Here's the passenger list:
Hurcho Canino was seated at the front of his flock, next to the co-head of the church, Betty March. Canino was formerly in M&A. His long life of flying perhaps pre-disposed him to be the pastor of the church, but to his followers he was certainly embued with the word, and his oratory skill, not to mention his oracular abilities, came straight from heaven. Ms. March had formerly been in ad sales management, and it was her skill with books, and certainly, with a sort of evangelical sales process that led her to be Canino's organizational partner as well as spiritual partner, and of course, sexual.
Across the aisle sat Mrs. and Mr. Davis Wright, who had sold all their property and donated the money to the church. In their late 60s, both of them were in poor health, and sort of looked on the church as a surrogate for the “lifestyle centers” into which many of their generation were transitioning. They were certainly taken care of by the congregation, and perhaps better, than they would have been at the sort of second-rate facility with minimum-wage caregivers they could afford. They seemed content at being together, not such believers in the word as they were in the community. They liked to be close to Pastor Canino and Ms. March, and so they were seated in first class at the insistence of the congregation. They were the elders of the group, if you will.
Behind them were Nephala Ngai, a 21 year-old girl hailing from a central Asia country (no one could quite remember which one it was). Next to her was Bran Wilco, 22, male. If the Wright's represented the elders of the church, Nephala and Bran were its youth–both attractive, dynamic, responsible young people, held up as the church's promise for a new generation, and the potential of what its members could and perhaps should be. Nephala was traveling back to her Orlando-area college after a break, and heard Canino preaching. Perhaps it was the jet lag or the adjustments to altitude after her long flight back across the Pacific, but she was immediately converted. It was similar for Bran, but not quite as miraculous. He was flying home from school after graduating. During his journey, he had been mulling over his options for the rest of his life. There was his father's business, more school, or something new. Huracho Canino, testifying just inside the security check point, was the something new. Nephala and Bran were in love, and filled with the ecstatic joy of the church.
Willis Jone and Ki'issa Marx were next to them. Willis was the caretaker of the church, or as much as there was one, what with no property owned and occupied by the organization. In his early forties, he had been a baggage handler, and so he knew the grounds of the airport well. Ki'issa was his partner, and had worked at the airport Starbucks. They had joined the church individually, and at first had kept to themselves. However, with the church's emphasis on finding a partner through its community, and with a little bit of helpful, though not in anyway aggressive, pushing by Ms. March, the two shy former airport employees finally found each other, with as much rejoicing as they had in finding religion. It certainly was a blessing, the members of the church agreed, and the two assisted Canino and Ms. March in many of the church's day to day operations.
The first six seats in the coach section were occupied by the David family. Graham and Marian, father and mother, in the two aisle seats; Feliza and Joe, 17 and 16, beside them at the windows; and Francesca and Saran, 18 and 19, in the window seats behind them. The family were good Christians, and had been on a family vacation to Europe when they first met the church. They listened to a long service during a two-hour lay-over, and then when their connecting flight was delayed due to equipment problems, joined a prayer session with the congregation. By the time they were on their way back from their one-week trip, perhaps it was the tour of religious sites that had failed to impress them as much as they thought it would, or maybe it was the raw power of Canino, sitting in the linked seats of the gate waiting area, holding hands with the other parisioners, and the beauty of his words, warm and deep, displacing the static of the terminal intercom announcing flight delays, but they had decided to keep their bags packed, and join the church as full members.
Next to the two eldest David girls were their boyfriends, Boris Fondura and Manx Lepatto. Boris was sitting with Francesca, and Manx with Saran, though most of the folks were sure they had been paired the other way around at least only a week ago. Not that it really made a difference. It was difficult for Graham and Marian, patriarch and matriarch of the clan, to accept the sexual partnerships of their daughters after only recently being fully committed to the virginal commitments of Christianity. But, when Pastor Canino and Ms. March explained to them how sex within the caring, open community of the church was not the potential pitfall for health and morality that it was in the rest of the world, but an opportunity for spiritual growth, things were a bit easier. Certainly the transition was helped along by Boris and Manx's intelligent dispositions, as an aerospace engineering and architecture student respectively. Boris' knowledge of the aerospace industry was especially influential, as this was, after all, the Church of Airport Salvation.
Feliza and Joe, though being a bit younger, each had potential partners as well, who were sitting together in the next row back. The younger children were seated with their parents because of their age. The church recognized open partnerships only above the age of eighteen, though of course proper fraternization was acceptable at appropriate times, and in appropriate places like the food courts, the waiting areas during or after services, and the concourse walkways. But not in the smoking lounge, the Pilot's Club, and certainly not, say, the family restrooms. Joe and Saran Montez had been seeing quite a lot of each other. Saran was a sixteen year-old runaway orphan, saved and reformed by the church. She was seated next to Constantine Lemancha, a former runway model in her late twenties, who had had issues with drugs and eating problems, but now was a model reform case for the congregation. After the adjustment to Boris and Manx, Mr. and Mrs. David had another trial in their youngest daughter getting cozy with an, albeit slightly, older woman. But surprisingly enough, as these things often are, the second step was much easier than the first. They came to see that a relationship with an older woman, who had already discovered many of life's unfortunate traps and lived to tell the tale, might be a good influence on their teenage daughter.
Next to these two sat George Bailiff and Geraldine Drescher. George was a former red cap, who with the help of pastor Canino, found god and rebuked his alcoholism. His carry-on was a hard-shelled case with the hymnals, which he would hand out once the seatbelt-sign was turned off. Geraldine had been a TSA agent. She had remained at her job after joining the church, and it was her influence at the security checkpoint that allowed the church to peacefully carry on its existence at the airport. As the time grew closer for this flight, and the church stepped up its activities and its recruitment, there was a good amount of friction between Geraldine and her superiors, and so she had been forced to leave. But to reduce the possibility of a negative media incident, especially after the scandal in terminal D with the full-body scanners unrelated to the church, TSA had let the church continue their services past the security points, as long as they obeyed the carry-on rules and entered during non-peak times.
Behind them were Dan Sizer and Debra Myers. They were actually the first couple married by the church, but they had naturally decided to keep their names the same, to not complicate their forms of picture ID. Their marriage had been a beautiful ceremony, at the round end of terminal C, late at night after the last red-eye flights had departed. They were married by pastor Canino in front of the large picture window, with the lights of the runway twinkling beyond. And as if as planned, just as the ceremony concluded, a gigantic, brand-new Airbus 380 taxied past, fully illuminated in the bright lights of the docking area. George got a friend in the red caps to drive the happy couple the length of the terminal in an electric people-mover, decorated for the occasion, and the people of the church catered the reception themselves in the closed food court.
Mingas Taylor and Tiral Bengos were across the aisle, and they were a much-loved couple, the core of the laity, as it were. As restaurateur and head chef of a restaurant in Miami, the two men had cemented their relationship before joining the church, and their humor was appreciated by all. No one was really sure what inspired them to join the Church of Airport Salvation, but they did, selling their restaurant and apartment in Miami and buying a small row of town houses not five minutes from the economy parking. They rented the rest of the rooms to parishioners, and drove them all to the parking lot every morning in their big white van they drove up from Miami, still with the restaurant logo on the side, so they could take the shuttle to the terminals. They also prepared food for the congregation on numerous occasions, doing surprisingly much with very little. Their wedding cake for Dan and Debra was masterful.
Next were Sechan Quan and Mendoza Pongo. Sechan was a former communist from a minority party in Southeast Asia, who had defected to North America, and discovered the church in his travels. Mendoza was an Ecuadorian immigrant with somewhat troublesome immigration status, necessitating his frequent travel–the source of his original introduction and perhaps predilection for the church. This pair worked closely with Canino on many of the theological matters of the church, both being well versed in bureaucratic policies and the syncretisms of governmental beliefs in several traditions. They wrote the pamphlets the congregation distributed in front of the airports, and had established some of the well-known tenets of the group derived from Canino's sermons. The key, as they saw it, was to make every-day practice fundamental to the spiritual goals of the church. If they were all waiting for their spiritual flight, then it made sense to spend as much time as possible in the airport, checking their status. If this was to be a journey in spirit, then physical possessions would only act as luggage to be lost in transit, so they should abide strict carry-on requirements at all times. If the membership of the church was to be those with the same spiritual itinerary, drawn from all walks of life to the same schedule, then their meeting and seat pairings were not just the luck of the draw. Those they met in the security line, in the waiting area, and on the flight were to share more than just the proximity of travel, but a certain closeness of bodies. They would be searched together, watch after their belongings together, and sleep and eat together. The members of the church were, in this sense, married in the partnership of spiritual travel. With Canino's help, they composed these tracts on their wifi-capable computers, and printed them in the business lounge of the Pilot's Club, and distributed them for the enlightenment of the church.
The seats next to Sechan and Mendoza were empty. Behind them, sat the three ladies, Megan Oftan, Pansy Thorpe, and Ferg French. They were not sexual partners, so much as simply spiritual friends. They had been some of the most evangelical members of the group, covering the entire scope of the airport, including the charter terminal, handing out literature and inviting people to worship. Megan had been a religious studies student, and had been studying the Airport Salvation sect for class. But she had been taken with just how modern the religion was, how it was a faith for a fast-paced, jet-setting world, and how it mimicked a Christian faith in organization, but without pinning itself, nailing itself down, so to speak, to a timetable of the savior's return. Pansy Thorpe had actually joined many religious groups before this church. She had been an Adventist, a Buddhist, and for awhile, even a Moonie. But in the end it was the temporary aspect of the religion that won her over–for once, someone was offering her membership not based upon personal allegiance and self-sacrifice, but simply by spiritual alliance. The “camaraderie of air travel” they called it. Something that had been lost to the industry and religion alike. Ferg French did not like to talk about her past, and nobody pressed her. She had been an outspoken proponent of the final flight, asking Canino time and time again when they ought to buy their tickets, when they ought to collect their personal belongings, if it was true that their destination would not be an earthly one, etc. She seemed most impatient to leave. All three of these ladies looked forward to their departure expectantly. But, when finally Canino announced their flight, they became very quiet, and withdrawn. They sat together on the flight, holding each others hands.
Drew Mats and Pagar Antillo also held hands, in the next row. Pagar was eight months pregnant with Drew's child, and for awhile there had been some quiet debate about whether or not they would join the rest of the congregation on the final flight. The debate was wrapped in language about what the soonest to a due date an expectant mother should fly, but underneath, there was the natural human fear of exposing infants to danger. They were flying north. It was a regularly scheduled flight, with a regularly scheduled flight number. Drew was a world traveller, and there was nothing new in just another hub route. But there was the silent knowledge imparted in each of Canino's sermons, his prophetic depictions of this flight. The plane would take off from the earth, not only in a physical sense, but spiritually. They would arrive at their ultimate destination, this was foretold. But whether this destination was in the same realm as that they left, no one knew. Perhaps the weight of their unborn child would keep them from boarding the flight with the others. They were both committed to the church, but the strain of bringing a life into the world might cause them to… well, act accordingly. And Pagar had not fully recovered from her mother's funeral, the journey home from which, had precipitated her joining the church. And yet, despite death and oncoming birth, they were on board, carry-on items stowed, seat belts fastened.
Next to them were Derd Hussle, and Wren Taylor, who both looked a bit nervous as the airplane pulled back from the gate. They needed this, especially Derd, who hadn't quite recovered from his stint in the Army. Wren was more used to the anticipation and worry, being a former serial monogamist, now enjoying the stability of the church and their mutual journey to salvation. But still, their sweat dripped between their clutched hands. They looked behind them, at the mostly empty plane. Though security had cleared them all individually one more time before boarding, the passengers scheduled for this flight had asked to be switched when they heard the Church of Airport Salvation was going to be on board. There was nothing violent about the group, and nothing to indicate that anything unfortunate would happen to the plane. But Americans are a suspicious group, and prone to the apocalyptic influence of religious language. And when you combine that with air travel–well, no one blamed them, not congregation, airline, nor TSA. Since they couldn't help but have overheard Canino's “farewell sermon” just prior to boarding, filled with language of the promised destination and the departure from the stand-bys of earthly life, all the non-church passengers paid for the insurance policy on ticket re-scheduling, and the airline, in 0rder to make as little a fuss as possible, helped them re-book with other carriers without surcharges.
Zephyr Megalia, a flight attendant on this fateful journey, had served tea and orange juice to Canino and Ms. March, and in a brief discussion over the beverages, was not immediately converted, but quite intrigued. So, after doing the safety demonstration, she took an empty seat across from Omar Orchette, a convert to the church from Scientology, and Polly Hocker, a convert from the Hari Krishnas. Why airports, she wanted to know. They explained to her what they both had realized: religious conversion at airports was the cornerstone of modern civilization. It wasn't so much about what religion you converted to, it was about being in a building that was a cathedral, traveling through the labyrinths of a infrastructure that was spiritual awakening to the needs of the world, implementing a belief system in practice that was never good enough to cope with the trials that life threw at a person. It was about being late, and being delayed, and being uncomfortable, overcharged, underprotected, disoriented, and jet lagged. It was about all of this, and about being together with other people in the same condition, at the same time, whatever time that was. Interesting, Zephyr said. So where are you going on this flight?
Greg Shultes, seated behind her, leaned forward in the aisle. The former aluminum wholesaler smiled, as did his partner, Sasha Ball, a former heiress. We don't know, he said. But this is the flight we are all finally meant to take. And we'll going to take it together. He and Sasha kissed, as the plane accelerated, lifted backward, and the Church of Airport Salvation rose into the air together.
The flight time was supposed to be four hours and forty-five minutes. Canino had already said that there would be no sermon on the flight, and so the passengers prayed individually. Some of them sang hymns, led by Adam Montez and Clara Reatrow, a failed journalist and a musician, respectively, who were the last two passengers on the plane. Above the constant whine of the engines and the omnipresent roar of the slipstream, the congregation sang the praises of their belief, their togetherness, and their journey. Ferg French said the Departure/Arrival prayer to herself quietly, counting the number of times on the edge of her boarding pass, making small indents with her fingernail. Zephyr Megalia handed out packets of peanuts, which the parishioners held in their hands, cupping the small crinkling foil packets, not a one opening them.
As they passed through fifteen-thousand feet, the pilot announced inclement weather ahead. They hit turbulence around thirty-thousand feet, but the church sang on without fear. At forty-thousand feet, the pilot put on the seat belt sign, and the plane shook, wings visibly flapping outside of the window. Thunder rolled over the noise of the plane, and lightening flashed outside.
After twenty minutes, the flight passed the turbulence, and into calmer air. In another two hours, they began their descent. As the plane landed on the runway, and then taxied to the gate, the passengers were completely silent. They deboarded the plane as they had done many times before, except they called no one on their cell phones. They had no one to call who was not on the plane.
Entering the terminal, there was a minute of odd culture shock as they realized it was a different terminal than the one they had left, a different airport than the one they had come to know so well, together. But they knew what to do instinctively, and walked together, partners holding hands, down to the baggage claim, where they retrieved the little luggage that had been checked.
The airport was a smaller one than they had left, and it took a while to secure ground transportation for the entire congregation. They tried to get rooms at the same motel, but it was a big party for one location with no reservation, and so they ended up split into three groups at three different motels off the highway that led to and from the airport.
In the days that followed, they looked for apartments and houses in the area. The members of the church eventually found places to live, and jobs. There was some discussion of whether or not they would continue to meet for church, daily, weekly, or at all. Many members were for it, at least provisionally, as was Ms. March. But Canino did not have the sermons in him anymore. The word had left him. And so they drifted apart, and on to other things, and other religions, some of them. Some of the partnerships continued, and some of them did not. Some of them flew again, others did not. Some of them lived for a long time, and others died relatively soon after.
But most importantly, after they left the airport, the membership of the Church of Airport Salvation were never all in same place again.