Currently I am in recovery from an exhausting weekend. On Friday morning, I left San Francisco for Holland, Michigan, where I was to interview with a board of representatives from the Reformed Church in America as part of the ordination process for ministers of word and sacrament. Hopefully my ordination will be in the Fall.
The trip to Holland was great. I flew into Grand Rapids, stayed with some very dear friends, then picked up Silas, our toddler son ,from my in-laws who live just down the street from our friends. After a few moments of relaxing and catching up with my in-laws, I made my way to Holland to spend some precious time with my own family at my brother and sister-in-law’s beautiful new home.
Soon, it came time for my interview. It was an interesting setup. A group of about nine or ten pastors, elders, and theologians asked various questions about my sense of call, how my family has responded to the strains of pastoral ministry, and what compels me to participate vocationally in the work of the church. The questions reinforced how much growth has already taken place in my life, but also propelled me to continue my journey of development. I came away from the meeting encouraged and ready to continue in my role with the backing of more trusted leaders from my church network.
All too soon, it came time to leave, and I quickly gathered my things. My mother-in-law, Stacy, was kind enough to take me to the airport. With a sense of uncertainty about my own skills as a dad, I boarded the plane to Dallas for my connecting flight to San Francisco. It went really well. Silas ate snacks until he fell asleep in my arms, and I took time to reflect over the weekend’s events.
Arriving on time in Dallas, I made my way to the gate where I’d continue proving my dad skills all the way back to our little apartment on the fifteenth floor where mom was waiting for us. But this was not to be the case; there was more in store than I could have imagined. With cinematic timing, the airline worker grabbed her microphone and said these words:
“For those of you waiting for flight #499, service to San Francisco International Airport, I have some very bad news. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry, but your flight has been cancelled. Please proceed to gate 27 for rebooking.”
Immediately, our group began complaining to each other. I noticed two young women start saying to each other, “seriously, like, what the f***? Are you f****** kidding me?”
Our rights seemed compromised. We all sort of hope that by booking a flight we’re guaranteed that all steps in the process will work out. Nope. Forget about rights, I guess, because it just doesn’t work that way. I had no power, no options, and an 800 number that wouldn’t prove to be useful.
There was a long wait in line at gate 27 that consisted of making *lots* of new friends because of the outgoing nature of my toddler. Ironically enough, the two young women [they were probably about 13] ended up spending some quality time with Silas, sharing their stuff with him and playing. It was pretty cool to see that turnaround. Eventually, I received meal vouchers and a possible discount at a hotel that apparently did not have a shuttle. After stepping out of line, I realized it was a half hour away. And I would also need to pay $130 for about 4 hours of hotel use. Oh yeah-and an Uber ride both ways.
As I contemplated my frustrating options, a man swung by in one of those airport golf carts that differently-abled folks use to navigate the terminals. First, he asked me if I had any other kids and when my flight left from DTW. Soon, it dawned on me that he was presenting me with an option for help. Hallelujah, right? My relief faded as he took us across the terminal and down a hall to a room that, if I could describe it as accurately as I could, functioned as a disorganized hostel with no showers. There was a flouresent-lit makeshift office where I checked in [meaning, they took my boarding pass and put it in a drawer], then I followed them through a glass door behind the office where they were dragging two cots piled with a couple airline blankets each.
It was just before midnight, and I was exhausted, wondering how to care for my son. He had never slept on a cot. I did not dare tell Kaile, since that would only add stress to her thought life as she received occasional update texts from me as I tried to reassure her that we would be ok. Or, as she attempted to remind me that I would be ok.
Finally, just after midnight, Silas fell asleep on the stiff cot, a tiny bundle of exhausted joy, probably unaware of exactly how we had ended up at a makeshift hostel across the room from a gaggle of teenagers.
Now, it was my turn. I would get the sleep I desperately needed and wake up the next day refreshed. Not so. Our proximity to the glass door [which was connected to a glass wall] allowed not only fluorescent light into our entire sleeping area, but also the noise of other bedraggled travelers from every part of the world. One man with a thick accent loudly protested his circumstances without as much as a reminder that he was not the only one who was stuck in the terminal in a makeshift hostel. I couldn’t blame him that much, though, since I was inwardly annoyed in the same kinds of ways.
I tossed and turned. By six the next morning, the lights were on and were we not-so-subtly encouraged to get ourselves going. That’s when it dawned on me, and I heard a tiny voice within me say this:
Ben, you wouldn’t make a very good refugee.
All the protesting in the world could not change the situation that I was in: the fact that I was struggling to sleep in a loud makeshift hostel with fluorescent lights, the presence of total strangers with their own stories to be shared, the needs of my tiny son. None of these things bode well for my sanity.
These rather extenuating circumstances did help me build empathy with peoples throughout the world who are totally uprooted from their home communities because of genocide or war. It helped foster within me a sense of solidarity with communities that experience displacement, whether short or long term. When I pause and get honest with myself, I know full well that my airport difficulties were first world problems. Folks like me have the resources for 2400 mile flights, so should we really be that shocked when our system backfires? Should I be mad that one flight crew, for whatever the reason, did not make it to flight #499 to San Francisco?
But I guess I’d rather do my best to let God teach me something. No, I don’t think God ordered a couple pilots and stewards to stay home so one young dad can learn about solidarity with refugees across the world. But I do believe this, my paraphrase of Romans, a letter in the Bible’s New Testament, the part of the story that happens after Jesus shows up: “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to his purpose.”
God is pointing out to me how much I can learn and grow on account of the strange and unexpected events of Saturday and Sunday. Maybe the good that God is doing through this exhausting weekend will do good for other people as I share the story in the future or as you read this post.
But there are still other things about my airport experience that I’ll never forget. On Sunday, after my tiring night in the makeshift hostel, I put Silas down for a nap under a phone carrell in a seemingly abandoned portion of terminal B. I rocked him to sleep then placed him in my blazer, which in classic dad-fashion I had placed on the ground as a pad. There are few times when I have felt as close to my son as I did during our season of airport displacement. When he woke up from that nap, he crawled over me, giggling and smiling, and that was what woke me up [come on, it’s precious!].
For the learning and for the love that grew between my son and me, I’m thankful. And I guess I could also look at this like a set of nice moral lessons. But no, I really do think God is inviting me to receive the experience, with all its craziness, with an eye to how God is genuinely making good come from bad.
For the time of learning, and for the chance to love my son in a deeper way, thanks be to God.