What I learned about love and religious tolerance on AA73

Recently I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

I was a little grumpy boarding the flight because the online check-in system had automatically assigned me a middle seat. The night before I had spent almost an hour trying to change my seat, but the universe wouldn’t let me, despite there being seats closer to the front still available.

I was dreading the fifteen hours of being stuck in the middle. For some reason when I’m in the middle, I need to constantly pee.

When I got to my seat, I met my captors, those between who I would be stuck — an older couple from Iraq.

I got lucky. They wanted to sit together, and offered me the coveted aisle seat. The wife took the other aisle seat, and the husband squeezed into the middle.

The husband then, in his broken English, began to tell me his story.

He was in his late 60’s.

He is a devout Christian.

Due to violent religious persecution, he and his family fled Iraq and immigrated to the US as refugees.

His cousin was killed for Christian beliefs. Many other friends and family also suffered acts of terror for their faith.

He told me his name was Bahnan, which means light of the sun. I told him my name was Luke, which means light giver, or one who brings light.

We laughed at the serendipity.

I told him that I am also Christian, and as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I do my best to follow Jesus Christ.

He said he couldn’t understand why people back home in Iraq were so intolerable to anything that wasn’t Islam.

He said he doesn’t know me, but that he loves me.

He wished that we could all just love each other.

I then went back to watching the movie I had begun.

Shortly before landing, Bahnan politely tapped me on the shoulder and asked for help filling out the immigration and arrival cards. He was blind in one eye and couldn’t see well with the other.

He and his wife were going to visit their children and grandchildren in Sydney. They had not seen them for over fifteen years. They were more than excited.

However, Bahnan had misplaced his son’s phone number and address, and didn’t know what to put down on the arrival card. He started to worry.

I told him not to stress. I put down my sister’s phone number and address who lives in Australia.

He let out a loud thank you, pulled me close to him, and kissed my neck in gratitude.

I felt so humbled and loved.

When we arrived to Sydney, we said our goodbyes in the plane.

My bags took forever to show up. I must have been one of the last people waiting. I was impatient. Nervous. I eagerly wanted to be out on the other side to see Bahnan and his wife greet their family.

When I finally walked out, there I saw them. Bahnan and his wife surrounded by people, crying, laughing, flowers, kisses.

I stood a little way off and just watched them.

I felt so much love for them. I was filled with gratitude for the opportunity to assist them in their journey, albeit in a very small way.

As they walked off with their loved ones, the wife looked back and saw me. She smiled and waved good bye.

I keep thinking about this experience. I wish I had taken a photo.

Since then I have been wrestling with two questions:

Why is it so hard to love people who profess different beliefs?
And why is it even harder to love someone of the same faith when they decide that it is no longer for them?

Lately I have witnessed people from my faith decide to leave. Through their own life experiences, they decide that this isn’t working for them. I have been stunned to see those closest to them, instead of simply loving and supporting, isolate or try fix them.

I think the greatest test of our love comes when those closest to us decide to turn away from what we believe to be true.

I think it’s easier to be kind and open to someone of a completely different faith than it is to your own son or mother when they decide to renounce their beliefs.

I’m grateful that I met Bahnan. He reminded me that family is more important than individual beliefs and that love of all people is what unites us.

I heard it once said that religion at its best connects, but at its worst, isolates.

Thank you Bahnan for your kiss and for your genuine love for me.

You inspired me to be better and to truly care for those around me.

PS. Now I know why the universe didn’t let me change my seat :)