“Excuse me!” cried a desperate voice from behind.
Paul, lead chaplain for Heathrow’s Terminal 2, and I both turned to see a family – mother, father, adolescent son – hurrying toward us across the concourse, dragging an assortment of hand luggage with them, the woman waving a piece of paper in the air.
“We checked the Flight Transfers screen,” she continued, breathing hard, “but we can’t find our flight. Can you help us know where to go?”
Paul took the paper from her, a flight itinerary, and started to scan for the necessary details. I on the other hand, my curiosity piqued by a familiar accent, started a different line of inquiry: “Where’s home?” I asked, already sure of the answer.
“De Nederlands,” said the father, characteristically avoiding the digraph that would have rendered English.
“Nederlanders! Dacht ik al,” I said, much to their evident surprise and delight. Continuing in Dutch we exchanged short, relevant histories: they, traveling back from holiday in British Columbia and transferring at Heathrow; me, former long-time resident of the Netherlands, chaplain at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and now doing the same kind of work in London.
“Well,” said Paul, pausing for effect. Paul used to work for American Express and has an endearingly direct way of dealing with people; no fluffing about, just the necessary facts. He had ignored our conversation as he studied the document and was now ready to tell us what he knew. “As I see it, the basic problem is this: you’re at the wrong airport. Your onward flight is from Gatwick, in about three hours time. You’re not likely to make it.”
The family were incredulous. Wrong airport? How could this possibly be? How long did a normal transfer between London’s western and southern airports take? Why would a ticketing website do such a thing? How could they get to Gatwick? Did they have to pick up their checked luggage first…?
“Never mind,” I said, “all we can do is our best and hope it will work out. Paul’s got a dodgy knee so we’ll leave him behind. If you follow me, I’ll take you through immigration, baggage reclaim, customs and the trip to the bus station. No guarantees that you’ll make it, but let’s go!”
And so began a hurried but calm guided tour through the intricacies of travel transfers, the most hated aspect of international journeys. An hour later I waved the family off at the Central Bus Station, nurturing a small but reasonable hope they would make their flight, and sure that this would not have been the case if they had faced the task alone. As I walked back to my office I realized we had never even exchanged names; there was no way for me – or them – to follow up on our joint endeavour.
I am so pleased that my day-to-day responsibilities afford me the opportunity to offer hands on help to those in need. Yes, most of my time is taken up with duties involving paper and ideas and planning. But if I keep my eyes open I can always find a way to be practically engaged with airport personnel or passengers.
Perhaps my experience reflects a wider felt need? I notice from my forays into social media that we are all fairly accomplished at holding strong opinions on a wide variety of issues. We passionately share our opinions, ideas, articles, and videos on every conceivable subject, not the least bit encumbered by the supposed taboos of religion and politics.
But isn’t there something in us that longs to be engaged in actual acts of compassion, that hungers to make a real difference in the lives of others? Even just a small thing? How often do we put down our laptops, i-pods and smartphones, leave our opinions behind and find someone we can serve, in whose life we can make a real, tangible difference?
It is so easy to complain about how the world should be a better place. And it should be. So what are we doing to make it so?