Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So we’re going to do this again. Same itinerary as the 2013 trip, but different people.

Ben Ritschard, our driver, brings the van by my house at 1:30, as we’ve arranged. I live right next to campus, and we have 7 50-pound boxes of clothes and other supplies for Tumaini Children’s Home, the orphanage in Tanzania. I figure it’s easier to put them directly into the trailer than to ferry them to the meeting point in my van. He’s right on time, and we have the boxes loaded in just a few minutes. We find ourselves at the Official Africa Team Meeting Point, behind Nell Sunday residence hall, fully 10 minutes before our 2 pm meeting time. Jess is already there, and Jessica shows up almost immediately. As the others are arriving, we get a surprise visit from Auria Garland, a 2013 team alumna. I tease her about coming, and she’s clearly sad that she’s not.

Africa will do that to you.

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Soon all 7 are here (we’re meeting 2 more at the Atlanta airport), and we gather for a word of prayer, say our final goodbyes, and climb into the van. After about 10 minutes, we’ve just passed the center of town when Ben loses his power steering. We pull into the Brio parking lot at Church and Haynie streets and place a call to The Boss.

I’m thinking that we really don’t have time for this. Can’t even get the team out of town before it all goes to pot. But in a few minutes 3 men from BJU’s Transportation Department have brought us a replacement van and changed the trailer over, and we’re back on the road. I figure we’ve lost about 40 minutes all told. That’s probably OK, unless the Atlanta traffic is a mess.

By the time we leave SC, most of the team is asleep; Gershon and Jessica are the only ones awake besides me, and Gershon nods off a few minutes later. I pass the time talking to Ben, a former student of mine who’s an MK from Papua New Guinea. He’s also a grandson of my late friends George and Joan Mulfinger, who were on the Science and Music faculties at BJU while I was a student.

As expected, traffic starts to dense up as we approach Atlanta. We’re hitting it right at 5 pm on a weekday, and that’s never a good idea. In a conversation this morning with my colleague Mike Wilkie of the BJU Criminal Justice faculty, he expressed some tacit concern about my schedule—he’s a retired chief of police of an Atlanta suburb, and I could tell he wasn’t sure we would have enough time.

We’ve been planning to take the east beltway rather than going through the middle of town. We arrive at Spaghetti Junction right after 5, and all the ramps up onto the beltway are at a standstill. Traffic is still flowing smoothly on 85, and though I know it will tighten up as we reach city center, the beltway looks completely unpromising, so I make a snap decision to go through town. We find that there’s an HOV lane, and we’re certainly an HOV, so that helps some; but soon we’re crawling too. Then we see on an electronic sign that there’s an accident ahead that has 1 lane closed. (When we reach it, we find that it’s actually closed 2 lanes.) So we crawl far longer than I like, and I’m nervously watching the clock. After the accident site things open up again, as you’d expect, but by city center we’re “stall and crawl” again.

To my surprise, things loosen up quite a bit on the south side, even though we’re outbound during afternoon rush hour. To my astonishment, we arrive at the airport by 5:45, 15 minutes before my original ETA, despite the van swap and the accident and the downtown rush-hour traffic. Thank you, Lord.

This is the first team I’ve taken into the new international terminal at ATL. The first thing I notice is that Michaela and her family are waiting for us at the curb. The second thing I notice is that the luggage carts are free now, like they are virtually everywhere I’ve been outside the US. Used to have to hit a credit card with a $2 charge for every cart. Way to go, ATL. May your tribe increase.

To my surprise, there are no lines at the Delta check-in, and with 3 windows to ourselves, we get all checked in, including the 350 pounds of clothes for the orphanage, with no hang-ups and in record time. I look at my watch: it’s 5:58. We’re all checked in, and it’s still earlier than my original ETA. Back while we were waiting for a replacement van, I never would have believed it.

Plenty of time for the overdue potty break before we head for security. I note that I didn’t get TSA Pre-check this time. Bummer. That lets you effectively skip the security process—taking off the shoes and belt, pulling everything out of your bag, and so on—but the lines are orderly and uneventful, and soon we’re at the gate. Still no Charity (our final member), but she’s has texted to say she’s right behind us.

I’m hungry. So is almost everybody else. We head upstairs to a small food court. The Varsity, the largest drive-in in the world, has an outpost here, but I’m thinking greasy burgers and fries is probably not a good idea before an international flight. We find an Asian place, Wei Pei, and take over a couple of tables. We all chow down, and I find myself looking around the table, wondering how this new team will begin to come together, to find an operational mode, developing relationships along the way. I always enjoy watching that happen as they settle in to ministry on the ground—in this case, in Ghana. Right now they’re mostly strangers; that will change dramatically in the days ahead.

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Back to the gate after dinner, where Charity finally joins us. Now we are Nine, the number I’m going to be counting obsessively for the duration of the trip. We hang out in the gate area, several of us using the electrical outlets for as long as possible; then we board at the end of the line. As always, I let everybody go in front of me, so we don’t get into a situation where I’m on the plane and a team member has a problem behind me.

The 767 seating is configured 2-3-2. We’re seated in chunks. Michaela, Amber, and Sarah are 2 rows from the back in the center section; Jess, Jessica, and I are 5 rows forward of them, with Jess across the aisle from me. Charity and Emily are 4 rows ahead of us, and Gershon is all by himself up in the center section. Before takeoff, the large man on the other side of Jessica finds that his headphone jack isn’t working, so they move him to another seat. That means Jessica and I have 3 seats between us, which bodes well for general comfort.

Jess is already in animated conversation with the college-age girl sitting next to her. Turns out she’s from North Greenville University, one of several students and a sponsor flying to Uganda for 4 weeks of mission work. Well, how about that. A number of us end up in a large-scale conversation. Some of our kids are nervous about flying, and so are some of theirs, so they encourage one another as best they can.

We take off toward the west—you do what the wind tells you to—and then turn north to follow, roughly, the East Coast on the Great Circle Route to Amsterdam. When traveling across time zones, I make a practice of setting my watch to the destination time immediately after takeoff, to get my head aligned with the destination time as quickly as possible. So it’s suddenly 3 am.

About 90 minutes in, they serve dinner. It’s 10 pm our time, and 4 am Amsterdam time, but whatever. They serve food, I eat it; I figure a traveler can always use the BTUs. The choice is pasta or beef; I go for beef, which turns out to be a sort of beef stew with Mystery Vegetables, I’m guessing turnips, in a colorful array of white, orange, and purple. The texture is, um, spongy. But there’s a small salad, and a roll with “buttery flavored spread,” and a slice of genuine Tillamook cheese, which brings back to mind a trip to Oregon a couple of years ago, on which I drove through Tillamook and right by the cheese factory. So, good.

Each seat has a video screen with movies, TV, games, and assorted other stuff. I find the flight data display so I can track our progress, then try to get some sleep. These long-haul flights are always difficult for me. I have RLS, and my legs get pretty antsy when I’m just sitting, and vibration seems to exacerbate it. So I sleep fitfully, in various contortionistic positions, sometimes facing forward, sometimes sideways, usually seated Indian-style, and frequently getting up and walking around in the darkened cabin. I wake up to see we’re over Boston, so I think kind thoughts about my sisters in Plymouth and Mattapoisett, just 7 or so miles straight down. Another brief snooze, and we’re over St. Pierre and Miquelon and about to head out over the Atlantic. Then just south of Greenland, where I note the sun appears to be rising in the north. It isn’t, of course; this time of year the sun never sets in the far north, and I’m just seeing the endless day of summer.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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