Early on a Sunday morning, Rukang Chikomb meets at Starbucks in Johnson City to talk about his calling as a missionary pilot.
He already has his coffee and is sitting outside in sunglasses, dress shirt, and tie, dressed for worship at his church, Wesley Memorial United Methodist.
Chikomb, age 42, has lived in east Tennessee for 12 years, working on his education and training and raising three children with his wife, Fresie.
Now he is ready to return to the Congo in late October, where he will serve as a General Board of Global Ministries missionary. He has been assigned as director of Southern Congo Wings of the Morning, the aviation ministry of the Southern Congo/Zambia Episcopal Area.
"I will be flying in Volunteers in Mission teams, doctors, educators, church leaders, medical and other supplies," he says. "I have been preparing for a long time."
Born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he understands now that "God was planning" his journey when he was a child, earning money to cut grass and fill holes on an isolated airplane runway.
Chikomb's aunt was a midwife, married to a United Methodist pastor. They lived near Piper Memorial Hospital, now known as Samuteb Memorial Hospital in transportation-challenged Kantanga Province. The United Methodist station was dependent on small aircraft to deliver supplies and equipment.
Rukang worked on the runway until he graduated from high school in 1989, having saved $300 for college.
"After three months I ran out of money and had to come home," he said. The missionaries hired him to help build a hangar. He later became a mechanic from 1991 to 1999.
In 1999 Chikomb was approached about coming to the U.S. to train as an United Methodist Aviation Ministries Pilot.
Shortly after he arrived in Elizabethton to begin training at Moody Aviation, some United Methodist pastors gathered at a Chinese restaurant to talk about providing support for Chikomb.
The Rev. Dwight Kilbourne remembers that the church he pastored at the time, Wesley Memorial, could understand how "crucial the air service was in getting things from place to place in the Congo." But they also were interested in "cultivating a connection" with the Chikomb family.
"It was that personal contact that made us a part of them, and them a part of us," Kilbourne said.
Wesley Memorial, First Johnson City, First Elizabethton, and First Broad Street UMC all signed on to support the budding pilot -- and still do today.
Chikomb graduated from Moody Aviation in 2002 and subsequently earned a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a commercial pilot, mechanic, and FAA inspector. (See photo.)
The plan was for the Chikomb and family to return to Africa sooner, but his daughter was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, delaying the relocation. Chikomb continued working as a mechanic, making trips back to Congo to refurbish a plane from scratch and to fly missions.
Last year he graduated from the Eastern New Mexico University at Roswell with an associate of applied science degree in aviation maintenance technology.
The Chikomb children are older now (Andre, 11; Sally, 9; Selena, 4), and wife Freesie has recently been accepted as a missionary for the denomination's global ministries agency. She will work at a orphange for boys in the South Congo.
Until he leaves for Africa in late October, Chikomb is anxious to visit Holston groups to talk about his work and ask for Advance support. (E-mail Rchikomb23@gmail.com)
"I am blessed because I understand why God put me out on the runway as a child, cutting grass," he says. "It is an honor to be part of his work."
In the meantime, he has something to say about South Sudan, the world's newest country, which borders on Congo's northeastern side. In 2008 Holston signed a covenant with the East Africa Conference, promising long-term support of South Sudan.
"I am so happy to see our conference in South Sudan," says Chikomb, "but my prayer is for Holston Conference not to get tired. I know this day will happen."
South Sudan's needs are "challenging and huge," he says, so "teamwork is going to be needed, not only international but local."
He prays that Holston will not only gain support from other U.S. groups, but will help develop teamwork between South Sudan and other African countries.
Because the countries are geographically close, Chikomb wants to help South Sudan in addition to his assigned region of South Congo and Zambia.
"There is no way the United Methodist Church would exist in Zambia and the Congo without aviation," he says. "Sudan is how Congo used to be."
Rukang Chikomb's page on the GBGM site
UM Aviation Ministries page on the UMCOR site
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.