A Lesson in Hope: My Trip to Belfast

May 22, 2024

Robin in Ireland
Spring graduation went well, and I was looking forward to spending a few days in May with Juniors Abroad students in Ireland. Professors Gary Tandy and Jason Lepojarvi planned an engaging trip and asked me to join the group in Belfast where I had been numerous times.

The group was going to see a number of C. S. Lewis sites in Belfast, experience the Giant's Causeway, and attend several worship services in the community. Spending time with our students on Juniors Abroad is one of the most enjoyable times I have had at George Fox, and I hoped that I could be of some help on their trip.

Travel during the past year has often been challenging – flights delayed, canceled and often overbooked. As a result, I approach the travel experience with some trepidation almost expecting something to go wrong. I know it’s not the best approach, but in my mind, a cautious approach results in real joy when the trip goes well, and if it does not it is just what I expected!

I arrived in Chicago on time and waited in the terminal for my evening flight to Dublin. The plane arrived on time, and I got to the gate early to get ready to board. It took a little longer than usual to board the plane, but the pilot assured us that we would arrive on time in Dublin – a little before noon the next day. I got settled in my seat, and just before we were ready to leave the pilot came across the speaker system and noted that we had a potential leak in one of the aircraft doors. We certainly understood the need to resolve this issue, so we waited. After some time had passed, the pilot let us know that the problem could not be resolved and we were asked to deplane.

Once we left the plane and gathered in the terminal a curious thing happened – the United Airlines staff simply disappeared after they told us to wait near the gate, giving us little information. I looked around the terminal and it became obvious that few flights leave in terminal C after 10 pm. Stores and restaurants were closed – it was very quiet.

There was little to do while waiting in the terminal with other passengers. I was standing near a family that was going to Ireland on vacation. They were talking about their schedule for the next day. They had a bus coming to get them from the airport, and then they were headed to southern Ireland – the ring of Kerry and Cork. I learned that their trip had been delayed for a few years and they were looking forward to spending time in Ireland as a family.

I struck up a conversation with the mother and her son. I learned quickly that she took quite a different approach to travel from my own. Rather than considering all that could happen negatively, she chose to approach the situation with hope and optimism.

So here we were, standing in an increasingly silent terminal, no United staff, and no plane. In preparation for the worst-case scenario, a canceled flight, I placed a phone call to United to see what my options were. It was not good news. Most of the flights the next day were sold out, and what they did have available were just a few middle seats in economy and a couple in premium economy. Unless I wanted to cancel my present flight and take one of those options, I needed to hold with the current plan, so I held out hope and waited. My newfound friend was ever so hopeful. She kept telling me, “Don’t worry, I can feel it, we are going to get out tonight!” I looked at her with a wry smile not really believing her but hopeful that she might be right. We kept waiting – 11 p.m. passed and still no news.

As an administrator, I know how staff feel when they may have to convey difficult news. You know the people you are serving will be angry or frustrated, and you just want to go away and hide – hoping that a miracle will happen to change the circumstances. You hold what you know inside and wait. In reality, your choice not to pass on the information simply makes matters worse. We all were really hoping for any bit of news.

I eventually noticed that the mother I was talking to was gone. A few minutes later, she came down the terminal with a big smile on her face. She came up to me and said, “I found the pilots! They found us a new plane! I told you this was going to work out!” OK, now I thought, the Lord is teaching me a lesson here. I am the Christian in this conversation and I am entirely pessimistic in my approach to the day. Here is this lady, on an important family vacation that is about to be disrupted, and she never lost hope. Several verses come to mind to remind me that God has this in his hands and I should just flow with it as this mother has done.

Just as she predicted, the pilots boarded the new plane, and at 12:45 a.m. we began our boarding process. We were going to be very late, but we were going to get there. The family was going to make their rescheduled bus and be at their hotel near Cork by late evening – it was going to work out. We got comfortably in our seats and at about 1:10 a.m. the pilot came over the speaker and announced, “We have a door problem.” By the time they fixed it, the crew had timed out, meaning they would exceed their max crew duty if they were to complete the flight. The pilot reluctantly let us know that the flight was canceled.

With the seats on tomorrow’s flight gone, we waited to see if they would deliver our bags to baggage claim. United had one agent and the line of 160 passengers now stretched down the terminal. I called customer service and the options looked grim. I headed for baggage claim with a sense of “I was right!” it turned out just as I had thought. I stayed on the phone and eventually convinced the agent to fly me to London the next day, and then from there, I worked out an option to get to Belfast.

By the time I got my bag, it was 3 a.m. I saw the mother I had been talking to and wanted to tell her, “See, I was right,” but it just did not feel good to be right in this case. The funny thing is that she was still hopeful. She saw me and immediately said, “Did you get your new flight? I am sure it will work out!” I just smiled and said, “Yes, I am sure it will.” I wished her well and headed off to find a hotel.

At that time in the morning, the Hilton at O’Hare was full. People were sleeping in the lobby – in chairs and on the floor. I finally found a Fairfield Suites with a room and got a cab to take me there. The cab driver charged me $40 for a mile and a half, but I made it in the hotel at 4 a.m. I walked up to the front desk with some sense of satisfaction that I had a room and asked to check in. The agent looked at me and said, “I am sorry sir. We reboot our system every morning at 4 a.m. because no one is checking in at this time. Since all our systems are electronic, I can’t get you a key until 4:30 a.m.” So I found my way over to the couch and waited. The agent woke me up at 4:30, and I found my way to the room by 4:45. At least I could be encouraged that it was only 2:45 a.m. West Coast time. I crashed for a few hours before getting ready to go to the airport and try it all over again.

One of the verses I memorized as a child was 1 Thessalonians 5:18 – “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Well, I have to admit that I did not feel thankful on that early May morning in Chicago. My attitude, though, did not help my circumstances. In the end, I did learn that the lady I met was right – it worked out. I caught the flight to London and then found a flight to Belfast. I was a day late, but I got the work done I needed to in preparation for the students and met five of them for dinner in Dublin that evening. I was extremely tired – my Garmin watch told me I was in critical need of sleep! My student interactions on the trip exceeded my expectations, and I was able to visit the stone mason who is hand-carving the Irish high cross for our George Fox chapel. All in all, it was a great trip!

Looking back, I was not angry or terrible to others at the airport in Chicago. At the same time, I was not a great witness to those around me either. I am an ambassador for Christ and need to live into Paul’s words, “In everything give thanks . . ." The situation was challenging, but the hope of the mother I met was contagious. When you saw her, all you could do was smile. This experience helped me see that having hope is better than being right.