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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

February 24, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 205




Pat Morrison When faith takes over the friendly skies

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

In the early 1970s I was a passenger on a half-empty late-night flight from somewhere in the South to Boston, returning home after a week giving workshops in Kentucky and the Carolinas. As I settled into my window seat on the now-defunct airline, I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes and enjoy the quiet, broken only -- I hoped -- by the engine's drone.

But the silence was not to be. I forgot to mention that I was wearing a religious habit, and as any priest wearing a Roman collar or anyone who has worn the habit knows, that's an open invitation to attract like a magnet the genuinely needy, the intensely zealous and the more than marginally unbalanced. This time I met a zealot, although in the guise of a perky, pretty young flight attendant who decided she'd use the time on her hands to bring me to Jesus. She perched smilingly on the armrest of the empty seat across from mine and began asking me questions about my life and the Catholic church. I obliged, trying to be pleasant, but soon realized I had met a full-fledged born-again evangelist. She whipped out her well-marked Bible and decided to present her version of authentic Christianity to me, the captive Catholic nun. Although I admired her convictions, that flight remains a distasteful memory, probably the closest I've come to having an aneurysm from being forcedly polite for about three hours straight.

I was rubber-banded back to that experience earlier this month when I heard the news about the American Airlines pilot who decided to use Flight 34 from Los Angeles to New York as his pulpit. According to reports, Capt. Rodger Findiesen of Annapolis, Md., got on the plane's intercom shortly after take-off and asked Christians on board the Feb. 7 flight to raise their hands and identify themselves. He then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the Christians about their faith. He also told passengers he'd be available for further discussion at the end of the flight.

Other Today's Takes by Pat Morrison
Feb. 23, 04 Applause for Mel's passion
Dec. 19, 03 Altering the face of Christ
Dec. 17, 03 Go ahead, get Uncle Edgar's goat!
Dec. 15, 03 Finding Saddam, losing Mazen
Oct. 3, 03 (Un)happy anniversary, intifada
Oct. 1, 03 An ordinary life sparks an unlikely revolution
Aug. 14, 03 Women's realities, Mary's feast
American Airlines -- whose motto includes "friendly flight" -- wasted no time in distancing itself from its airborne evangelist and said it would investigate. At first the airline's spokesman, Tim Wagner, acknowledged that the pilot's action (Findeisen had not yet been identified) "falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees to do while on the job" and said the case would be investigated. The airline noted that Findeisen had recently returned from a mission trip to Costa Rica and suggested by way of explanation that he was evidently a bit too enthusiastic about his faith. Within the week, American's CEO Gerard Arpey formally apologized for the incident.

But Findeisen's proselytizing aboard the silver tube at 30, 000 feet produced more than a little emotional turbulence for the passengers. Immediately on being asked to identify themselves if Christian, and indirectly to "come to Jesus" if they weren't, nervous passengers began using their cell phones to report the incident. Some, like Amanda Nelligan of New York, said she felt threatened. Several passengers said they worried that the Christians were being asked to identify themselves because Islamic terrorists were targeting the plane.

If the incident seems like a tempest in a baptismal font, consider alternate scenarios: How would passengers have reacted if a Muslim pilot got on the intercom and proclaimed in Arabic "Allah akbar!" ("God is great!")? Even believing passengers who agree about God's greatness would probably have been terrified. (And given the current powers of Homeland Security, rightly so. The aircraft could be shot down if perceived to be under a terrorist hijacking.) And what if a Jewish pilot decided to deliver a reading from the Torah over the intercom, as a bit of inspirational thought for the flight?

Maybe the solution is to do away with nonsectarian public airlines and replace them with denominational flights. There could be Evangelical Christian airlines (giving a whole new meaning to "Super Saver" fares), with tickets awarded only to those who can give the date and time when they confessed Jesus as their personal savior. Or Muslim airlines, with special sections for Sunnis and Shiites, and a few seats reserved for minority sects. Imams for each group could lead the daily prayers in turn.

Catholics would probably have the most fun airline, because of course we'd still serve complimentary wine and snacks, and show good movies like "Sister Act" (available for viewing by progressives only) and "Song of Bernadette" (for the conservatives.) But it could get dicey. We'd have to assign seats on the left or right sides of the plane based on theological viewpoint. What if there were too many traditionalists for the right side? Could they "bump" passengers on the left? Would the airline need papal approval to call itself Catholic? What if a flight contained all liberal Catholics, flying over the airspace of a conservative diocese? Could the bishop excommunicate them?

I don't know about you, but I prefer my airline pilots to wear those little silver wings on their lapels, not their faith on their sleeves.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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