The Woman at the Bottom of the Stairs
There are moments that shape your life. There are moments that linger in the heart and head. The woman at the bottom of the stairs is someone I can’t forget. The woman at the bottom of the stairs is someone I never want to forget.
A US Air Force Globemaster
Coffee to the Congo
A friend in our church agreed to meet me for coffee over at Crumble a week or so ago. Art is retired from IU. We began talking and he reminded me that he had been a member of a United States military aircrew flying refugees out of the Congo in 1960-61. I had forgotten that but our conversation took me back to the Congo. You see, our family was one of those families rescued by US military flights (working under the authority of the UN) that carried people out of the country when it was coming apart. We may have been one of those people sitting in the cargo bay in the back of a massive Globemaster crewed by Art and his crew. Now here we were sitting across the table from one another in Bloomington, Indiana!
What was it like to fly into—and out of—the chaos of that African civil war?
A pilot’s perspective
Art told me that the facilities in most of Africa could not handle an airplane the size of a Globemaster. The aircraft had to be flown around the western horn of Africa rather than straight south from Europe. So the trips were long and wearisome.
Refueling was a problem. In the tropical heat the aircraft would begin sinking into the blacktop as they were fueled. The crew would watch the tires and if they began to sink into the tarmac the pilots would immediately power up the aircraft and get it moving or the plane would be immovable. Perimeters that were supposed to be cleared of enemy combatants were still dangerous, and it was not unusual for the aircraft to take fire as they approached and left places like Stanleyville and Leopoldville.
I remembered. You really can’t forget those kinds of moments, you know.
The country was coming apart. The United States Embassy reached us by shortwave radio, at our small mission station at Minga, and told us to be prepared to be airlifted out. We were headed to a scheduled missionary conference at another, larger mission station and were advised to take 5-pounds of personal possessions per person.
The situation deteriorated. We were to leave immediately. A US Air Force C-47 (the civilian designation was DC-3) was landed on a small grass strip intended to handle small aircraft, and the first load of missionaries was airlifted out. We were not on that first flight. It was two days later when we were taken out in a US Navy C-47 which had all the seats removed. We crouched on the floor and people shared coffee cans as they got sick while we flew across central Africa in the middle of the day.
We landed at a Belgian air base. It was there that military personnel like Art met us with the massive, four engine cargo aircraft known as Globemasters. We sat in the back cargo bay of the aircraft, with the cargo-master watching over us from an elevated platform. We were flown south to safety. People in what is now known as Zimbabwe housed us…took us in. We waited to go back into the Congo, but things kept getting worse. We were to be sent back into the Congo to be flown to the United States on a Sabena 707.
It was over a month later in the Congo, as we waited in the darkness to be invited aboard the waiting jet, that I saw the woman at the bottom of the steps.
The woman at the bottom of the stairs
The plan called for us to be flown north back into the Congo where things were still volatile. My mother was traveling with me and my siblings while our father prepared to go back into the Congo for six months to wrap things up with the hospital at Minga.
We landed at an airport where chaos reigned. Traffic jammed the highways from the city as people desperately tried to get out. Military helicopters circled over our heads, and the terminal had stacks of sandbags placed around it. A soldier from the Ivory Coast, wearing the blue UN beret, stood with our family and watched over us.
At a distance from the terminal sat a Sabena 707 that had been flown in to take us out. We were walked to this remote area of the airport to board the aircraft. As we waited an African woman, carrying her infant, ran out of the darkness and fell on her knees at the foot of the stairs leading up to the entrance of the jet.
She wept and begged to be allowed on the aircraft. She held up her baby and begged someone to take her child to safety. After a few minutes, two soldiers walked to her, lifted her by her arms, and carried her away. We were then invited to board the airplane.
The contrast between the outside racket of circling helicopters, soldier’s shouts, and aircraft engines, and the quiet on the inside of the jet was stunning. Inside the jet, there were pastel designs on the walls, soft jazz on the stereo system, and impeccably-dressed cabin staff to welcome us.
In a few minutes the doors were closed. The engines on the jet were started, we taxied to the runaway, and soon enough we were in the air. I looked out to see a world below in darkness, untouched now by the setting sun whose orange glow could be seen on the horizon. I could see the headlights of cars jamming the road from the city to the airport. And I kept thinking about the woman at the bottom of the stairs. I’ve never stopped thinking about the woman at the bottom of the stairs.
Who are the people left behind?
I am constantly aware that we live in a world where some are rescued and some are left behind. Many of those flown to safety were rescued because of the color of our skin, our citizenship, and our relative affluence.
Some are rescued and some are left behind. I keep trying to figure out how that is fair, just, or right—and I don’t think it is fair, just or right.
I’m thinking of people who are on the move, across Egypt and Europe and Asia, looking for safety. They face greater dangers than we ever faced, and I find myself wondering what we can do to help those fleeing danger, violence, and famine.
Even beyond that, though, I think of people in our own community who are hungry for God, thirsty for hope, and yearning for human connection. What are we doing to reach out and welcome them? How do we greet them, get to know them, hear their hopes, fears, and concerns, and then graciously share the Good News of the God whose love wins?
Are we people who are thankful for what we have found here but who neglect to see the woman at the bottom of the stairs or the young adult who has come into worship for the first time? Or are we people who are not only thankful for this community and the God who offers us life, but who are eager to see and love and welcome the people at the bottom of the stairs?
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Jesus says in Matthew 25:35.
(Please look for the strangers who come to us as new guests. If you are asked to usher or greet, and you know how to smile, join these teams who help us connect with others.)
See you Sunday as we gather for worship.
Grace and peace,