On my flight btween Charlotte and Houston, I sat next to a Southern Baptist minister. He was on his way to Houston for a Southern Baptist Convention.
He was a friendly fellow. As he struggled down the narrow aisle of the airplane, carrying a bulging backpack, I watched his eyes scan the seat numbers. When he realized that he was going to be sitting next to me, he smiled broadly as I stood up to let him pass unencumbered to the middle seat. I was sitting in the aisle seat. A young man already occupied the seat next to the window.
Murmuring 'excuse me' the minister settled into his seat. Of course, I did not yet know that he was a minister.
It didn't take very long for him to divulge that information, however. I learned it shortly after I pulled out my book: Advice on Dying by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
With a sidewise glance, my seat mate said, "That looks like an interesting book."
"It is," I said.
"I've got an interesting book too, he said, reaching into his backpack and lifting a red leather volume with gold edged pages. "It's called the Bible."
"Oh, I like that one too," I said. "I've got it on my iPad. I especially love the King James version for the beauty of the language."
"That's the one I prefer too," he said, "because it's familiar. It's the version I heard and memorized verses from as a child."
A few seconds of silence elapsed, as my eyes went back to my book. Then, suddenly, a question: "Are you a Buddhist or into Eastern religions?"
"No, I'm a Catholic," I said. I didn't bother to tell him I'm a lapsed Catholic. "But I'm open to anyone who is living in the Light," I said, "and I believe the Dalai Lama is living in the light."
Then came the revelation. "I'm a Southern Baptist minister in ________" He named a town in a southern state. "I'm on my way to Houston for the Southern Baptist Convention."
Then, the floodgates opened. He talked pretty much non stop for two hours (the young man in the window seat was either asleep or pretending to be.)
The minister told me of a myriad of troubles in his church: gossip, feuds, power plays, who said what about whom on Facebook, members threatening to quit, quitting, then rejoining, money and addiction problems within the congregation and his struggle to mediate and hold it all together.
Then more personal information was revealed. Both he and his wife had had gastric bypass surgery for extreme obesity. His surgery was successful and he had lost a huge amount of weight. His wife, however, was not in good health and had had several surgeries since.
Then he told me about his daughter, chronologically an adult, but still like a baby in diapers, severely impaired. He called her his angel but confessed that the lack of sleep and extreme fatigue he and his wife suffered with her care was a continual physical and emotional drain.
Finally, he told me about his adult son who lived out west. After his convention, he was going to extend his trip to go visit his son. At last, I thought, this conversation is going to take a happier turn, but not so.
He told me of his son's troubled adolescence. He had finally given his son a choice: join the military or get out of the house.
The son had joined the Army and done three tours in Iraq. "Now he's got a real short fuse," he said.
"I never understood what that war was all about anyway," I said.
Then, he took off again, educating me on the dangers of Islam to all Americans. It was their religion, he assured me, to kill all non believers. "They're different," he said. "They're not like us."
I said little. I didn't tell him that I had demonstrated against the Iraq war before it started, that I had posted a sign in my front yard that said, "NO WAR ON IRAQ" and even I, a simple housewife in E. Tennessee, could look into the beady little eyes of George Bush and the cold, cruel eyes of Dick Cheney, and the face of every other chicken hawk in their criminal administration, and see that they were all lying.
I held my tongue. "What is the point of commencing a political row with a stranger on an airplane?" I thought.
And besides, it seemed to me that the poor fellow had been starved for someone to whom he could unburden himself. I felt real sympathy for him. It's the minister's job to listen, to pastor and shepherd the flock, I thought, to be the Helper.
But who listens to the minister, I wondered. And who will help the Helper?