It began as a normal plane ride. We’d been airborne twenty minutes, and my thoughts were already shifting to domestic tasks, things happily forgotten for three days during a busy academic conference: an electrical problem with an upstairs hall light, a daughter’s dental appointment.
Our flight departed Boston at day’s end, so the cabin grew dark early in the trip. At some point, I noticed that the space had become brighter. I soon realized that a flight attendant was systematically turning on every reading light, or asking window-seat passengers to activate ones he could not reach.
Not only was this unusual, but his demeanor seemed odd. Earlier he had recited the pre-flight announcements as we taxied to the runway, and he took every occasion to make little jokes, and was generally upbeat. That can be annoying, of course, but he struck the right note. I liked how he did his job, his mix of positivity and efficiency. But now he worked quietly, and with a solemnity that bordered on ceremonial.
At first, his unusual behavior made me nervous. As fliers, we count on all aspects of in-air experiences to be customary, and for all involved to act predictably. I must admit, I felt myself growing worried about this break with routine. Why was he doing this?
Then he took the microphone and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but I have something really important to say. Please give me your attention.” Despite sitting halfway toward the back of the plane, I could see him clearly, lit up by the rows of glowing lights.
I sat up to listen.
At that moment, a young man stood. He stepped into the aisle and invited a woman to join him. They looked like college classmates. She appeared startled, yet trusting, and then the young man turned to her and dropped to his knee. They were about six rows ahead of me. He asked if she would marry him.
With excitement, the attendant proclaimed, “She said yes, everybody!” The entire cabin erupted in applause. I clapped too, and felt strangely moved.
I later learned that attendants sometimes ask passengers to turn on lights for other festive occasions—Grandpa’s 100th birthday, let’s say—and then have everyone switch them off at once to simulate “blowing out the candles.” I’m glad that didn’t happen here, for it may have clashed with what made the moment so touching—its awkward tenderness.
I was relieved that the strange circumstances involved no danger. I also felt privileged to have witnessed the man proposing and the woman accepting; saying, "Yes, let’s journey together."
As passengers slowly turned off their overhead lights, one by one, I began to understand the flight attendant’s actions as a profound example of hospitality, occurring when I least expected it. I couldn’t know it at that moment, but he was going about his work with deep regard for another person’s circumstances. In turn, the atmosphere for the proposal had been surprisingly warm and intimate, like a backyard party with friends and laughter and tiki torches all around.
Despite the impersonality and typical unpleasantness of stressed, cramped space, the attendant had helped a nervous young man feel “at home” in the unlikeliest of places—an airplane cabin at 35,000 feet. And I was able, on a random flight from Boston, to witness a tender, good-willed action.
Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater and the award-winning Fall Run Road. He also writes essays regularly, some of which have appeared or are forthcoming in Books & Culture, Curator, and Saint Katherine Review. He is an associate professor at Wheaton College, where he teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature.
Romans 12:13 encourages us to practice hospitality. In the Message version, that verse reads: "be inventive in hospitality." Translated, the word hospitality means showing love to strangers. It's more than opening up our homes to the people we know well. Outrageous hospitality extends even to people who aren't at all like us, and who wouldn't usually show up on our radar screens.
Read and share the stories and articles in this series, Outrageous Hospitality. We hope they'll help you develop a working definition of what it means to practice hospitality in your community, your family, your workplace, and your church. In what ways might you be inventive when it comes to hospitality—reaching beyond your usual sphere of influence?
Featured image by Nathan Congleton. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.