By Shane McNary, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel
Only once have I flown on the door-side of the curtain, so I really do not have much experience for comparison. But I like the intimacy of economy class. As a “non-diminutive,” I am always aware that when my seatmate sees me coming, the darting of the eyes and deep breath is a prayer of supplication: “Dear God, don’t let that big guy sit here!”
As I approached my seat on my latest flight, I too said a prayer. “Lord, have mercy! How is it that airlines put the two biggest guys on the plane next to each other?” “Good day,” I said as I fit myself into my space.” No response. He was busy working. Factory stuff, production, numbers, secrets. I didn’t see the earbuds he was wearing as he chatted with a coworker. He switched from English to what I suspect was Hindi as I sat down. A rebellious soul, he ignored the announcements to turn off all cell phones as we taxied towards the runway. As we gained elevation his conversation ended and he looked my way. “Hello.”
The banal conversation covered the basics: “Going for work? How long will you be in Poland? Where are you from? So why Slovakia? What exactly do you do?” That is when the space between us began to grow. I rarely confess to strangers that I am a “missionary.” When some— even from my same tribe—express anti-missionary sentiment, I prefer to describe my work in accurate but broader terms to avoid the baggage of the past 240-ish years of the modern missionary movement. “My work is in the area of human rights and community development.”
“Oh, what do you do with human rights?” he asked. I mention the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the UK, Ukraine, freedom of religion or belief. That last one got his attention. I had noticed the red, beaded bracelets he wore. I wondered, as a Hindu minority living in the UK, what his take on the right to freely practice one’s religion would mean for him.
I didn’t have to ask him. “I do not think that religious people should be out preaching on the streets, or playing their calls to prayer over loudspeakers that everyone must listen to, or have large speakers blasting their sermons at everyone who walks by. Religion should be something that is practiced in secret, in your home.” I did not see that coming!
As we flew over Germany on our way to Krakow, my Hindu seatmate who had lived in the UK for almost 10 years, professed how he lights candles, prays at the shrine he has in his home, and observes his faith passionately. “But I do not wear the bindi (that red dot on the forehead) because that is not something I think is important to display in public. I practice my faith, but privately. Why should people wear the turban or other head covering? It is not essential to faith.” I note his bracelets and the freedom he has to have and show this religious/cultural symbol.
The conversation continued towards how profoundly important personal faith is and how the private practice of religion is formative for a person. I suggested that the way we practice our respective faiths is more similar than different; still, the public expression of faith is also a core component of religious belief. He spoke fondly of going with others to religious festivals and how meaningful it was for his own faith formation. With the conviction that practicing his faith in community was indeed an essential expression of his religion, he shifted in the micro-space that is economy seating.
As we began our descent, our conversation naturally came to an end. “Well, this was an interesting chat,” was his final word. Yes, it was.
I have replayed this encounter in my mind several times in the past few days. Trying to familiarize myself a little more with the faith of my economy class co-sojourner, I came across the Grama Geeta, a Hindu prayer from India to which I can only add, “Amen!”:
May he bestow prudence on all of us!
May he inspire us towards the righteous cause!
May he guide us to speak the truth!
May he make us conscious about spirituality!
Shane and wife, Dianne, are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving in Slovaki and Czechia. Learn more about their ministry by visiting cbf.net/mcnary.
The Offering for Global Missions provides for the long-term presence of field personnel like Brooke and Mike. The theme for this year’s Offering is “A Place at the Table for Everyone.” In Luke 14, Jesus teaches us to invite those least expecting and, in society’s view, perhaps least deserving of invitation. CBF field personnel serving in countries around the world invite and are invited to the table as they cultivate beloved community, bear witness to Jesus Christ, and seek transformational development.
Learn more about the Offering for Global Missions and access free digital and print resources at www.cbf.net/ogm.