Recently, I was invited to speak in Jos, the capital of Plateau state and the first town in Nigeria to attempt building a tourism economy. This was my second trip, having been there earlier in 2016. On that occasion, I flew from Calabar to Abuja, the nation’s capital, and was driven to Jos on a four-hour road trip. This time it would be easy – just one hour’s flight from Lagos.
Did I say easy? I had forgotten how stressful it is to travel on Arik Air, the only available carrier on this occasion, as most other destinations in Nigeria had better alternatives. At 2pm, I went to the information desk, yet again, to find out what had happened to our 11.20am flight. Finally, there was an announcement: “Arik Air flight 403 has been delayed for 40 minutes,” as if the first three hours of waiting didn’t count. Eventually, we boarded four hours late but had to wait for heavy rains to subside before we could take off.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, while the cabin crew were serving refreshments, there was a loud groaning sound as the aircraft shuddered violently for a few seconds. “What the hell was that?” I asked the off-duty flight attendant sitting to my left. Less than a minute later, it happened again; louder this time, and it was definitely originating from the engine just a few feet away from my exit row seat. Then it went silent. No need to wait for his answer – the engine had shut down.
“Cabin crew to forward galley,” urged the captain, trying to sound calm. Trolleys were quickly stowed away and the crew streamed towards the cockpit for a briefing.
“Just remain calm,” intoned the man on my left, reaching out with a reassuring hand on my knee. I had always wondered how I would react during a flight emergency. Would I panic? Now was the time to find out. I did a quick self-assessment: breathing, normal; palms, damp; mind, calm. I had read somewhere that pilots are trained to fly with one engine and can do so without any threat to safety, so I decided to keep that as my overriding thought. I stared out the window at the fluffy clouds below and noticed that we were slowly, almost imperceptibly, turning around and heading back to Lagos. “Cool, ” I thought, “I hope it’s not too bumpy on the way down through the rain clouds.”
My musings were interrupted by a babble of voices, growing louder by the minute. It was the sound of urgent prayers, ‘speaking in tongues’ and the moaning of the distressed. “Answer your name!” a woman kept shouting at no one in particular, so I assumed it was aimed at God himself. “Blood of Jesus,” was much more familiar and was one of many phrases that cut through the cacophony.
At this point, any quiet reflection or meditation was near impossible but I tried. I thought about the idea of faith and what it meant at a time when our mortality was being threatened. What did I believe? Did I trust God to bring me through this difficult situation and could I say, “Thy will be done” and actually mean it? Or should I start shouting too, hoping that He would hear me above the din?
I was interrupted again; this time by my flight attendant companion, asking to swap seats with me. He wanted to be next to the exit in case of an emergency landing. “I’ll be fine,” I assured him and calmly repeated the procedure for opening the door. He sat back while I looked out of the window, marvelling at the smoothness of the flight, the skill of the pilot, and the miracle unfolding all the way through to a perfect landing. As the wheels hit the runway, they jolted the praying masses into realising that the incident was over and the moaning was replaced by applause and a resounding “hallelujah!”. I offered a brief, silent prayer of gratitude and thanked my companion for his professionalism.
I’m still wondering about the contrasting reactions on that flight – was that fear or faith? Mine or theirs? Does it really matter? Anyway, this is how I think about faith:
Imagine a child asking a parent for a gift – maybe a Christmas present. The parent makes a promise that the wish will be granted. The child goes away happy, looking forward to Christmas morning, resolved to work hard at school and help around the house, knowing the gift will be there. Imagine another child asking its parent for a gift and the parent makes the same promise. However, this time the child keeps asking, reminding the parent about the present, time after time. One child clearly trusts the parent to deliver and the other one doesn’t. Which child are you?
Sometimes, it takes a situation of life and death to discover what you believe and who you really trust. It may be a good idea to figure it out before your faith is tested.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9-11