One thing any experienced traveler learns is that other travel veterans can always trump your “worst trip ever” stories. I just endured one of those “eventful” overseas flight experiences, but this journey also introduced me to strangers who offered this Baptist theologian a few reminders about kindness and compassion.
My annual pilgrimage to Myanmar did not have an auspicious start. I left Kansas City early Friday morning headed for Seattle, then Seoul and then ultimately Yangon. Fog shrouded Seattle and planes could not land, so our flight was diverted to Eugene, Oregon, where we sat in the plane nearly four hours waiting for fuel and a landing time.
Trying not to be too anxious, reluctantly relinquishing control over the logistics, I kept my eyes on my app. Sure enough, I received notification that my flight to South Korea had taken off without me.
One of the flight attendants demonstrated impressive emotional intelligence. She came by with water and empathy in generous servings, and she helped us see the humor in our situation. Who would not want to spend time viewing the surrounding mountains through the small windows of our plane?
At this point I wondered if I should have heeded the admonition of friends who thought perhaps this trip to Myanmar was ill-conceived as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. With my usual stubbornness, I said all will be well.
Indeed, all would be well, thanks to the kindness of strangers who use their professions as a place of caring and service.
Arriving in Seattle, I headed to an airline club to get rescheduled, if possible. Many had missed connections, and agents were pressed to fulfill our requests. A young woman of Asian descent took up my case and worked for several hours to get me re-booked. She told me to go get some food; she would find me when she had completed the task.
It takes fortitude to do methodical work pleasantly when you are facing a long line of anxious, weary and impatient customers clamoring for attention. I had plenty of time to observe her as I spent the next eight hours awaiting my flight.
“It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way.”
Flying back to Detroit on a red-eye would allow me to catch a midday flight to Seoul; it was my best option. Again, with a long stint in an airline club (I’m thankful for the thousands of frequent flyer miles that qualify me for this amenity), I met a remarkable person. As one of the attendants who collects the cups and glasses and newspapers of the guests in the travel lounge, this tall, African American woman circled around to check on me several times.
She asked what I was doing, and I told her a bit of my travel challenges. She said God had placed her there to work so that she could notice God’s people and encourage them. While others may render her invisible as she goes about her routine tasks, she is perceptively observing those who come through her section of the club.
I teared up at her kindness and witness of faith, and she offered a prophetic word as if she could peer into my very soul. Sensing that I was burdened about some matters, she firmly said, “God has got this.”
She disappeared to complete other tasks, and I could not find her when I needed to leave for my flight. It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way; and, of course, God had her busy noticing and encouraging some other inconvenienced traveler.
When I arrived in Seoul, I met another ministering spirit. The usually bustling Incheon Airport felt a bit like a ghost town as fear of the virus has slowed travel dramatically. Everyone was wearing masks, trying not to get too near anyone else, and viewing others with furtive suspicion.
Once again, I had to spend a couple of hours waiting in an airline club. Upon entering, I encountered a mask-free, smiling young Korean man with a most hospitable attitude. His capacity to welcome guests, anticipate their needs and seem genuinely interested in each was contagious. I asked him why he served as he did, and he said it was because of his faith in Jesus. He wanted to be like him in how he treated people.
Finally, there is no greater kindness than to be met by a friend at the end of a long journey. By now, my travel had lasted about two-and-a-half days. Arriving in Yangon, there was a flurry of activity as a medical agent took each passenger’s temperature, and an extra step was added as a medical form was examined prior to going through customs.
Emerging from the chaos of collecting baggage and the throngs of persons awaiting their passengers, I searched the crowd for my Myanmar Institute of Theology colleague. Soon he was by my side helping me thread our way to find our driver.
“You must be tired,” he said, acknowledging that I was arriving a day later than originally planned. His kind words and pastoral attention reminded me yet again how important our caring is in helping others manage their challenges.
During the first week of this Lenten season, I have been the beneficiary of unanticipated, but not-so-random acts of kindness from sisters and brothers who are my fellow travelers in the compassionate way of Jesus.
I wonder what the trip home has in store.