Lesson in an Airport Terminal

There are a lot of things you can learn in an airport terminal.

This week, I spent 30 hours stuck at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport after what ended up being my most eventful airport experience to date. I had intended to spend only two hours laying over before heading to Memphis for a ministry conference. Not long after my flight from Flint touched down on the runway in Chicago, I discovered that my 5:30pm flight was cancelled. I was sitting in a chair at my connecting gate when the announcement was made over the loud-speaker. “Flight 3264 bound for Memphis, Tennessee, has been cancelled due to weather problems in Memphis. Please approach the desk to book a new flight.” Well, I had watched enough episodes of the Amazing Race to know that you never go to the agent at the gate where the flight was cancelled. Forty or fifty people had already formed a long line out into the busy walkway. I knew I had to act fast. I got the airline on the phone and discovered that another flight was available through a different carrier and then ran over to another gate and asked that agent to put me on the first flight to Memphis through that carrier. I got the last seat on that flight. Whew, I had really dodged a bullet there.

I now had a few hours to kill, so I picked up a couple great books, grabbed a bite to eat and made my way to the new airline terminal that housed the gate for my 90 minute flight to Memphis. An hour before boarding, the weather turned sour. First rain. Then streaks of lightning in the distance and strong winds. I had just started a conversation with a young guy who had just graduated from college and was finishing up a two-week backing trip through Europe. We talked about his time in Ireland (my wife and I spent three months living in Ireland after college). He was a Christian and we ended up talking about church history and C.S. Lewis. He knew quite a lot more about both topics than I did. Anyway, in the middle of our discussion of C.S. Lewis’ dark night of the soul and his book A Grief Observed, another announcement filled the terminal. “Ladies and gentleman, we are currently under a tornado warning and so we ask you to please move away from the windows in a calm and organized manner.” I looked at the guy I had been talking to and laughed. “Where are we going to go? The entire terminal is surrounded by floor to ceiling glass.” But we followed orders and gathered our carry ons, moved to the tiled walkway at the center of the terminal and waited with the few hundred others who had done the same.

About ten minutes passed. The recorded announcement about the tornado continued playing every minute or so over the P.A. People were talking causally about whether their flight was going to be cancelled. One person said that he had heard that a number of flights had been cancelled already and that there were few hotels room left in vicinity of the airport. Two guys were placing bets on how long our flight would be delayed in boarding, holding out hope that we would be flying that night. I threw my hat in the ring saying sarcastically that I thought we would board on time. I made a brief call to my wife Shelle and told her that we were waiting out a tornado warning. My battery was very low on my cell and so we didn’t talk long.

In the midst of this nervous chit-chat, further down the terminal, something was happening. There was a weird commotion that I caught a glimpse of in my  peripheral. This all happened at once. Describing it in words requires putting it in some sort of chronology. But what happened first or second its hard to tell. Well, at the same moment, someone, again farther away than I could make out who it was, yells out, “Look out, everybody run!” I think for the first time, I realized what people meant when they said, “It was like it all was happening in slow motion.” I had a hundred thoughts at the same moment. And they were more word pictures than actually complete thoughts–probably scenes stored in my brain from the countless disaster movies I have seen in my lifetime. Twister. Die Hard. 2012. Anything that had scenes with buildings being destroyed and sheets of glass shattering. In less than a second, casual conversation turned into survival and hundreds of people started running, myself included–running from who knew what. In that moment, I think we all believed that a tornado had hit O’Hare and that whoever said, “Look out” had seen the tornado.

As soon as the moment came it was gone. The panic-stricken crowd slowed to a walk, turned to see that contrary to the feeling in our gut, disaster had not come. Apparently, someone had seen the window buckle and overreacted. It was quite an adrenaline rush and we were all shook up a bit. A little girl standing with her family was in tears and an elderly woman held her hand to her chest physically shaken by the whole experience. But no cataclysmic event. No explosions. Just a skipped a heart beat or two.

An interesting thing happened after that moment. Everyone instantly felt comfortable with each other and people of every age, every ethnicity and every background began talking with each other. People began telling stories, laughing and helping each other out. Cell phones were being loaned to perfect strangers who needed to contact family. Others researched open hotels and then shared that with the group standing around them they had just met. All the boundaries we typically put up in front of each other came down. We were for a few moments just people.

There is something about an airport terminal that is the great equalizer.

There is something about an airport terminal that is the great equalizer. Money, influence and power, or a lack there of, did not matter at all. None of those things could change the flight or whether it would be cancelled or could make hotel rooms available that were already booked. For a few moments we united by this common experience. Eventually, our flight to Memphis was finally cancelled and everyone scattered in every direction, but walked away having experienced a moment with perfect strangers that they would soon not forget. It was a surprising glimpse of true community.

The Bible describes a phenomenal quality of the Jesus community–a community that is united by a common experience of God’s grace. It is a unique community in that it is not defined by outward appearances or categories our world uses. Instead, there is an uncommon unity across race, gender, income, education and background. The apostle Paul wrote that in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” We are all one in Christ.

Christian unity was scandalous in the first century as people of every social strata worshipped together, communed together and served together.

Christian unity was scandalous in the first century as people of every social strata worshipped together, communed together and served together. Ancient historians described this phenomenon with surprise and dismay. What could draw people from every level of society to call each other brothers and sisters? It is one of the great qualities of kingdom people.

Imagine a community where anyone can be known, loved and accepted regardless of their background, regardless of their salary package, regardless of their career, but simply because they have devoted themselves to a God who loves with a radical love? That is the church!

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