A Life of No Regrets

Moody Aviation-trained pilot now runs the missions organization that sent him out and was featured in the 2021 movie Ends of the Earth.

In 17 years as a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship in the remote mountains and jungles of Indonesia, David Holsten ’98 faced plenty of risks—dynamic weather changes, rugged terrain, sloping grass and dirt runways, and limited fueling options among them. But one experience stands out to remind him why mission aviation is so vital.

When a new airstrip opened in a Papuan mountain village, David was pulled aside by Liku, one of the first Wano believers there. “I had this sense that something sacred was about to take place,” David recalls. Liku smeared dirt on his chest and face while speaking in a tribal language David didn’t understand. A missionary translated Liku’s message:

“You can see that my body is dirty. I didn’t know that before. Then our missionaries came, and it was like they gave us this mirror,” Liku said, holding up a small mirror. “After they gave it to me, I could see. Oh! Look how dirty I am!”
Liku brushed off the dirt and slipped a clean shirt over his head, addressing the growing crowd. “Now the dirt that was on me, do you see any of it?”

“No, no, we don’t see it,” they said.

“This mirror represents God’s Word that our missionaries taught us,” he continued. “I put my faith in that Word. I believe God placed me into Christ, like me putting on this shirt. I was sinful, but now I’m in Christ. So when God sees me, He doesn’t see my sin anymore.

“Our people made this airstrip for a reason. We want the story of this ‘mirror and shirt’ to go to our people in other places. The airplane will help us do that.”

Liku’s vivid illustration stunned the MAF pilot. “It was a really wonderful presentation of the gospel,” says David, who now serves as MAF’s president and CEO.
“That was a very, very fulfilling time of ministry, of being able to see the airplane used as a tool that really could bring life-saving health,” he says. “And that was true physically and spiritually.”
Advancing the Kingdom

As word spread about changed lives among the Wano, a neighboring mountain village sent delegations on an arduous three-day hike to request the new teaching. They eventually finished an airstrip so Liku and other Wano teachers have a 10-minute flight to these unreached neighbors. So far, 78 have become believers.

“Mission aviation is an incredible ministry to be involved in,” David says. “And the Lord has used it for generations around the world to help advance the kingdom.

“It just gives me a sense of gratitude—that God in His sovereignty has allowed me to follow a path where I’ve gotten to be a part of something that’s impacted people’s lives in a very meaningful way.”

Destined to Fly

David dreamed of becoming a pilot since childhood, fueled by a family friend and Moody Aviation graduate who took him on occasional airplane rides near the Colorado farm where he grew up. In high school David relocated with his family to Savannah, Georgia, and his interest shifted toward pursuing the military. But by the time college came into view, he’d decided to combine his interest in aviation with his desire to serve the Lord.

He attended Moody Bible Institute, spending the first two years studying in Chicago. “Moody helped instill in me a high view of God’s Word and the importance of community,” he says.

His Practical Christian Ministry assignments were at a youth center in the Austin neighborhood and campus evangelism at the University of Illinois in Chicago—“sweaty-palmed opportunities that were clearly used by the Lord to take me out of my comfort zone in a needed way, to expose me to a world I wasn’t aware of yet,” he says. “Some of the very first conversations I had with Muslims happened on that PCM.”

Those interactions proved to be helpful later when serving cross-culturally in Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims in the world.
David devoured the rest of his training at Moody Aviation. He married his high school sweetheart, Natalie, graduated in 1998, and was invited to stay on for two more years as a Moody Aviation flight instructor. Thrilled to work alongside his instructors as colleagues, he says, “That was as much an extension of my education as it was a job.”

Serving in Indonesia

David and Natalie joined MAF in 2000 with thoughts of serving in Latin America. “But the Lord had different plans,” he says. Assigned to Kalimantan, Indonesia, they arrived on the island of Java for language training in 2001. Following language school, they joined a team of other MAF staff, some of whom were also Moody Aviation grads.

“That was an incredibly meaningful, impactful time in our lives, just growing spiritually and in every way imaginable,” he says.

After a decade of serving there in a number of different roles, David and his wife and four children moved east to the province of Papua, Indonesia. One day David was flying a woman in prolonged labor while her husband and clinic nurse tended to her. As he raced over dense jungle toward a city hospital an hour away, he looked back and saw the nurse calmly looking out the window. How was the woman in labor doing? he wondered.

Finally David landed the plane, only to hear the cries of a newborn! The woman’s husband lifted a blanket to reveal the mother and their baby, who they consequently named after the pilot.

“I’m praying that I can be used to stir people’s hearts to look beyond their present environment and consider the situation that others are in and to realize that God’s call for us to go into the world and make disciples is as present today as it’s ever been.”

‘A very, very fulfilling time of ministry’

In that part of the world, where an airstrip rather than a road often runs down the middle of a village, people have great respect and appreciation for the work of pilots, “which is very humbling,” David says. Over the years, more than one baby was named after him.

“That was a very, very fulfilling time of ministry, of being able to see the airplane used as a tool that really could bring life-saving health,” he says. “And that was true physically and spiritually.”

One day David flew boxes of newly printed complete Bibles (Old and New Testament) in the Hupla language to a highland village in Papua. The Hupla people already had the New Testament, but now they had the rest of the story.

“I get excited thinking about what it’s going to be like for them to see God’s story of salvation that begins in Genesis,” he said at the dedication ceremony. The Hupla Bible took 40 years of Bible translation led by a Scottish missionary.
“That was very special to be able to be there,” David says.

Taking the Helm in a New Home

When a vacancy opened for MAF’s next president/CEO, an internal search brought David’s name to the fore. After much prayer, he and Natalie made the decision to leave Indonesia in 2018 and relocate with their children to MAF headquarters in Nampa, Idaho. As they landed with 10 suitcases of all their possessions, bought a home, and sent their kids to American schools for the first time, the transition to Idaho’s vastly different culture and high desert climate was daunting.

“But it’s become a home for us, and every day is a new adventure of learning new things,” he says.

“God has given us one life to live on this earth, and I don’t want to look back on that life with regret. I don’t want to think, That was an unknown, uncertain thing, and I was too afraid to pursue it. My experience at Moody helped to equip me with a deeper understanding of God’s Word and to better live a life without regret.”

In this new season as the leader of a missions organization, David prays that the next generation of men and women will answer the call to serve in difficult places for the sake of the gospel, living a life without regret.

“Mission work is a life of sacrifice,” he explains. “You have to give up relationships in a certain way, certain conveniences and comforts, and you enter into a lot of unknowns. I believe Christ followers need to be challenged to do that.”

God’s Call: As Present Today as Ever

MAF works with 500 Christian and humanitarian organizations worldwide, supporting mission endeavors even in restricted access countries. With 200 missionary staff serving overseas and in the US, the ministry operates 47 light aircraft from 14 bases in eight countries out of Asia, Latin America, Eurasia, and Africa. These planes fly more than two million nautical miles a year in support of indigenous churches and evangelists for a range of needs, including disaster relief, medical care, and community development.

“We operate the only flight school in a southeast Asian country,” David says. “And every student is sitting 18 inches from a Christ-following flight instructor. That’s just one reason why we need mission aviation—so we can continue to do that type of ministry."

“I’m praying that I can be used to stir people’s hearts to look beyond their present environment and consider the situation that others are in and to realize that God’s call for us to go into the world and make disciples is as present today as it’s ever been.”

Written By: Linda Piepenbrink