Missing In Action

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Janelle Alder served with AFM as a student missionary in our jungle clinic during 2021-2022. A new nurse, she embraced her work wholeheartedly, learning skills beyond nursing school—diving into the realm of primary care, pharmacist, janitor, laundress, medical technologist and more. Intentional in acquiring language skills, Janelle gradually spoke more and more of the language, leading worship with the in-patients and participating in outreach activities. Quiet but not timid, Janelle developed friendships with her Filipina roommates, learning to enjoy and cook Filipino dishes and spending time with the Palawano people in their homes, rice fields and gardens, becoming their friend.

True to Janelle’s heart, she frequently quoted Matthew 10:28, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

As Janelle considered her work in missions, she earnestly asked her father an important question while on a recent phone call with him:

“Dad, what would you think if I was to spend my life serving here in foreign missions?”

“We would miss you certainly. We would miss knowing your children and watching them grow, but you must serve where God calls you. We would be proud of you,” her father answered, not realizing the life-altering event soon to take place.

March 1, 2023 (February 28 in the USA).
I was scurrying around with last-minute preparations to fly and visit my daughter in Marmá and conduct a supervisory visit at our mission school there. Daniel (see sidebar), our friend and helicopter pilot with PAMAS (Philippine Adventist Medical Aviation Services), had been called out on a couple of emergency medical flights, so mine was delayed. As the day progressed, I sensed that perhaps the flight would be postponed since the clouds often move in over these mountainous areas later in the day, blocking access to the landing strips. I started to mentally prepare myself for a change of plans. Little did I know . . . .

The Change of Plans
Our daughter Bubit was on Facebook and sent me a notice that had just been posted. It called people to pray for the missing helicopter with pilot Daniel Lui, flight nurse Janelle Alder, and a patient, her husband and sister from one of the small islands at the tip of Palawan. They had gone missing one and a half hours from land.

In disbelief, I started to cry. “Lord, You know where they are. Please help them! Daniel and Janelle are your faithful servants, risking their lives to help others and bring them to a knowledge of a loving Savior. Please, Lord, save them!” My prayers continued unabated as I, in my anxiety, kept busy with menial tasks.

The Search
Andrew Hosford of Airways of Hope immediately began flying over the West Philippine Sea, where the last GPS signal from the helicopter was detected. He and his companions flew for several hours, scouring the area for any sign of the helicopter or its occupants. Andrew, being the lone pilot searching for Janelle, his girlfriend, and Daniel, was heartened to see Kent’s small airplane flying low over the coastline of southern Palawan, also searching.

The next day, more planes and pilots associated with PAMAS and an airplane and pilot from Adventist World Aviation (AWA) arrived. Soon six planes flew plotted grids, searching.
The Pillow and Shoes
We were encouraged when fishermen found a pillow (belonging to the patient) and a pair of athletic shoes (belonging to Janelle). I hoped that Janelle had gotten out of the helicopter. But where was she? And what happened to Daniel and the others?

Later that day, Andrew spotted what looked to be oil on the water covering an area consistent with the last GPS signal. He radioed the Coast Guard. They marked the area, later exploring it with sonar. Nothing was found.

The search continued. Daily, planes flew the grid, people traversed the beaches, and fishermen watched the waters. Many were involved, including the Philippine military. Thousands, if not millions, worldwide prayed around the clock.

My son-in-law, Michael, an EMS helicopter pilot, helped me understand that helicopter crashes in any terrain are always life-threatening, and crashing into the ocean was particularly unforgiving. I had somehow thought differently. Still, we prayed for a miracle. We still do.

The Time of Remembrance
One Sabbath morning, several weeks later, more than 100 people gathered in Kamantian to greet Janelle’s father, mother and four younger brothers to express their grief. Usually, the Palawano are not very expressive; they are cautious in showing what is in their hearts. But this day, they lined up one after another to express gratitude to Janelle’s parents, speak of her impact on their lives, or share memories.

“You raised your daughter right. And I can see how she is like you. I never saw her angry or heard a harsh word from her. Even in your sorrow, you have self-control,” one said.

“One day, Janelle entered my rice field and helped me weed. Afterward, we went to my house and ate sweet potatoes.”

One man stood up, “One day, I had gone to my sister’s mission station in Marmá and the whole way there (six hours), I said I was happy I wasn’t assigned so far away. The trail was hard, and I was exhausted when I arrived. But there sat two American student missionaries, including Janelle, blissfully enjoying the people and the village, even though they, too, had walked far. I felt chastened.”

“One day, we were all sitting around eating chicken. Janelle also had a small piece which she sometimes nibbled. We knew she didn’t typically eat chicken, but it meant a lot to us that she was entering our world the best she could.”

“Janelle was my friend. She knew my family’s situation and brought each of us a new pair of flip-flops one day.”

“Janelle’s example challenges me to be more Christ-like.”

So the stories went, describing her selflessness, grace, cheerfulness, perseverance and industry.

As for me, I appreciated Janelle’s can-do spirit. Even though work at the clinic can be tiring, she never complained. When there were not enough patients to keep her busy, she asked for something else she could do. Even after her term with AFM ended and she joined PAMAS, where her boyfriend served, Janelle kept in touch, thoughtfully sending food and covering for nurses at the clinic so they could take a break.

The Impact
We can only begin to express how this has impacted us and our mission. It takes extraordinary qualities in parents to produce missionaries like Janelle and Daniel, who knew the risks yet pressed forward to give people an opportunity to hear the gospel.

We miss them dearly. As I spoke with our eldest daughter one day, she said in a tear-choked voice that she believed Daniel and Janelle were ready to meet Jesus. Amen! We know we will meet them again in heaven one day soon. They were faithful workers who went Missing in Action—for Jesus.

Will you be Found in Action? If you are called upon to give your life, will you be found right where you are supposed to be—in the palm of Jesus?