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Airline evangelization: Prudence and charity are fundamental

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How prepared are you to take part in "the sermon on the plane"?

The captain has turned on the Fasten Seatbelt sign. You have stowed your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you.

After you have taken a moment to locate the emergency exit nearest you, turn to the person next to you. You have a rare and valuable opportunity: an almost unique opportunity to have a deep, meaningful conversation with a stranger.

Deacon Jim Hallman calls the phenomenon of airplane faith discussions “the sermon on the plane.”

Think about it. You and the person sitting next to you already have something in common – one or both of the cities you’re flying between. You also both have time to kill with someone you will probably never see again.

That leaves people wide open.

When I asked Facebook friends if they had ever discussed the faith on an airplane, the response was overwhelming: “Yes!” “Just yesterday!” and “Every. Single. Time.”

Catherine Suprenant, who does women’s ministry in Pennsylvania, says she loves airplanes for this reason. “People seem to have no opposition to talking religion if they’re willing to talk to someone on a plane,” she said.

It all starts when you make the conscious choice to be available.

“I used to wall myself off with headphones and short answers,” Patrick O’Meara, who heads a financial company, told me. “I was convicted that this is not how the Lord wanted me to behave. How could I be his instrument that way?”

So he started taking the earbuds out and saying hello — and an outpouring of grace followed.

Everyone has their way of making this happen. Kansan Jenny Carter said praying her rosary at the start of the flight sparks conversations. O’Meara said the Liturgy of the Hours does it for him.

Nikki Walz said her connection to Benedictine College does it. “Once you tell them where you went to school, it just naturally leads to discussions of the faith,” she said.

However they start, airplane encounters test your apologetics know-how.

One of Walz’ seatmates was a “spiritual naturalist with leanings toward Buddhism.” Another with a Baptist minister who wanted to talk about the Bible. Another was with a woman who was raised Catholic “but left because of the abuse scandal and the lack of ordination of women.”

She told every one of them about the beauty of the Catholic faith.

Another Benedictine graduate, Brad Geist, had a great conversation with an evangelical Christian who was uncomfortable with Catholic devotion to the saints. “I asked her if she would ask her friends to pray for her before she would go oversees for her ministry,” Geist told me. “She said she did.  So I asked if her friends ever refused, telling her to go straight to God. She said no.”

But apologetics alone is not enough.

My own most significant airplane conversation came when I was literally flying home from a Catholic evangelization conference. I was all ready to defend Catholic doctrines against Bible-only believers or scientific atheists. Instead, my seatmate turned out to be a homosexual man who had served as an altar boy to an alcoholic priest. That is a very different conversation.

Darryl Podunavac, a construction manager in Florida, said, “On a long flight, a woman once opened up to me about an abortion she had. It greatly troubled her conscience, and she never told anyone about it. She appreciated my listening. But it caused me to realize we have to be so very careful about our guidance and judgment of people in these situations.”

“Prudence and charity are fundamental,” he said. Absolutely. The benefits of these conversations are twofold: Your seatmate gets to hear about the faith, and you get to hear the stories of people’s real lives — people you might otherwise be tempted to judge too harshly.

Be prepared to plant seeds on airplanes rather than reap harvests.

Wise airplane evangelists know that one conversation is never enough. So they try to build in a follow up, whether that means giving the person a clear next step if they are interested in the faith — contacting a pastor, perhaps — or keeping in touch by Facebook or email.

Catholic writer Tim Drake gave his rosary to one young man — itself a form of follow-up — and then helped him find a youth groups in Birmingham, Alabama.

Sometimes the seeds you plant are not with the person you are talking to.

Robert Corzine at St. Paul’s Biblical Center in Steubenville, Ohio, described how “a long conversation with a Mormon woman” had consequences during the flight’s layover. “The Evangelical former Catholic who had been sitting in front of us listening had some questions for the Catholic former Evangelical who had apparently read his Bible,” he said.

Tom Hockel said he evangelized not the person he talked to, but the person he was traveling with.

“I was coming home from a trial in Los Angeles in 2010 with my law partner, who is a Jewish atheist,” he said. They were seated with a third person, who tuned out to be a committed Christian. “We shared how faith gives us perspective and the joy and peace the Holy Spirit brings us. My law partner listened as if we were aliens.”

Have you ever had a faith-based discussion on an airplane?

If so, share it in the comments below. If not, you have something to look forward on your next flight.

So does the person God places next to you.

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