The Man in Seat 22A

I’ve been in some pretty demanding full time ministry settings for most of my adult life, so I guard my time off with careful intentionality.  But sometimes I fool myself into believing that rest means I’m entitled to be off duty from the universal calling to Christian obedience.  A recent encounter at 30,000 feet reminded me that the Holy Spirit never goes on vacation and that this life of service presents opportunities no matter where I am. 

I somehow had forgotten to log in and claim my boarding location for my Southwest flight. Grumpy about this oversight at the beginning of our vacation, I grumbled about our placement at the miserable end of boarding group B. I knew this meant my husband Jeff and I might not find seats together and probably would end up at the back of the plane, a location I dislike intensely.  Sure enough, as we boarded, I could see that only the dreaded middle seats remained open.  As we moved slowly toward the back of the plane, a passenger sitting on an aisle got up and took a different seat, opening up two seats in Row 22 next to a man who occupied the window seat. Jeff graciously slid in to take the middle seat.  I settled into the aisle seat for what I thought would be an annoying 2.5 hours of getting jostled by passengers shuffling back and forth to the nearby restrooms.

The young man in 22A seemed both friendly and excited. Early in the flight, he politely asked if we would be willing to text his girlfriend when we landed, since he didn’t have a cell phone. His large frame barely fit in the seat. Covered with some pretty impressive tattoo art, he looked eagerly out the window at the landscape far below with all the attentiveness of an inquisitive child. Every 20 minutes or so, he would ask the time.

When Jeff joined the shuffle to the restrooms, I turned to my row-mate and asked if he was traveling on business. “No,” he smiled broadly, “I’m going home!” He paused for several seconds, as if deciding to say more. Then he added, “I just got released from prison this morning. You are the first person I’m talking to on the outside.”  

The power of his simple statement nearly overwhelmed me.  Feeling immediate conviction, I silently repented of my petty fussing over seat status.  I wondered what one says to someone who is just getting out of prison.  I ventured, “Well, congratulations!  Good for you.” Anthony led the conversation from there. He explained that he had spent the last year turning his life around. His girlfriend had not been able to come see him in prison, but she was waiting for him. She had relocated to a new state to be near her mother and so that, when he got out, they could make a fresh start. Then, he offered this, “I became a follower of Christ in prison, and I’m grateful for a new chance at life.”

Now acutely and humbly aware that my seat in Row 22 was the farthest possible thing from mere coincidence, my perspective on my seating woes collapsed into one highly focused thought, “Help me Holy Spirit!”  Here was a brand new Christ follower, a convicted felon, who just happened to be seated next to an ordained Christian minister and her husband on his first day of life on the outside.  Can someone say divine appointment?  For both of us?  We talked about what Anthony had learned in prison, how he hoped for a chance to live differently, and his concerns that no one would hire him because he was a convicted felon. Jeff entered the conversation as well; it was easy, sweet, and powerful.

InterVarsity’s doctrinal basis reminds me that we believe in, “The indwelling presence and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all believers a new life and a new calling to obedient service.”  Row 22 felt infused with the Spirit’s presence.  Obedient service came easily in that moment.  “Anthony,” I said, “God placed you with a Christian family on this flight. He didn’t have to do that, but I believe he placed us all together on purpose.  May we pray with you?” So right then and there, we prayed heartfelt prayers with our new friend and brother in Christ.

As the plane landed, Anthony sheepishly mentioned that he had not been on an airplane in more than 15 years.  He asked us to help him find baggage claim, where his girlfriend would be waiting.  We walked together through the bright bustling airport, chatting somewhat awkwardly — us toting our matching rolling suitcases and Anthony carrying a slender mesh net bag filled with small brown-paper-wrapped parcels. All his worldly goods.

He was nervous. Really nervous. As we neared the exit from the secure area, he suddenly said, “Oh! There she is!” He paused and turned toward us, although I’m sure his heart was racing ahead. He gave us both a big bear hug, shook our hands, and said, “Thank you so much. I will never forget God’s kindness and the significance of our meeting.” Yes, Anthony, I thought, yes. You and me both. Then, with tears, we uttered our “God bless you” and stood aside as Anthony ran toward his future. I continued, heart awakened to the joy of obedient service, and grateful for the presence of the Holy Spirit who guides all our steps — even, sometimes, our grumpy ones.

Barbara Ettinger

Theological Formation Resources Manager

Barbara Ettinger serves nationally as Theological Formation Resources Manager, where she develops resources around the nexus of theology, formation, and ministry praxis. She joined InterVarsity staff in 2008 as a planting area director in Connecticut after vocational ministry as a church planting pastor. Ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Barbara is an active volunteer leader in her home church. She and her husband Jeff have two adult sons who live in Achao, Chile and Madison, WI, respectively.