It started in a boat, like the old story about Jesus’ disciples, but this is a much nicer boat. It is owned by a successful man, retired to Florida, enjoying the natural reward for years of hard work. He is bobbing gently in the Gulf of Mexico on his beautiful boat, surrounded by fishing buddies, casting into the future for which he has so long prepared. There is a tug on his line and he sets the hook, and what he begins to reel in will change his life…
Peter VandenBosch – the man in the boat – is a practical man who over 35 years built his broadcasting network on a foundation of clear thinking, honesty, and hard work, traits he learned well growing up during the Depression on a Minnesota farm, eleventh of twelve children. But he is a dreamer, too, and one dream took root when, at twelve years old, a Ford Tri-Motor roared over the farm. “I’ll be there someday”, he told his sister. And, years later when he left the farm, he did make his way into the cockpit, first as a pilot and radio operator in WWII and later as owner of his own business aircraft.
But all that is past now. He is on the boat, enjoying his retirement dream, blissfully unaware that he is about to be unretired. As he reels in his line, someone nearby says to him “Peter, there is more to life than this.” Startled, he looks quickly toward his friends and sees that no one has spoken. No one, and yet he heard the words plainly, can still hear them echo in his mind.
When he returns home that afternoon he tells his wife, Joan, about the voice. Her response is also startling: “Peter, this is serious. We’ve got to sell out and go home.” Over the next few months, they do just that and are soon reestablished in Holland, Michigan. He tells no one about the voice and continues to pray and puzzle over its meaning. It isn’t long before an old friend calls to suggest that Peter use his airplane to help poor people who need transportation to special hospitals. He tells Joan who says, “There’s your call.”
On his first trip, Peter took a brother and sister – both fighting cancer and aging disease – from Holland to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Other flights followed, some more dramatic than others. Just before Thanksgiving, he receives a heart-breaking call; a 5-year-old girl is desperately ill and needs transportation to the Mayo Clinic immediately. Peter quickly plans the flight and hurries to meet the family at the airport, speaks briefly with weeping grandparents who do not expect to see the child alive again. He makes little Meagan and her parents as comfortable as he can and guides his twin-engine aircraft over the familiar track across Lake Michigan, Wisconsin, the Mississippi and into Minnesota.
When they are almost to Rochester, the father suddenly rushes to the cabin – his daughter is failing. Peter communicates the emergency to air traffic controllers who immediately clear him to land. As he descends, the control tower tells him to shut down his airplane on the runway; an ambulance will drive across the field to take the girl. By the time Peter has the family’s bags out of the airplane, Meagan is already on life-support, and the ambulance is ready to sprint to the hospital. Peter fuels up and heads home with a heavy heart. He has done what he could.
As time passed, more pilots joined Peter’s new organization. As word of their effectiveness spread, separate branches were created in Flint and St. Cloud. Since Peter’s first flights in 1991, Wings of Mercy pilots have flown more than 4,000 patients for crucial care, each with their own story. At “Care Affairs”, a series of fund- and friend-raising events sponsored by Wings of Mercy at local airports, Peter and his team often get a chance to meet patients and hear the rest of their stories, so it was not out of the ordinary when two women walked up to Peter to say “thank you”. He could not remember them but when the younger woman took him in her arms she began to weep and said “My name is Meagan. When I was a little girl you saved my life.”
In 2005 the National Aeronautics Association awarded Peter VandenBosch its highest award for public service. More important, Wings of Mercy continues to provide crucial support to poor families in medical crisis.
Curiously, the ministry began on a boat, in the heart of a man who thought his work was done. But, like the old story of Jesus’ disciples, when you go fishing with God it is sometimes hard to say who is reeling in whom.