National Lutheran News

Most planes don’t fly now, but accusations do

Don Johnson leads LAMP-US.

Don Johnson leads LAMP-US.

Should LAMP be flying airplanes or training indigenous pastors?

The Rev. Daniel Zielske, a retired ELCA pastor living on a farm near Faribault, Minnesota, recalls being captivated by the proposed program of the Luther-an Association of Missionaries and Pilots (LAMP) when he heard about its formation in 1970.

The idea of using airplanes to fly missionaries into the far northern areas of Canada and Alaska to bring the Christian gospel to native people seemed like a “perfect fit” and appealed to the “call of the wild” in him, he said.

But after three decades of making LAMP a top priority in his own charitable giving and that of his congregations, he discovered a couple years ago that there was serious discord between the U.S. and Canadian branches of the organization.
The use of airplanes had been almost discarded by U.S. leaders, and they had shifted the focus from flying missionary-pilots into the remote northern areas to training native leaders to do the mission work among their own people.
Zielske was hopping mad, mainly because he felt the U.S. branch had not been honest with its donors about the change in focus and continued to use the old logo with an airplane and cross in its fund appeals and publicity.

“Violated — that’s how I feel!” the pastor declared in an e-mail to Metro Lutheran. “Why take my money and volunteer efforts but maintain secrecy about who you really are and what you are really about, LAMP-U.S.?”

Zielske maintained that people like himself, as well as LAMP-Canada, which has continued to follow the original pastor-pilot model, are being “held hostage” by the U.S. branch. The latter, he says, has broken faith with supporters who felt they were backing a cooperative venture involving two nations and both LCMS and ELCA constituents.

The pastor doesn’t pull any punches in blaming LAMP’s troubles on the Rev. Don Johnson, the Native American LCMS pastor who has been executive director of the U.S. branch since 1995.

Zielske says he has reached the “bitter conclusion” that Johnson is “a driven individual” who “has driven a wedge into this marvelous mission endeavor.”

Johnson, a resident of Maplewood, directs LAMP-U.S. operations from its headquarters in suburban Mil-waukee. In an interview in St. Paul, he quickly labeled Zielske’s allegations as lies. The organization he took over in 1995 was already deeply divided, he said. And, the change in focus toward an indigenous ministry was the direct result of a nine-month long-range planning process he initiated. It involved representatives of all viewpoints and was guided by a professional planner.

The emphasis on native leadership, Johnson believes, involves training them to impart the Christian message of salvation in a way that does not exclude appropriate elements of native culture. It also makes attacking the big social ills that plague native communities part of the mission effort.

Since Johnson began implementing the recommendations of the planning project, he said, he has been the target of unending, baseless allegations by disgruntled pastor-pilots and others, many of them now affiliated with LAMP-Canada. He mainstains that Zielske is buying into those unfounded charges.

Zielske indicates his accusations are based on his own observations during volunteer mission trips to the north the past two summers — one under the auspices of LAMP- U.S and one through LAMP-Canada.

Johnson has the backing of a number of influential persons who have been involved in the LAMP project for many years. Among them is Dr. James Nestingen, longtime professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He’s a native of Canada and a close observer of the work of the Lutheran church there.

While the notion of “pastor-pilots” has a profound appeal in fund-raising, Nes-tingen said, it is not much of a mission strategy.

“Flying white guys in and out is pretty much a paternal model,” he asserted. Further, according to Nestingen, when he made trips with pastor-pilots to determine what was going on, it became clear that some of them were engaging in disreputable behavior when they came into contact with the aborigines.

“There was absolutely no evidence of any Christ-centered witness,” Nestingen said bluntly. “What they wanted to talk about was their machinery — their planes and their guns.”
Johnson challenged this mission strategy of “mighty whitey flying in and out,” according to Nestingen, and argued that LAMP has to learn to stay on the ground with those to whom it is ministering and make a transition from its commitment to the airplane to a commitment to the native people.

LAMP was founded in 1970 by an LCMS pastor, Les Stahlke, who was serving a congregation in Alberta, Can-ada. Stahlke was also a skilled pilot. Following incorpora-tion of the non-profit enterprise in Edmonton, Alberta, Stahlke resigned his pastorate and became executive director.

The mission of the pastor-pilots was to fly LAMP-owned planes from Edmonton to settled communities in the far northern areas of the Canadian provinces west of Quebec — and, later, Alaska — and minister to the non-Christian natives in the surrounding villages.

The pastor-pilots were also to serve the Christians already living and working in these communities, in the hope that they would help in the task of evangelizing the natives, ac-cording to Ron Ludke, who took over as executive director of LAMP-Canada this year.

Outside volunteers were also recruited to assist for short periods in ministries like vacation Bible schools for native youths, long a primary activity for LAMP. And, cooperation with other Christian mission workers already located in these far northern areas, like Roman Catholics and Anglicans, was expected.

Most of the original pastor-pilots had been trained in seminaries of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the former American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the former Lutheran Church in America (LCA) in the United States, Ludke said. They moved to Canada, took up dual citizenship and stayed for an average of five years. According to Ludke, this is contrary to the fly-in, fly-out image presented by Johnson and Nestingen.

The split into separate Lamp-Canada and Lamp-U.S. corporations in 1985 occurred for a seemingly non-controversial reason. Individuals in the United States who contributed money to LAMP had not been able claim a charitable deduction on their income tax because the donation went to a Canadian corporation.

The split solved that problem and Stahlke moved to Milwaukee as executive director of the new LAMP-U.S. Each of the two groups had its own board of directors, but the boards held joint meetings and were linked by an agreement to speak with one voice, even though they were accountable to different constituencies, said Johnson.

However, according to Johnson, the seeds of discord had been sown. For one thing, he said, Canadian resentment over the growing dependence on funds from the U.S. and increasing influence by U.S. participants on LAMP policy came to the surface.

In addition, he said, lack of a clear definition of the goal of the organization, which had brought together people from across the Lutheran theological spectrum, created problems.
“The mission was so generic — sharing the love of Jesus — that it meant anything you wanted to do,” Johnson said. “It was a pan-Lutheran organization that had a funny theological makeup.”

Ludke was a former vice-president in the Regina, Sas-katchewan, office of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm . His involvement with LAMP began as a volunteer vacation Bible school teacher in 1993. He said he’s never heard of Canadian resentment of growing U.S. influence in the organization after 1985. Neither has he heard comments about a lack of focus in its ministry in that period.

Johnson said he was recruited by Stahlke in 1993 to leave his post as an LCMS pastor-developer in the In-dian-reservation area of Washington state, where he had grown up. He joined LAMP-U.S. as head of its operations in the Twin Cities area.
The chaos and internal dissension, especially in Canada, were evident at that time, according to Johnson. “LAMP had become a disparate group of people, each with their own ministry,” he says, regardless of what Stahlke’s vision was.
“It was hard to define what LAMP was doing, and worse, no way to measure it.”

The LAMP-U.S. board, sensing that Stahlke had lost control of the pastor-pilots in the field, forced the founder’s resignation in 1994 in what Nestingen describes as an ugly confrontation.

When Johnson was chosen to succeed Stahlke, the new director says his status as a non-pilot, a U.S. resident and a Native American to boot intensified the split between the Canadian and U.S. factions. And it rose another notch when the long-range planning effort he launched to bring focus and accountability to the program resulted in his recommendation to concentrate on training native leaders for ministry with their own people, rather than pastor-pilots flying in and out, Johnson said.

At its peak, LAMP operated 10 airplanes and had seven pastor-pilots in the field. Johnson denies Zielske’s claim that he asked all the pastor-pilots to resign but admits that three did quit in disagreement with the new vision for the ministry he advocated.

Others left for a variety of reasons, he says.
The LAMP-U.S. director said he had intended that the pastor-pilots would remain on the staff and help in the training of native leaders. But their departure did make it possible to replace them with natives whom Johnson considered already qualified to work with their fellow aborigines. The LAMP-U.S. staff in Canada now consists primarily of these “First Nations” Chris-tians, he says.

The shift to native leaders has also made it possible to reduce the number of airplanes it operates to only one, which serves Alaska, Johnson said. Since owning and operating an airplane for a pastor-pilot cost $104,000 per plane per year, the savings to the program have been substantial, Johnson asserts.

“LAMP was so invested in technology they had no money for ministry,” he said.

Ludke, of LAMP-Canada, expresses skepticism about Johnson’s description of mounting discord between Canadian and U.S. participants in LAMP dating all the way back to 1985. The real start of tension, he said, was the appointment of Johnson as executive director of LAMP-U.S. in 1995 and his effort to take the ministry in a new direction.

The dispute reached its climax in May 2000 when the board of LAMP-U.S. voted to sever relations with its Canadian counterpart.

Ludke, who, like Johnson and Nestingen, participated in the long-range planning pro-cess, disagrees sharply with them over the recommendations that came out of that effort. The final report did not call for a shift from a pastor-pilot missionary effort to one led by trained natives and incorporating native culture, he maintains.

“What Johnson is reading into the long-range planning report is not reflected in that at all,” Ludke asserted.
It has been the purpose of LAMP all along to encourage natives to take leadership roles in discipling their own people, he said, but that simply has not worked out. However, that has not been a failure of LAMP alone, but of every other Christian denomination that has attempted it, Ludke maintained.

He acknowledges that, as he has traveled into native communities in the far north, he has seen the social problems — broken homes, poverty and alcoholism. But, he says, “I can’t solve all these social problems. I have Jesus to bring to these communities … I do know that God loves these people and that through Jesus they have the hope of salvation. My hope would be that one day we can share eternity as brothers.”

The bottom line, for Ludke, is that far from rejecting the work of the pastor-pilots, the people of the north say they’ve been well served by the ministry and want it to continue and grow along the same lines. He cites people like the Rev. Larry Beardy, a member of a tribe of the Cree nation who serves as second in command for the Anglican Church in a large area of northern Ontario and Manitoba.

“I’ve had a good relationship with Rev. Gordon Johnson,” Beardy said. John-son is a retired pastor-pilot who preceded Ludke as executive director of LAMP-Canada and who has been an outspoken critic of Don Johnson.

“Gordon Johnson and the groups he brought in did excellent work in northern Manitoba,” the Anglican lead-er said. “There’s a very positive relationship with the aboriginal people in northern Canada.”

Still, Nestingen said, in his effort to find out why the attacks on Don Johnson and LAMP-U.S. keep going without letup in Canada, he invited Gordon Johnson to share his complaints in a conversation. The charges proved unfounded, according to Nestingen.

But, the seminary professor indicated, he is puzzled by the continuing opposition from sources like Canadian churches, including the Alberta bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Don Johnson acknowledges that his views on Christian mission work among natives in America have been shaped in part by his experiences growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington state. But he denies that he is trying to impose his own agenda on LAMP.

The efforts of Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries among natives in North America over a period of 400 years, and of Lutherans for 200 years, have largely failed, Johnson says.

The reason is that “for natives, Christianity came at the cost of their own cultural identity,” he asserts. In place of their own identity, natives were left with a culture of dependency and such attendant problems as hopelessness, poverty, alcoholism and suicide.

“What we are doing in LAMP-U.S. now,” Johnson says, “is facilitating a better understanding of how you can be a Jesus person and still be true to your identity and find a balance between the two, recognizing that no one culture is all good or bad.”