Vai's View: Vai's View: Airports, missionaries and chance encounters

Published: Friday, April 1 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

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?"

"I am."

"Are you Catholic or Protestant?" she asked.

"Neither. I'm a Latter-day Saint. Mormon."

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