The Flying Woodworker

Missions isn’t anything new to Joel or Christy Geaslen. As Christy says, it’s sort of “the family business.”

“My parents were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators,” Christy explains. “My grandparents were with Wycliffe, and aunts and uncles.”

Growing up in Dallas, Christy says she watched her father work as the director of buildings and grounds at a nearby Wycliffe center. That gave her a front-row seat to discover the exciting aspects of missionary work.

“I saw a lot of my cousins and a lot of my friends coming back from overseas and heard their stories – heard the stories of my aunts and uncles – about their time overseas serving the Lord and translating the Bible,” Christy said. “And we would always get so excited when we would hear, ‘Oh, a Bible has been translated! There’s a new people group with a New Testament!’ A celebration would occur at that time.”

Meanwhile, Joel was also growing up, a mere sapling in Apple Creek, Ohio.

“It’s a great little town, but boy, I felt like I was coming out of nowhere!” Joel laughed.

The son of a pastor, Joel grew up in a Christian home.

“My parents really loved the Lord and set an example for my three older brothers and myself,” Joel said.

Joel said his tribe had a “family business” as well: a produce business his mom started on her own.

“First it started out small, but then it went wild and we ended up with an acre-and-a-half of garden and 1,500 tomato plants,” Joel said. “It was crazy man, but I learned to work hard at a young age.”

“You know, honestly, I still don’t like tomatoes, but that’s beside the point,” Joel laughed. “BBQ sauce and all those things are good. But just a raw tomato? That is not my friend.”

‘Pipsqueak’ in a plane

But Joel’s life was destined to change forever when, at the age of about 10 or 11, he took his first ride in a small airplane, at a missions event held at an airport.

“I’ll never forget it,” Joel said. “It was just so crazy because the pilot let me sit right-seat, and let me fly by utilizing the yoke. He said, ‘Hold this altitude,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re saying!’ So he pointed to a bunch of gauges and said, ‘Here! Do this! Do that!’”

“It was so much fun, much to the chagrin of the other folks in the back. They just couldn’t believe that a little pipsqueak was up there flying the airplane!”

It made a lasting impression, instilling in Joel a love for aviation, just like an “Acquire the Fire” rally in Cleveland, Ohio, would instill in him a thirst for missions during his high school years.

“Boy, it was an awesome event,” Joel said. “I remember it to this day. God really grabbed ahold of my heart at that conference and became real to me in such a powerful way. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, God! I want to go and serve you! How? How do you want me to serve you?”

As his mom’s produce business gradually transformed into a greenhouse business, Joel increasingly began working with his hands.

“I started getting interested in woodworking and I started building things,” he said. “I started really thinking, ‘You know, maybe woodworking is something I could use on the mission field.’ And as I grew up and so on, I started to think, ‘Well, maybe I could actually fly an airplane!’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I could just combine the two – I’ll be a flying woodworker!’”

Joel and his family moving to Kosovo

Joel’s hunger for missions work led him to take a high school trip to the Philippines to see what God was doing there, and even live with his family for a brief stint in post-war Kosovo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What I saw in the Philippines really changed my heart,” he said. “God really made a Scripture verse stand out to me:  Matthew 9:35, where Jesus went through all the towns and villages teaching in the synagogues. In verse 36 it says, ‘When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them.’ That’s just the verse that really stood out to me that entire trip. When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd: lost. And I thought, ‘You know, God, how do You want me to use my life to make a difference?’”

 

A match made in Longview

The question led Joel to attend LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, where he would pursue flight training for a career in missionary aviation.

It’s the same school where Christy would ultimately enroll a year later.

“Joel was a year ahead of me,” Christy recalled. “We met each other through LeTourneau student ministries. I just kind of jumped in because I was excited about ministry and missions, and they just happened to need someone to plan Spring Break mission trips.”

So while Christy began planning the trips, Joel acted as a media coordinator, putting together advertisements and media opportunities.

“We worked together pretty closely in student ministry for about two years before we started dating,” Christy said. “He was really gunning for missions and I was gunning for missions, so it was pretty clear early on that we might be a good match just because we had similar goals.”

“Yeah, it was nice to have that same vision – that same goal – and to meet someone else who had that passion for serving God through missions,” she added.

Christy would ultimately graduate with a degree in Christian Ministries, as well as a Cross-Cultural minor. She would eventually go on to get her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing.

Joel would get his private pilot’s license, his instrument rating, his commercial pilot rating, his multi-engine rating, flight instructor ratings and airframe and powerplant certificate.

He graduated in 2007. She graduated in 2008.

“We got married the day after I graduated,” Christy said.

 

The in-between

As anyone knows, it takes a lot of flight-hours to build an aviation career, and the same is true for missionary flying. After graduation, Joel set about amassing the hours he needed to fly overseas.

But it wasn’t easy. Today, with a looming pilot shortage, it’s hard to imagine a time in 2007 when aviation jobs were hard to come by – but that’s exactly the job market that Joel faced. He spent more than two years working as a flight instructor, helping students get their pilot’s licenses.

“Plenty of rectangular courses to last me a lifetime!” he laughed.

“From there, I had taken a variety of jobs to make ends meet, really,” he added. “It came down to what was available in the job market. Many things were not. So we just had to do what we could, but boy, God provided. And it was just amazing to see the different jobs that I had.”

In fact, God opened the doors for Joel to work jobs flying cargo at night, as well as air ambulance medical evacuation missions.

Joel recalls one job in particular that required him to patrol hundreds of miles of pipelines at low altitudes.

“I would fly from Dallas up to Chicago, just at 500 feet, looking at the pipeline the whole way up,” he said. “And I would fly all over Michigan, and then come back down to Dallas. Talk about a blast! It was a lot of fun. A lot of strain. I’d watch out for birds and for powerlines and everything else – the trees and the mountains and just stuff like that that might get in the way. But oh my goodness, talk about a learning experience!”

Not all of it was fun-and-games, however. Joel recalls one incident in which the engine failed in mid-flight.

“Oh boy, I don’t wish that on anybody,” he said. “I started praying, and I was with somebody else, and I said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna start praying!’ And praise God, it ended well. We were able to land at an airport on the runway.”

“But, boy, there are just these moments where you realize in aviation, ‘Man, God is holding the wings here,’” he added. “God was really watching out for me. And every day, I’m just so grateful for all the great experiences to be able to have in aviation so far. But yeah, some of it has been good, and some of it has been bad.”

Jumping from job to job may not have been ideal, but Christy says God knew exactly what He was doing.

“Looking back, we can see how each of those jobs has prepared him for the mission field,” she said. “Each of those jobs was just such a good fit for getting him the experience that he needed for missions. It wasn’t as glamorous as we hoped it would be right out of school, but it ended up being right.”

“We can look back and see God guiding us through those different experiences, but it was hard at the time, for sure.”

Signs

Seven years after graduation, Joel says he hit a low point.

Between the two of them, he and Christy had amassed roughly $130,000 in college debt. He was still working odd flying jobs to make ends meet, and he felt no closer to his goal of becoming a missionary pilot.

“I remember I was flying in west Texas doing an air ambulance job out there, so I had some time to sit and think and pray,” Joel said. “I was on the ramp, just sitting there having a quiet time. It was awesome. But I spent a lot of time just praying and saying, ‘God, do you want us to go into missions? If so, show us.’”

Not long after that, Joel and Christy had a friend over at their home who serves as a missionary for MAF in an undisclosed country in southeast Asia.

“He started sharing stories and pictures and some videos of what God was doing in the country they were serving in,” Joel said. “And it really started to stir us up again. We were just kind of going, ‘Oh man! We remember thinking this way and being really excited about missions, but with time…’”

That night, after he left, Joel says he and Christy had a long talk.

“Christy and I – we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow! What is God speaking to us right now?’” Joel recalled. “Because, man, we felt stirred. It’s like the disciples on the road to Emmaus after Jesus left. They said, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us?’ That’s kind of how we felt.”

That’s when Joel and Christy went to God in prayer.

“We said, ‘God, if this is You, help us to become debt-free so we can go and do this,’” Joel said.

One week later, Joel said he and Christy got the surprise of their lives.

“We got a phone call from a friend of ours who said, ‘You know, we’ve been praying about it, and we feel like God is leading us to give everything we have away, and we feel like God has put you guys on our hearts to give it to,’” Joel recalled.

Joel said he and Christy were given a “huge” financial gift – one that paid off half of their student loan debt.

It was a sign they both say showed them that God was giving them His permissions to pursue ministry overseas.

“That, to this day, stands as one of the monuments where, looking back, I see, ‘Wow – God did an amazing miracle to help us get out of debt, to wake us up a little bit and say, ‘Let go!’’” Joel said.

The donor’s gift took care of some of their debt – but Joel says God still required them to do their part. They buckled down and got what Joel calls “Dave Ramsey-kind-of-crazy” to get out of the red.

 

“A bit nutty…”

Before long, Joel was in the midst of flight standardization training – flight training for new MAF pilots based out of MAF’s Nampa, Idaho, headquarters.

He says it stretched him as a pilot, to say the least.

“There are challenges related to the runways that are available overseas,” Joel said. “Some of them are mud-covered. Others are grass. Others are dirt and windy. Some go uphill. Some have humps in the middle. Some have a twist in the runway, and some of them have all of it, plus a mountain and some trees at the end.”

“And a cliff!” Christy interjects.

“And a cliff!” Joel agrees.

These landings gave Joel sweaty palms – at least at first.

“My first reaction when I saw some of the runways that we were going to be ‘landing’ at, was ‘This is insane! This is crazy!’” Joel laughed. “It looks like somebody’s driveway!”

Despite being worried that he was going to “end up in the trees with some bent metal,” Joel persevered. He quickly learned that there is a process by which the pilot evaluates each airstrip, and soon, he was landing with ease – and even enjoying the process.

 

Advice and encouragement

God is faithful. The day after this interview, Joel and Christy learned that they had raised the money they needed to begin serving as a missionary family in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In late February, they moved with their four kids 4,000 miles away to Salatiga, Indonesia, where they will attend a year of language school, before settling into Kalimantan.

It’s a journey they are excited to make – and they know many others hope to follow in their footsteps.

Christy offers this advice:

“We decided early on that money was not going to be what we followed with our careers. And it hasn’t been. And that’s been good. We decided to give God what we have – and that’s our lives and our ability to serve. For pilots who want to stay here in the States – I think that’s wonderful, if that’s what God’s calling them to do. But if God is calling you to serve overseas, then you should follow that call, despite the money and the temptation to just have the American Dream.”

Joel quickly admits that pilots by nature love flying, but – as the saying goes at MAF – it’s not about the flying.

“The Number One priority has got to be your relationship with God,” he said. “Because if your relationship with God is firm and you actively pursue wholly falling in love with Jesus and being completely consumed by your relationship with God, then everything else will come into place. Because you can get all of the training in an airplane in the world, and be the best pilot around, but if you have lost track of God in the midst of your journey, then you will burn out.”

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is an advocate for MAF. He can be reached at tkircher@maf.org.

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