I looked up and saw a weary, tear-stained face in the crowd. Startled, I felt as if I was seeing my own reflection. Here in a Beijing airport lounge was a woman who was obviously as exhausted and bewildered as I. We were shepherded onto a bus, which would take us to a hotel for an overnight stay we had not planned. As we rode, I struck up a conversation with her.
Our stories were mirror images. Kimberly was stranded for reasons she didn’t understand, on her way to a Chinese city where her sons had been studying for the past two years. My husband and I were trying to get home after visiting our daughter, who was living and studying in that same city. Both parties had relied on our language-proficient children as our travel guides, but we certainly had not planned on canceled flights leaving us in a strange city where we could not communicate.
At some point, most of us experience surprising situations that do not show up on the itineraries we plan for our lives. As we try to figure out the way forward, we frequently encounter another soul facing the same unwelcome detour. So what do we do?
That night, my husband and I decided to set aside worry and fear, and to respond to the needs of this solo traveler. The situation was out of our hands, requiring us to trust in our stateside travel agent, the airlines, and above all, our heavenly Father. Nick and I at least had one another, but this woman was alone in a strange land.
We invited Kimberly to spend the evening with us. With the help of hotel staff and translating apps on smart phones, we secured a driver for the night. Only two hours earlier she had sent her sons a tearful message about her plight. Now she texted,“I made some friends and we’re going to tour the city!”
So began a magical evening. As we rode, we shared life stories far deeper than normal small talk with a stranger. Though our home states, our work, and our interests were different, we were bonded by our children’s common residence on this foreign continent. The driver delivered us to a restaurant serving Peking duck, then to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and other cultural highlights. We laughed, talked, took pictures, and marveled at the sights.
It is a great gift to walk through milestones and life seasons with people we know, but once in a while, circumstances throw strangers together. Even a brief encounter may be what God uses to sustain a desperate heart at a vulnerable time. My seemingly chance meeting in an airport presented an opportunity to follow the example and teachings of Jesus.
On the very evening that He would later be arrested and interrogated, Jesus cared for His disciples and put their needs first. He washed their feet, taught them, prayed for them, and left them with these words, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:9, 12 NIV)
As His followers, Jesus also asks us to love the people we interact with. Lonely fellow travelers cross our path not only in airports but also in doctors’ waiting rooms, the checkout line at the grocery store, and the adjoining office cubicle. When we choose to love them, we walk in our Savior’s footsteps. And like my unanticipated connection with a traveler in Beijing, reaching out can be the gateway to surprising joy.