When Plans Change | Wycliffe Bible Translators

When Plans Change

  • September 14, 2020
  • By: Catherine Graul
Dan and Rachael with their African colleagues
Dan and Rachael with their African colleagues.

When Dan and Rachael Stoner look back on their missions career, it's nothing like they expected.

Dan laughed and said: “Each place we’ve been, we’ve thought, ‘This is it! We’re going to be here for the next 20 years!’ But God had different plans. And we see how he has used every place.”

Faster and Farther

When they were both young, Rachael and Dan knew they wanted to be involved in mission aviation.

Rachael grew up listening to missionary stories, so when she attended a missions event at her local airport in 8th grade, everything clicked. Her call to mission aviation was confirmed at a church camp a few years later, and she decided to attend Moody Bible Institute in their aviation program.

Rachel piloting a small aircraft
Rachel piloting a small aircraft.

Dan had always been fascinated by aviation, and thanks to a Sunday school teacher who handed him a pamphlet on mission aviation when he was 10 years old, he found himself pursuing that calling at Moody Bible Institute.

After Dan and Rachael married, a missions pastor encouraged them to look at how their God-given passions might fit together into a family mission statement. “We prayed about it for several months,” Dan said, “and felt God leading our family to focus on ‘propelling the gospel faster and farther through aviation, maintenance and hospitality ministry.’ That’s what drives us!”

“Church planting and discipleship and evangelism happens through and with Bible translation,” Dan said. “So if I’m going to leave something behind, I want to leave God’s Word and I want to leave it behind in as many places and as many languages as possible!”

Changing Plans

As trained pilots and mechanics, Dan and Rachael planned on serving in Togo in mission aviation, so they headed to language school in France. But their plans were cut short when Dan was diagnosed with cancer and they packed up for an emergency trip back to the U.S.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why, God? The funding is in place, the people are ready and the aviation program just needs to be restarted. Why?’” Dan said. “But it was all in God’s plan.”

Over the next year as Dan fought cancer, many people assumed the couple’s missions journey was over, but Dan and Rachael were confident that it wasn’t. “We always said that if God would get us through it, then we’d keep going!”

God did get Dan and Rachael through it. Dan recovered from cancer and at the end of the year, he was strong enough to join a 16-week aviation training course hosted by JAARS, Wycliffe’s partner organization in Waxhaw, North Carolina. Finally Dan and Rachael were back on track to serve in Togo!

But when they landed at the hangar in Togo, they were in for yet another surprise. The plane they were supposed to fly had been sitting unused for over 15 years, and the maintenance requirements far exceeded the resources in Togo.

“So we shipped it back across the ocean to the JAARS Center in Waxhaw!” Dan said.

Reluctantly, Dan and Rachael returned to the U.S. again to work on the airplane. “We thought it would only be six months, but it took us two years to overhaul the airplane!” Rachael explained.

When they finally sent the repaired airplane back to Togo, Dan and Rachael realized that their pilot and mechanic skills were no longer needed in that country. After much thought, they decided to join JAARS and move to Cameroon to serve there.

A Journey in Cameroon

Once in Cameroon, Dan began transporting translation and literacy teams around the country.

“We want to see Bible translation get done faster!” Dan said. “… [And] we can really speed up the [transportation] process [through aviation].”

Refueling in Cameroon
Refueling in Cameroon.

Many of the translation teams travel from remote villages to the capital city of Yaoundé to complete translation checks, and the journey can be long and arduous. Dan said: “[Translators] are grateful they don’t have to take the two-day bus trip [to get to Yaoundé].” He continued: “It’s hard for them to be away from their families that long. And … the translation consultant was thrilled too! He said the Cameroonian translators were so much more fresh and could work so much faster because they weren’t exhausted from the bus trip.”

In addition to enabling translation teams to work more efficiently, in the past, aviation has provided critical healthcare transportation. Often local medical resources are not adequate for serious conditions, but the closest medical facility might be in a neighboring country!

Rachael remembered, “A while ago in Cameroon there was a translator ... who needed a medical evacuation to Kenya. Our pilot picked him up in the village, flew him to the capital city and then got him to the medevac jet. If we hadn’t been able to get him out, he would have died in a few days. Instead he was back in the village only a month later!”

Letting Go

When Rachael and Dan arrived in Cameroon, they were thrilled but also exhausted. They had been going non-stop since they landed in France prior to Dan’s cancer diagnosis.

Unfortunately two weeks after arriving in Cameroon, Rachael, who was supposed to start flying while Dan handled maintenance, got sick. As a result, Rachael developed excruciating arthritis that lasted for nearly four months, as well as a severe abdominal infection. The antibiotics wreaked havoc on her body, and Rachael was devastated.

“For my first seven months in Cameroon ... my whole body was weak,” Rachael said. “I couldn’t fly, and I felt I really didn’t have a lot that I could contribute. ... I felt very purposeless.”

Eighteen months after landing in Cameroon, the Stoners left for their home assignment so they could focus on rest and healing. After she got back to the U.S., Rachael finally realized how burnt out she was. “I thought, ‘What was the point of all this? Why should I continue?’”

But Rachael desperately clung to the Lord and through meditation, prayer, Scripture and resting in nature, she healed. “The Lord is so big and so great he can handle me,” she said. “He is way bigger and way stronger than I am, [than] my marriage, my emotions or my body. ... He’s able to handle whatever it is that I bring to him. ... I am grateful the Lord brought me through that [and] helped me to realize even when my faith is teeny tiny, deep down in the very depth of my soul, I know he’s there.”

Focus on Relationship

Just when the Stoners were ready to travel back to Cameroon, COVID-19 hit and their plans once again were put on hold. As they considered their next steps, they realized that perhaps God was asking them to stay in the U.S. for the next few years. So Rachael accepted a role in aviation operations and flight instruction at the JAARS Center while Dan serves as an aviation mechanic.

Dan and Rachel with their children at Townsend Field near the JAARS Center.
Dan and Rachel with their children at Townsend Field near the JAARS Center.

They continue to remain passionate about Bible translation and serving however they can. “I know the Lord because of what I’ve read about him and what I see in Scripture,” Rachael said. “Unless a person has the opportunity to read the Bible in a language they understand, they won’t be able to get to know God as well as they could.”

“It’s not about what I do,” Dan said. “It’s about a relationship with him. It's not so much about how many airplanes I fix or how many flights I get done. ... It's about being faithful to God in the day-to-day, living every day out of that relationship I have with him,” Dan said.

Rachael agreed. “I am just so thankful that the Lord is my God, and I know that he is faithful to me no matter the circumstances.”

If you’d like to learn more about using your skills in missions aviation, watch this video from JAARS.