My wife and I arrived yesterday morning in Salt Lake for conference weekend.
Flying into Salt Lake International is one of my favorite things in the world for one reason: returning missionaries. I'm still a nervous flyer, but when I see a missionary on my flight, as I often do, I'm completely calm.
In my simple mind, there's little chance of a plane going down with an Elder siting in 40E. Flying in from the East Coast, there's usually a missionary on board, especially if it's a connecting flight through a major hub like Chicago or Dallas. If not, we're almost always certain to see one or two disembark at another gate as we walk through the terminal. Without fail, my wife and I will slow our pace so we can walk behind the missionary, eager to watch the reaction of adoring family at baggage claim.
As we descend on the escalator two rungs behind the missionary, we can always pick out the mother because of the universal courtesy that allows her the first and longest hug. Dad is next. Siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles follow. That's the protocol. We always recognize the waiting girlfriend because she's dressed to the nines, hair perfectly coiffed, holding balloons and of course, the tell-tale, outstretched handshake as her eyelashes flutter like humming birds.
When our kids were in their mid-teens, they convinced us they could fly on their own to Utah for Especially For Youth and BYU sports camps. Initially, we were reluctant, but the lower cost made us reconsider.
We threw caution to the wind and prayed for a missionary to be on their flight. But we also hedged our bets by having them wear a BYU shirt, hoping it would attract fellow LDS travelers, who might keep an eye them.
The flip side is that I try to be aware of kids who travel alone and try to keep an eye on them. About six years ago, while waiting to board a flight from Philly to Salt Lake for April Conference, I saw a boy, maybe 11 or 12, wearing a BYU T-shirt being escorted onto the plane by an airline official. When I got to my row, lo and behold, the kid was sitting in the window seat while I had aisle. I took my seat and introduced myself. He seemed shy, but said his name was Scott. I asked if he was visiting Utah or going home. Scott said he was visiting his aunt and uncle in Wilmington, Dela., during spring break, but lives in Kaysville. I didn't bother asking if Scott was Mormon. Didn't have to. All he was missing was a nametag, a Tupperware of green Jello and a CTR ring.
Just then, our row mate, a strikingly beautiful African American young woman tapped my shoulder to tell me she had the middle seat. As I got up to let her in, she was struggling with an oversized carryon, so I made space in the overhead compartment and squeezed her bag in.
She thanked me profusely as she took her seat.
I asked if she's from Utah or just going through and she replied she only had an hour in Salt Lake for a connecting flight to Sacramento, her hometown, which accounted for the big bag she didn't check.
An hour into the flight, she was reading a small Bible, which caught my attention.
Wondering how I might gracefully spur conversation, I decided to ask a question that I felt certain I knew the answer to but hoped would pique her interest. The opportunity came when the flight attendants served our snacks and drinks. As I passed her Pepsi and peanuts to her, I casually asked, "Couldn't help but notice what you're reading. Are you a Christian?"
"I am." She allowed a few seconds to hang in the air before she succumbed to her own curiosity. "Are you?"
"Are you Catholic or Protestant?" she asked.
"Neither. I'm a Latter-day Saint. Mormon."
I learned her name was Allison; she graduated from Stanford in micro-biology and was in medical school at Penn State. She was headed home for a girlfriend's wedding, which was partly why she was reading the Bible. Though she grew up Catholic, a few of her girlfriends at Stanford were Baptist, including the one getting married, but also her boyfriend, who was studying for the ministry. As a medical student, she was also trying to reconcile her faith and science.
We talked about the trinity and original sin.
I explained our view of the Godhead, modern revelation, additional scripture and our understanding as Latter-day Saints of the Nicene Creed that produced the doctrine of the trinity and original sin.
At this point, Scott, sitting at the window seat, was completely engaged in our conversation.
Allison seemed especially fascinated with our view that Adam and Eve did mankind a favor by transgressing the law.
She said, "That is so foreign from anything I learned as a Catholic or in my Bible studies with my Baptist friends. I can't believe that this view is widely held, even in your Church."
I glanced at Scott, who was listening intently but had no idea he was about to be drawn in to this full-blown missionary effort.
"Allison," I began. "The principle I'm sharing with you is so fundamental to us as Latter-day Saints that 11-year-old Scott over there knows it."
Scott's eyes suddenly widened, as she drew her attention toward him.
I had already deduced he was a good Mormon boy and prayed silently that Scott would respond favorably as I coaxed him, "Scott, do you know an Article of Faith that talks about Adam's transgression?"
Scott squinted a bit and slowly replied, "Uhm... you mean, 'We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression?"
If Allison hadn't been sitting between us, I would've grabbed Scott, hugged him and kissed him!
Amazed, she looked at me, then Scott, then back to me and said, "You two don't know each other?"
Scott answered, "Nope." And before another word was said, Scott, clearly finding his groove said, "I also know number one, three, four, five, six, seven and eight."
I winked at Scott and said, "I'll let you know if I need another Article of Faith, buddy. You are awesome."
As our plane descended below the clouds into Salt Lake, I asked Allison if I could send missionaries to see her in Hershey, once she was back to school.
She pulled a business card from her purse embossed with the Penn State medical school logo that included her information and handed it to me.
Three weeks later, my wife and I met Allison and her boyfriend in Philly for dinner. Elders from the Harrisburg Mission had delivered a Book of Mormon the week before. We had a wonderful time but at the end of the meal, her boyfriend gently placed the book on the table and pushed it toward me. "Thank you for the gesture," he said, "but we're doing fine in our faith."
Perhaps in a more favorable setting, they'll reconsider. We did our duty.
What's more, I gained a lifetime friend in Scott McGrath, whom I proudly helped escort off the plane to his waiting mother, LeAnn.
For five hours, we were missionary companions in Row 12 A and C of a Delta flight.
She had no idea her 11-year-old son was a triumphant, returning missionary.