Friday, September 23, 2011

Solemn thoughts on the death of Paul Westlund, pilot in Papua

Today I mourn a death. One of the missions pilots in Papua died in a crash two days ago and we all found out yesterday.

To me, "Uncle" Paul was the father of one of my friends and I mourn for her, for a father lost too young.  All the "Aunts" and "Uncles" (who are not really related, but that's what we called all the adults in the expatriate community overseas) feel like family.

I'm humbled and comforted to see the outpouring of love on the Internet from everyone who has been a part of that community over the last 25 years. I see comments from kids that lost their own pilot father a few years ago on the facebook walls of Paul's son. I smiled at Paul's caption on a profile picture: "If you are breathing you should be laughing."

And then I pondered as I read my book The Road Less Traveled how the author is a man so full of powerful life-changing insight, and yet from what I know of his life he never applied it to himself. That's in contrast to uncle Paul Westlund, who was a pretty simple guy who just did his job humbly and with joy and laughter, and yet he was a hero who is honored by all who knew him.

And I think of how we often say the days are gone when going to the mission field meant you were very likely to die of disease or war or some other unnatural cause. And yet - in my years in a small community overseas, I know of an unusually high number of deaths - from malaria, snake bites, plane crashes, car wrecks. It's still true that leaving a home in the West leaves a certain level of security, and most do it because they feel a higher calling. Among the pilots and their families the risks of flying small planes in such rough terrain and weather are ever-present in their minds. Right now I have friends my age headed to or already back in Papua, and I know that they feel that risk very personally. They take it into account as they go.

Uncle Paul made this video a few years back. I've seen it before, and it's simple footage of the work done by the organization he was with in Papua - medical work, Bible translation, community development. I know all the missionaries pictured in that video, and everything pictured is made possible only by the pilots that fly people in and out of those remote villages (there are almost no roads on an island the size of TX). Uncle Paul himself is in the middle of the video, unloading a sick person in a stretcher. The background song is "When It's All Been Said and Done" by Robin Marks (an Irish Christian songwriter), and while it might normally strike me as a stereotypical and slightly cheesy Christian homemade video, the lyrics are so profound knowing that Uncle Paul picked them and that they now hold true for him:

When it's all been said and done
All my treasures will mean nothing
Only what I have done
For love's reward
Will stand the test of time....

I will always sing your praise
Here on earth and in heaven after
For you've joined me at my true home
When it's all been said and done
You're my life when life is gone..."

You can also see an article written a few years ago, A Day in the Life of a Mission Pilot, which was also drawn from a day in Uncle Paul's life.

From another pilot's blog, a post called Muddy Dancing Shoes. There's more in that post that is quite profound, I suggest you read it. 
Can you read my favorite verse?  Langda 2007
"Paul was without a doubt the most encouraging person I've ever been around....  He would walk into my office with no other purpose than to say a kind word to me...and then leave.

Having worked with Paul for almost 14 years, I can say that he was one of the most upbeat and carefree people I've ever known."


Jaimie said...

My grandfather was a missionary pilot in the Amazon jungle for something like 50 years. He died in 2003 of unknown causes. Just collapsed at the door after my grandmother opened it. They were in the field at the time. And you know in the jungle, bodies decompose before they can autopsy...

My grandmother wrote a book about his ministry.

My condolences to Paul's family. Pilots like that are so important to the ministry I'm sure the loss of him must be great in every way.

Kacie said...

Jaimie, I bet my in-laws knew him. They've been with ABWE for forever.

junglewife said...

I was wondering how well you knew him. I'm sure you can tell that Sentani is just reeling from this. Our community here in Wamena is having quite a hard time with it as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

Jaimie said...

Kacie, I'd be interested to know if they did. If you remember sometime, you should ask them. (Whenever, you know, I come up at family gatherings AS I DO.)

Kacie said...

although I didn't personally feel close to uncle Paul, our families connected pretty closely. I met them when I was junior on furlough in West Chicago - we went to the same church. Joy and I went to high school together there and then came back to Sentani (her first time there?) together. Joy and I reconnected this year since she just moved down to TX with her daughter.

Daniel peckham said...

Thanks for the great post, Kacie. Paul used to fly my family out to our village when I was little. Very recently (back in June) I flew with Paul from Sentani to Serui, on the exact same plane that just crashed. I posted a couple photos of him from that recent visit.