Airport Sermon

By Don Rollins

As if winter in the upper Heartland weren’t bad enough, the Red River is swelling and the snow is still falling. The last thing those hardy river valley Minnesotans and North Dakotans need is an inland sea, and the last thing the rest of us up here need is Christmas in April. But there you have it.

Spring (a.k.a. Mud Season) comes late in these parts, so rather than sit around in muck mucks and mufflers, suffering the mental torment of D.C. cherry blossoms on CNN, folks are jumping on southbound airplanes like their long johns were on fire: Florida, Arizona, the Tropics and Mexico (uh, pack a heater and a few extra rounds for that last one). Who cares where you’re going so long as there’s sufficient booze and breeze to thaw the marrow. (The kicker is listening to the less worldly brag about upcoming trips to the more exotic, difficult-to-pronounce locales. All they know is that they’ll have a week or two someplace where hockey is a complete unknown. Good ’nuff.)

I’ve been flying quite a bit of late, too. Three trips out West since Christmas. Me, I like arriving early for a flight; I’m a people-watcher. International airports are a slice of real, not hypothetical diversity. There’s a Sikh with a magnificent turban. Check out the cat in red alligator boots, bola and Stetson. And trust me when I tell you that nothing turns blonde Scandinavian heads like the sight of a six-foot-tall young woman sporting a purple Mohawk, tats, lip rings and spiked choker.

But sometimes airport people-watching turns serious. A traveler, in an unguarded moment, whispers to a rank stranger a deep and secret pain. The couple at the bar is quarrelling over something. Somebody’s flying to her father’s funeral. Somebody’s lover left her. Somebody’s job was eliminated while on vacation.

I’ve seen people crying in airports. I’ve watched skycaps ferry aging, broken bodies to gates. I’ve seen parents, overwhelmed with the logistics and variables of travel, verge on hysteria. Sure, there’s the TSA supervisor who actually smiles; the gate rep with a refreshing bit of attitude; and the flight attendant who works the cabin like Henny Youngman at the Copacabana. But it’s the human struggle splayed large against the canvas of airport culture that interests me.

Back on the ground last week, I ran into my one of my downstairs neighbors. He’s a Muslim and Somali national. I’m a skeptical preacher and transplanted hillbilly. As you might surmise, nuances can get lost in translation, so we usually keep to idle chat and a brief check-in: More snow on the way? Do his children’s noises still bother me? Is my music still too loud? Think neighbor stuff with an international twist.

I like this man, and I think he likes me. But when he learned that I’d been flying and had a thing for airports, he grew a little taciturn—an odd response to such an innocuous comment. Come to find out, he works there. He’s in IT with one of the big carriers. For him, the airport isn’t about existential voyeurism; beyond a place to work, it’s also a symbol. It’s the stark, chronic reminder of a day when he and his family can return to a safe and stable Somalia. To relatives that have never seen his youngest son. To work that befits his training as a researcher. To the life that he and his wife thought would be theirs.

What could I do but listen and offer my own silent prayer for the hastening of that day, hard as it is for anyone familiar with Somalia to imagine? In that moment, I gave not a damn about financial meltdowns, distant wars or an ex-senator skipping jail. There was just this good man with a heavy heart.

There’s a sermon in there somewhere, folks—something about privilege, I suppose. Privilege affords me the luxury of gawking as the great unwashed mingle with the swells, the natives with the foreigners and the suits with the college crowd. Privilege affords me the luxury of just sitting there, idly watching the wonderful, awful airport parade of faces. But no longer can my people-watching be so distant and disaffected, for my neighbor’s narrative, with its unvarnished, universal longing to go home, has me wondering just how many other souls are living the same story. How many refugees live in exile across this world? How many families live in limbo? How many lives are on hold?

Airports are funny places, friends. And sermons abound.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2009

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