Jim Manley once flew aircraft for Mission Aviation Fellowship. The job took him into places that resembled Stone Age-like societies. Here, he is shown with an indigenous man from one of the unmodernized cultures he encountered. (Courtesy photo)
By Gaye Bunderson
Jim Manley, now 77, became a Christian early in life under the most peculiar circumstances. He was a hitchhiking hippie back then.
“After I got out of the Marine Corp, working in avionics, I did the next logical thing and became a hippie,” Manley said, with a touch of humor. In those days he sported a beard and long hair down his back. He didn’t do any hard drugs, he said, but he smoked pot and hash – it was the 1970s, after all.
He was attending Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., and he and friend who had also been in the military got permission from the landowner to set up a tent under a big sumac tree behind the college. To earn money, Manley created jewelry.
“I made wedding rings mostly,” he said.
Unexpectedly, a fire roared through the area near Manley and his tent mate’s home. The young men were able to get their stuff out of their humble shelter on poles, and they then set up residence in a tent in Carlsbad State Park in Carlsbad, Calif.
One day, Manley was hitchhiking back to the park. “I was picked up by a man who was clearly a redneck. He even had a can of beer in his hand,” he said. “Today it’s liberals versus conservatives or Democrats versus Republicans; but back then, it was hippies versus rednecks.”
After he got over the initial surprise of being picked up by a so-called redneck with a beer can, he hopped in. Then the man started talking to him, and things got even more surprising. Stumbling over his words and speaking tentatively, the beer can holder started broaching the subject of faith.
“It was clear he had not done this a lot, but he started talking about Jesus,” Manley explained.
What was even more peculiar, Manley said, is that almost every day for six months, somebody somewhere had been trying to tell him all about Jesus.
“I thought it was baloney,” Manley stated. But he realized at the same time that something in his heart was searching for answers. He had started experimenting with Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, and though the redneck’s witness for Christianity was far from flawless, something stirred in Manley. His interest in the unexpected conversation piqued, and when he was asked, “Do you want to meet Jesus?” something inside him was moved to open up. “It was like a logjam burst,” Manley said, “and to my surprise, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Even the redneck was surprised. He asked, “Are you messing with me?!”
But Manley wasn’t fooling around. He began to pray along with the driver.
“I surrendered,” he said.
Those were his hippie days, of course, and he recalled he might have said something like “this is far out.” But the words he spoke next were the important ones. “Jesus, I can’t run my life. I hand it over to You.”
The redneck, somewhat amazed at this point, suddenly realized he was holding a can of beer, and in response to Manley’s salvation prayer, he looked at the can and said, “I don’t need this anymore!”
Both men were blessed. Shortly after, they stopped at the park and Manley got out of the vehicle.
“He pulled over right where I needed to go, and I’ve never seen him since. I don’t even know his name. But I’ll know him in heaven.”
At the time, Manley was having an internal conversation with himself, as he fully realized he had just been dramatically changed. “I said to myself, ‘J.R., your life is never going to be the same’.”
And boy, was he right. “The experience changed me. My desires changed. I suddenly had hope.”
For a while, he returned to his regular life. He was working in Fallbrook, Calif., taking care of avocado groves. He didn’t immediately shave his beard nor cut his hair. What ultimately moved him to make a change in his appearance was practicality: “My only means of transportation was a motorcycle, and my hair would get tangled in the wind. I was also a diver and my mask wouldn’t fit well enough because of the beard.”
Despite the transformation in the young man’s heart and appearance, his spirit of adventure was left untouched. An interest in flying was aroused one day when, riding on his motorcycle, he passed a sign that simply read, “Airport.” He rode up to the airport, walked in, and talked to two people there and asked what they did at that little airfield. A woman replied, “We teach people to fly.” Right there, Manley put down a deposit of $136.36 for his first four lessons.
Six months to a year later, Manley met his wife Regina at a Bible study. By then, he’d logged some critical time in flying lessons and found his wife shared his enthusiasm for flight.
In his own online bio at jrmanley.com, Manley wrote: “With the help of the G.I. Bill, I earned a commercial license, then flew for a mining corporation. Next, I attended A&P school (airframe and power parts of an aircraft), specializing in avionics. Later, my wife’s generous gift from an inheritance allowed me to earn a multi-engine rating – which allows the qualifier to fly as pilot-in-command of any aircraft with more than one engine – and then flight and instrument instructor ratings.”
The couple came to be managers of an FBO, or fixed base operation, in Grass Valley, Calif. when Jim was about 32 years old and the parent of two kids at the time. The couple would eventually have four children.
At Grass Valley, Manley gave flight lessons, conducted commercial charter flights, and worked as a contract Air Attack pilot for the U.S. Forest Service. An Air Attack pilot, Manley explained, flies a spotter plan with a fire boss during fire emergencies. “I flew the fire boss around,” he said. “I was like his receptionist and listened to all the calls coming in.”
At the same time as his ongoing aeronautical achievements career, Manley began to feel a pull toward ministry. “It was a growing feeling,” he said. Trying to explain the tug in his heart, he said: “In business, the primary goal is to make a profit. That wasn’t my prime motivation. What motivated me was service.”
There was a bit of confusion, however, about just what a ministry for a pilot might look like, what shape it would take. “My thoughts at the time were that, if you were called to ministry, you became either an evangelist or a pastor.”
He was clear in his mind, though, that evangelism or a pastoral ministry wasn’t well-suited to his skills. For two years, he prayed about what the Lord might have in mind for him, even stating to Him, “I’ll do anything You ask except for being a pastor.” He eventually changed his prayer to something more open to the Lord…sort of. “I’d pray, ‘I’ll do anything You ask, even being a pastor. … But I don’t really want to.’”
The Lord was able to handle his honesty and, besides, He had other plans for Jim.
A business associate said to Manley out of the blue one day, “I never told you, but I’m a rep for Mission Aviation Fellowship.”
“I’d heard of MAF,” Manley said. “I thought it was a good thing, but I had no interest.”
Still, he had an MAF business card on file. “It was burning a hole in my Rolodex,” Manley joked.
“It was the fire season, and I had a lot of prayer time. The short version of the story is, I finally came to the conclusion that I should try to get into MAF.”
That lead him to speak to leaders and staff at MAF and decide he was all in. But then he thought, “How am I going to tell my wife?!”
When the couple moved into the house where they were living at the time, Manley had told Regina to “burn the boxes, we’re never moving again.”
He thought he’d tell his wife gradually; but before he knew it, he’d jumped right in the minute he saw her and said, “I think we should join MAF, go to the jungle, and fly planes for Jesus.”
It was all out in a single sentence.
Regina burst into tears, and it took her husband a minute to realize she was crying tears of happiness. An entire seven years prior to her husband’s revelation that they should join MAF, and a few years after a packet of MAF information showed up in their mailbox, Regina conceived her own dream of joining the fellowship.
The maf.org website describes its work: “People living in isolation are cut off from the outside world, with little to no access to health care, education, supplies, and the hope of the gospel. Our airplanes are the only way many people living in remote jungles, deserts, and mountains have access to life-giving necessities and the love of Christ. You can help us – and the hundreds of churches, missionaries, and organizations we serve – bring help, hope, and healing to the ends of the earth.”
The Manleys were ready to sign up. It took some time before their mission became a reality; but two years later, they were in Costa Rica providing aviation services.
The Manleys started their work in 1985. Their job was to fly the evangelists, pastors, and others into rarely traveled areas to serve indigenous peoples. They worked with people who spoke Spanish and with six different indigenous groups, each with their own language. They encountered primitive, Stone Age-like groups in need of health care, education, and an opportunity to learn about the Lord.
It was a difficult task, because they flew all over, going from once place to another in and out of rugged terrain. Said Manley, “In the jungle, you have two options for transportation: walking or flying.”
In some places, the people had created airstrips using machetes and shovels over the course of at least two years. “Heavy equipment for them would be a wheelbarrow,” Manley stated.
In many of the regions the Manleys traversed, it was stiflingly hot; and when it wasn’t too hot, the average annual rainfall could top 21 feet.
“It was a different culture, but I loved working with the native peoples,” said Manley.
The couple have had their feet firmly planted in modern America for quite some time now. After 17 years in the field, they were transferred to the organization’s current home base in Nampa. In 2015, Manley left MAF after years of valued service as a pilot and, surprisingly, as a journalist for MAF, writing web and paper copy, technical manuals, articles, and blog posts.
The one-time hippie-slash-astronomy major still enjoys writing, while his wife works for Paraclete Mission Group, taking the two Idahoans on occasion to such places as Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India.
The Manleys don’t see themselves as retired and have no plans to enter that leisurely lifestyle common to many older folks. Instead, they say “we’re not retired, we’re refired for service – we are blessed to be a blessing because God’s given us health and skills we can use.”
Jim Manley goes so far as to state that writing is his second dream job after flying. He’s written several books, including Call for News: Reflections of a Missionary Pilot and Mile-High Missionary: A Jungle Pilot’s Memoir. His latest book is titled The Perelandia Paradox, and it is a Christian science fiction story.
He had this to say about his No. 2 dream career: “My main passion is writing about how God uses ordinary people to meet extraordinary circumstances.”
And that sounds a lot like his own life, all 77 years of it.