The Incidental Evangelist
A tattooed stranger shares his most personal loss with me on an airplane flight.
, communication director, South Pacific Division
Going home?” I ask as I sit down next to an old man on a flight to Sydney, Australia.
“Yeah,” he answers, not looking at me.
“Been overseas long?” I continue in as chirpy a tone as I can muster on the back of a monosyllabic answer.
“No,” he replies, again not making eye contact.
“Where’s home?” I ask, thinking everyone likes to talk about their hometown.
“Nowra,” he replies, managing to slur two syllables into one.
“Oh, the South Coast — it’s a beautiful place,” I continue, though at this point I start feeling ridiculous for holding a one-way conversation. In a last-ditch effort I add: “One of my favorite towns is Eden.”
“Eden? That’s [expletive] half-way to Melbourne!” he shoots back as if I’d just asked him to run the distance.
“OK then,” I think to myself. Clearly this guy isn’t interested in chatting. I look at him one more time as he stares out of the window. Short-cropped white hair. Sun-stained skin. Stocky physique. On his left forearm in big tattooed letters: “Susan.” On his right forearm at an equal height: “Rachel.” I smile. Obviously a man caught between two opinions. Maybe with two women on his mind he can’t concentrate on small talk!
I turn my gaze to the little screen in front of me as the plane takes off. Later I pull out my Economist magazine and try to find something I haven’t already read. Then I turn back to the screen. As I half watch, I think of a conversation I once had with Avondale College president Ray Roennfeldt as we sat on the deck of a boat. Ray told me a series of stories. Each involving an incidental conversation with a stranger. And each ending with Ray sensitively introducing the love of Christ to his incidental contact.
I glance over at my stoic seatmate. Not reading anything. Not watching anything. Just sitting with an Easter Island statue-expression on his face.
Nope, I conclude, I’ve tried cracking this hard nut. There’s no Roennfeldt heartwarming ending here.
And that’s when I hear a voice: “Take off the headphones and talk.”
“Give me a break,” I think to myself, “I’ve tried that!”
“Take off your headphones. … Take them off now …”
The voice is too loud to ignore. Is this the Holy Spirit? I don’t have to wonder. I’ve heard this voice before. I know Who it is. I say a silent prayer. And begrudgingly take off my earphones and wait.
My seatmate looks over and, as if on cue, begins: “My wife died two years ago. She was only 48. That’s too young to die.”
This is a man who could barely muster more than a grunt when I tried talking to him at the beginning of the flight. Now he’s bringing up his most personal loss!
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I reply. What else do you say when a stranger throws something so painful and so intimate at you with no forewarning?
“It was cancer,” he continues. “It was so cruel. She really suffered; I could barely stand to be there for her. Just to see her in so much pain. I begged the nurse to give her something to stop the agony. The nurse said the only painkiller stronger than the morphine was heroin. And I would have got her some if I knew where to get it, her suffering was so bad.”
I make a muffled comment about the importance of palliative care.
He doesn’t acknowledge my remark but continues: “My wife was a Christian. She used to make me go to church with her. But what kind of God lets a beautiful woman like her suffer like that? I tell you, it was worse than awful. I can’t even describe it …”
Before I can respond he stretches out his arms and says, “Look at my arms. After she died, I had her first name tattooed on my left and her second name on my right. And see this?” He points to another tattoo that at first looks like a big green smudge. “That’s a portrait of her. It’s not good. But it’s close enough to keep her memory alive.
“A friend told me Susan died because God needed her more than I did. What [expletive]! What kind of God is that? What does He need with her? I need her!”
He stops talking and the silence is heavy between us.
“People say stupid things when they don’t know what to say,” I reply, reflecting on all the stupid things church people said to my wife, Leisa, and me when our firstborn was gravely ill in hospital. I still remember being told we were lucky because we were getting “free childcare.” Our baby was struggling for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit and someone thinks we’re lucky? We had to move churches after that. I just couldn’t face going back.
“We want simple answers in a complex world,” I say, reflecting further on his question. “The God I know doesn’t ‘take people’ like that. But He also doesn’t always give us the clear answers we want.”
“Then what’s the point of it all? She suffered, really suffered! My beautiful girl …”
“We live in a world that has gone wrong. Terrible things happen. No one can explain exactly why. What I do know is that God’s own Son came and He wasn’t spared. He was hunted down and tortured to death. Did God want that? For His own Son? Of course not! Did He want your wife to suffer and die? No way. Sin has broken our world so badly that the most beautiful things are the first to be destroyed. Our only hope is a world where all this evil is ended. Your wife believed. She’ll be in that new world without evil and without pain.”
“Yeah, she’ll be up there but not me. I’m going straight down,” the man pointed violently toward the aircraft floor.
“You don’t have to,” I respond. “We all have tragedy in our lives. A few years ago my dad was killed in a car accident. Just like that. But he believed. And I have faith he’ll be in heaven. And I believe. And I have faith I will be there too. You can be there with your wife, healed and never to suffer again. That’s the promise.”
He looks straight at me as if the wheels are turning in his head.
The plane lands. We disembark. Wish each other well. And our incidental contact ends. Maybe forever. He never asks my name. Where I live. Or who I am. But Someone knows who I am and who this grieving man from Nowra is. And the Spirit hasn’t stopped working on his heart. And mine.
I’ll think of this man from Nowra and his beautiful tattoos next time I drive south.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record, where this testimony appeared.