly southeast from my present position over the vast and featureless Sudan. I level off low since we are almost there and then check the notes relating to this airstrip, which I know nothing about. Three young men are already on board my airplane, and here I’ll pick up one more. 8 miles to run, descending and peering through the haze for something, anything that looks like a runway. I spot it and swing around for an approach. It looks unusually rough, even for an airstrip in Southern Sudan. Fifty feet over the approach end and I’m having second thoughts about landing…there’s a commotion behind me. I turn back to see my Sudanese passengers waving arms and shaking heads. Whatever they are trying to say, I get the message that I’m not supposed to land here. Up with the power and flaps and I make a circle to the left while gathering some further hand signals directing me to the “real” runway. It’s right there in front of me, next to this old, abandoned strip I just passed over. It’s not a runway at all; it’s a road…a Sudanese road, which means it’s basically a length of dirt that sees more goats than motorized vehicles. In fact, there’s some grazing on it now. I communicate my ignorance back to my passengers. They seem pretty unanimous about landing here on the road, so I give it a go. This particular runway ‘slash’ road is a sort of Sudanese cul-de-sac. It dead-ends right into a village. Dozens of perfect straw cones, homes, populate the approach end, as well as some ominously tall trees. To clear these obstacles I touch down a good one-third of the way toward the other end. I come down hard on the brakes with a roar and a cloud of dust, sheep and goats running for dear life (thankfully away from my decelerating mass.) I whir and whoosh the eight thousand pound machine slowly back to the spot where people seem to be gathering, and taxi pretty much right into the village.
For the grubby, smiling kids in this isolated place I must be like a space-man who just fell out of the sky. My door pops open as the propeller is still winding down. I unfold a ladder out the left side of the airplane and jump right out of the pilot’s seat to the dusty earth below. It’s forty degrees C. About 104 as we Americans measure it. Hot. I’ve just scared these poor folks’ goats so badly that they may have to mount a search party to find them all. I’ve dusted the village, woke all the sleeping children, and probably ruined school for the rest of the day. Yet I’m greeted like an old friend, handshakes all around and “how do you like the airstrip.” The crowd pushes in as the passengers that arrived with me clamber out to make their own greetings. We have very little time to spare in this busy day, and so I whip out a list of passenger names, “I’m looking for Zachariah.” The crowd parts like the Red Sea, and here he comes – wearing his best (and probably only) suit and tie, carrying one small tattered bag. The airplane, the commotion, the white guy with gold bars on his shoulders – they are all here for this one man. I can see the awestruck faces of the children. All at once Zachariah has become a sort of hometown hero, going who-knows-where but going in style. Actually, he’s a local pastor and a student. He’s going to study at a 9-week theological course in another part of the country. I’m gathering up these young men from all over the south – from humid little communities along the great Nile river, and in a dozen such villages as this… basically bringing them to school. And almost everywhere I pick up these guys, I have to smile at the way they are sent off – like a small town’s favorite son going off to war. Maybe in some way that is what they are. I take pleasure in honoring these men – caring for them and their five-kilo bag. One more walk around the airplane to clear a path through the people, make my checks, and we are off… Myself and four young pastors, and several more stops to make. The plane departs in a fury of dust again and I circle overhead before setting on course. I can just imagine the kids below. They will probably spend the rest of the day looking for their goats, and maybe talking all about Zachariah and how they want to be like him someday. I smile at the thought. These men in wrinkled, hand-me-down suits and big grins, whose earthly possessions fit into a suitcase smaller than my flight bag, and who humbly accept God’s calling despite the hardships of this land… I think I’d like to be more like them too.
Thirteen thousand feet, on the last leg of the 12-hour day, after I’ve made all the stops and filled all the seats, there are twelve such men sitting behind me. Resting now, thanks to the cool air and an autopilot, I get to thinking and am reminded of Jesus and twelve other guys sometime long ago. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said to them, “you are the light of the world.” I feel the sweat-matted hair crammed under my headset, look at my filthy hands gripping the control yoke, taste my lips and somehow get to thinking about the salt. This bit from the Bible has received some interpretation through the years. Some say the salt refers to the disciples influence being a “preservative” for the world, and yet others say it means that they, and those who follow, will foster a thirst for truth, just as salt makes one physically thirsty. But up here where the altitude diminishes my higher brain functions, sharing a battered old airplane with twelve simple, smelly guys and a hundred Sudanese flies… I think that maybe the “salt” has something to do with sweat. It has something to do with this work of building God’s kingdom not being easy. And it has something to do with people who are willing to join the fight and be spent in the effort – sweat, and tears. These men who shed drops of salty water onto the dusty ground and parched spirit of South Sudan, maybe these were the ones Jesus was talking about. To the muddle of awe-struck kids who watch them wondrously take to the skies each year, they are simply larger than life. But I know these guys as something even larger. They are the salt and light of biblical proportions – the weak, the humble, the poor – the unassuming stuff that God prefers to work with in this world. Of all the loads I haul around out here in Africa, these are some of the best. They are the ones I am most proud, and humbled to fly.