Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

A New Day in Mission

A new plane for Gaston Ntambo, UM pilot for Wings of the Morning, means more life-giving opportunities for critically-ill patients.
Gaston Ntambo, pilot for the United Methodist Wings of the Morning aviation ministry in DR Congo, performs a preflight inspection on the new Wings of the Morning airplane following a service of blessing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Unger*

June 27, 2013—Gaston Ntambo, pilot for the United Methodist Wings of the Morning aviation ministry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will begin his weeklong journey home from the United States tomorrow. He will be flying a refurbished Cessna Grand Caravan—a 14-seat airplane that will greatly enhance his ministry of transporting critically ill or injured passengers from remote corners of the Congo to medical care in the city of Lubumbashi. [Follow Ntambo’s flight here.]

After 18 years of transporting his passengers in a much smaller airplane, he now will be able to fly more patients in a safer plane at a lower cost. He also will be able to carry medical personnel to care for the patients on the way, something the smaller airplane did not allow.

“This new airplane has always been the biggest dream of my life,” said Ntambo, who, with his wife Jeanne, is a Global Ministries missionary. That dream will become a new reality as soon as the airplane’s wheels touch the runway in Kamina in the North Katanga Annual (regional) Conference. “It is a new day for the ministry,” he said, “and a new day for me.”

Without a doubt, the Caravan will make a big difference for Wings of the Morning, a ministry of the Texas-size North Katanga Conference (pop. about 6 million). Ntambo will not have to hesitate before flying out to pick up a patient, making sure he has enough fuel for the trip.

“When you’re sitting in the cockpit, flying in the wrong direction because you first have to pick up fuel while someone is dying behind you, it makes no sense,” he said.

Fuel for the smaller plane was not available in the Congo, and Ntambo routinely flew to neighboring Zambia for it. He would carry an additional 100 gallons of extra fuel inside the plane, thus becoming what he called a “flying bomb.” With the new Cessna Grand Caravan, he will be able to access the fuel at the airport in Lubumbashi, at one-third the cost.

But the impact of the new airplane and of the history of true partnership of which it is only the latest expression, can already be felt within and beyond the borders of North Katanga.

True Partnership

Wings of the Morning is a ministry that has been life-changing not only for the critically ill patients it serves in the Congo but, also, for those who have supported it.

The people of the North Katanga, West Ohio, Greater New Jersey, and Arkansas annual conferences; the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas; and the General Board of Global Ministries are among those who have partnered together to foster the program.

Theirs is a true partnership, a relationship built on mutuality that has left an indelible impression on communities in the Congo and in the United States. It is predicated on a shared conviction that mission is God’s initiative and as such requires of us only that we be open to God’s planning and timing.

“It makes you a tool for God that he can use… and you’re grateful that God can use you in that way, knowing he put you in this position to see his hand at work every day. But at the same time, he put you in that position to touch lives,” Ntambo said of the shared ministry.

A Lift for Wings of the Morning

Although Wings of the Morning got started back in 1960, it got a real “lift” 30 years later, when George Howard, then of Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio, and now Global Ministries deputy general secretary for Mission and Evangelism, traveled with a church team to the Congo and first met Ntambo, then 17 years old and looking for a college education.

Epworth supported Ntambo’s quest and helped him enroll at Davis College in Toledo as an accounting major. The community stood by him when, nearly finished with his studies, he discerned a call to learn to fly. Ntambo, Epworth, congregations across the Toledo District (now Maumee Watershed District),  and Global Ministries raised the funds to make that call a reality, and Ntambo returned to the Congo with degrees in accounting and aviation, and an airplane mechanic’s license.

“It was a dream beyond my reach, but, as always, it is part of my story that God will find the right people at the right moment and connect them,” Ntambo said. “It was also part of God’s timing,” he said, as the missionaries who had run the Wings of the Morning program were preparing to depart the country.

“When they left, I just stayed and kept the ministry going,” Ntambo said. “It just turned out to be part of God’s plan for his ministry. I didn’t actually know what I was getting myself into, becoming a medevac pilot,” he said.

It became clearer with his first medical evacuation, when he flew to pick up a man who had been severely burned over most of his body. “His wife was crying because he looked like a dead man. When we got him into the airplane and closed the door, the smell got to me: It was the smell of destruction. But before I took off, I thought: Wait a minute. This is a human being! And it’s my job to save his life today! After that, the smell didn’t matter anymore.”

Three months later, the man, healed and returned to his wife and seven children, showed up on Ntambo’s doorstep. “He came all the way to my home to say thank you. It gave me a different image completely—actually a boost, so that I looked forward to the next moment when I would have a chance to do that again,” Ntambo said.

A New Challenge

For 18 years Ntambo kept the ministry in North Katanga going as its only pilot, even though he periodically received far more lucrative offers to leave it and fly commercially. Increasingly, though, it became clear that the small 5-seat airplane he was flying was both inefficient to the task and costly.

“When someone calls you for a medical flight to pick up three patients, in your mind you’re thinking of three people. But that is never the case. As soon as people hear the airplane overhead, they bring you the other patients, who could be even worse off than the patients you’re supposed to pick up,” Ntambo said.

“Now you have three patients and three helpers. All of a sudden, you have nine people, and only five seats in the airplane. So, now I have a very difficult decision: who will actually leave with me and who will stay behind,” he said.

A global campaign was launched in 2010 to raise funds to purchase a Cessna Grand Caravan. It ultimately raised $2.1 million, including $1 million during West Ohio’s annual conference in 2012. The North Katanga Conference raised $25,000 from among its people, who typically earn less than $10 a month.

The new aircraft will allow Ntambo and the North Katanga Conference to not only manage current needs of the ministry more effectively but, also, to look to the future.

Lessons and Fruits of True Partnership

Before beginning his weeklong trek home on June 28, Ntambo flew the new airplane to more than half a dozen communities in the West Ohio, Greater New Jersey, and Kansas East conferences. The communities blessed and commissioned the new vessel for ministry.

Ntambo also spent time at the headquarters of Global Ministries in New York City, and reflected with George Howard on the fruits of true partnership.

“Gaston and I have been at this for 23 years…. If we had quit after five years and moved on to the next shiny object, we would’ve missed today,” Howard said. “You’ve got to stick to it long term and trust in God. Nothing ever starts big,” he said.

For Howard, true partnership “truly is mutually beneficial… The impact in North Katanga is obvious—the pilot, the plane, the healing. But the impact here—the education Gaston was able to do—was fascinating to watch.”

Over the years, he said, Ntambo’s teaching, testimony, and witness have changed those whose lives he touched.

“If it’s true—and I believe it is—that in our baptism we were all marked for ministry, then Gaston’s testimony is really a call to all of us to get very clear on what it is that God has called each of us to do. Is it to teach? To be a doctor? So, it’s a call to the laity to examine the gifts and graces that we have, and then to follow the call,” Howard said.

“The partnership is really that we have done this together,” Ntambo said. “We will need prayers; we’ll need the continued support, lending a hand to push this ministry forward.

“But at the same time,” he underscored, “every single time we are using this airplane; every time we are flying the airplane in ministry, I think the people should really feel as if they are a part of it. Every time, at every moment, they are a part of it…. It is a vessel for God’s ministry.”

It will take five to seven days of eight-hour flights for Ntambo to fly home to the North Katanga Conference. The flight will take him and a co-pilot from Kansas to Newfoundland, the Azores Islands, the Canary Islands, Mali, São Tome Island, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Please pray for them on their journey, and follow the flight on your computer.

Your gift to North Katanga Wings of the Morning, Advance #08597A, supports this aviation ministry and ensures timely medical care for the critically ill or injured in that vast conference.

*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.