A year ago this week I was traveling to South Africa by myself to visit some dear friends and learn about their project overseas. This was my first overseas trip in a decade and I was going it alone. My family and I were somewhat apprehensive as the departing day grew closer. I had been briefed concerning what to say, who not to talk to, etc.
Departure at the airport was bittersweet as my brother dropped me off. I had this moment where I stood still, surveyed the horizon, and determined to dive into the adventure. I was quite proud of my adventurous spirit. The boarding process was smooth as I found my seat and settled in for the first 12-hour flight.
About halfway through the flight I rose from my seat and headed to the restroom. As I walked the isle, I noticed an older gentleman of foreign nationality watching me a little too closely. As I returned to my seat, he stood in the isle blocking my way, and clearly intended to talk. Through his thick accent he asked my name, where I was from, where I was going, and why. Red alarms went off inside my head. Such questions were ones I had been prompted to avoid. I certainly was not providing my destination point and my reasons for travel. I feigned unable to understand his questions, and quickly found the comfort of my seat.
Unfortunately on such a long flight, restroom trips become more frequent as the trip continued. During several other passes to the restroom, the same gentleman attempted conversation. By his last attempt, I was sure he thought me to be quite rude as I was not at all willing to continue any conversation at length. The cold shoulder…I was giving it my best shot.
With great excitement, we arrived in Dubai and waited to exit the plane. As we departed the plane and into the airport, we first had a security checkpoint. A hundred or more passengers went through security check in front of me with no delays. Due to seat placement, I was in one of the last sections of passengers to go through security. I watched the passengers pass security checks without problems, and I assured myself I would pass through without delay.
As my backpack went through the security belt, I was horrified to see and hear red lights and alarms. I cannot quite describe the immediate panic. I had tediously followed the rules precisely because I did not want to be searched in a foreign country while traveling alone! I had memorized my flight itinerary, and subsequently knew I had only 45 minutes before boarding ended for my next flight. The security attendant grabbed my backpack and walked to a corner private room with dark windows. Another security guard asked me to sit down on a bench underneath those large looming windows facing the tarmac, and wait. Wait to see if I would pass security.
As the minutes ticked by, I watched my backpack sit isolated on a table in the darkroom, with no one touching it. I myself sat on the designated bench frozen in fear as I watched the remaining 50 or so passengers pass through security and leave the area for their terminal. After what felt like hours (25 minutes), two attendants entered the dark room and began removing every item from my backpack, piece by piece. They examined each article, swiped each with a wet cloth, and ultimately emptied my belongings onto the table. When nothing was left to remove, the security guards began packing my items back into my bag, zipped it up, and headed my direction. By this time, no passengers remained in the entire security area. I was completely alone.
Without any drama, an attendant handed my backpack over and nonchalantly said thank you as dismissal. I chose not to ask why my backpack had been flagged, but kindly thanked them and made a bee-line for the exit. As I turned the corner for the escalators, two men had evidently been sitting on a bench hidden from site by a partition. As we saw one another, they stood and waited for me. As I neared the men, I was shocked and scared to identify one of the men as the one whom was relentless in his conversation attempts on the plane. He immediately put both of his hands up in front of his chest, as to say no harm here.
I am sure my face was a mixture of apprehension and concern. He removed a business card from his coat and offered it to me as he began talking. He introduced himself as a pastor and his friend as a bishop in a neighboring country. They themselves had met on the plane and realized their commonality under Christ. Then he said something I will never forget. This man claimed when he saw me on the plane, the Spirit spoke to him and said to watch over me. He chuckled as he commented on my coldness on the plane, assuring me I had no need to fear because God told him I was a fellow believer. He beamed. To provide even further assurances, he noted my elusiveness was understandable. The other gentleman finally spoke in broken English, and asked me if I was ok. When neither man saw me come through the checkpoint, they both decided to wait and if necessary, claimed they would have inquired of my whereabouts.
I was stunned, humbled, and overwhelmed by God’s presence in that moment. As a believer for almost thirty years, I know God is always with me. But to have it fleshed out in such an obvious tangible way was almost too much to soak up and fathom. I finally confessed I was a believer and divulged where I was headed. For one of the first times in my life, I wondered if I had just experienced the presence of angels unaware (Hebrews 13:4). Since both men were headed to a different part of Africa, we were not on the same connecting flight. I humbly thanked them for their watch care and headed for my terminal.
Thankfully I made my connecting flight and the rest of the week in South Africa was a trip never to forget. The circumstances surrounding that trip and the difficulties I went through personally to commit to go were considered trivial after that experience with the two men in that airport. God’s presence is always with us and I am grateful for the times He chooses to show us in ways we can never forget. Lord I believe, help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).
A picture I sent my family in Dubai as proof I was making it! I chose not to share the ordeal until safely in Johannesburg.
We studied Islam after the trip and so I brought them a special souvenir to fit the occasion.
Johannesburg, South Africa.