Grounded in Brussels
By Cat Knarr | July 20, 2016
My plane had just landed in Brussels. It was shortly after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 22, and I was anticipating my connecting flight to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the project manager of Covenant Kids Congo, I was on my way to the DRC with a team of colleagues to gather stories in hopes of inspiring more people to sponsor children.
I never made it.
We stopped on the tarmac and waited. Then the pilot announced that we couldn’t leave the plane because of a security issue. I noticed passengers checking their smartphones—but I couldn’t get a signal. Then the pilot spoke again: “Most of you know by now that there was an explosion inside the airport. We’re going to be waiting here until we have further instructions.”
It hit me then that something very serious had happened. I immediately started texting my husband, Ben, and other family to let them know I was okay. I told myself that an explosion could be caused by any number of things—I didn’t want to believe that it was terrorists. Back in Chicago, Ben answered my text, confirming my fears: “Cat, the news says there was a terror attack.” Then my phone buzzed as a call from him finally came through, and I heard his worried voice.
In fact, terrorists were not only responsible for the airport bombing, they were about to strike a metro station, killing a total of thirty-two people that day.
When I’d left the U.S., my fear had been that something might happen in Congo. Instead, it was Belgium that I should have been concerned about.
I tried to reassure Ben—I felt terrible for the anxiety I was causing him and the rest of my family. Most of them haven’t traveled much internationally. The only other time I had traveled outside of North America was to Rwanda, and at that time a couple of my family members had tried to convince me to stay home. This time no one tried to persuade me not to go. My family understood how important it was to our mission at Covenant Kids Congo and to me. They entrusted my safety to God.
Yet now it felt like everything had backfired despite my family’s big step of faith. I wasn’t afraid for my personal safety; I was with experienced travelers, and I knew our team would figure this out together. But I ached for the pain my family was experiencing, for the long hours they would spend watching their phones and worrying about whether I would return home safely from a country on high-alert for further terrorist threats.
An hour or two later, we were evacuated from the plane and bused to a hangar, where we waited with 1,000 other stranded travelers. We never saw any of the physical damage from the attacks. Only my colleague James Fischer from Paul Carlson Partnership, who had arrived in Brussels on an earlier flight, was inside the airport when the bombs went off.
Once our team was reunited with James, the first thing we did was try to rebook our flights, calling airlines, hoping they might have some kind of solution for us. As the hours passed, reality began to sink in. We were caught in an international crisis and we weren’t going anywhere soon. We became witnesses to an event we hadn’t seen, as newspapers and news services contacted us for comments. It felt surreal.
Looking back, I think of how small my perspective was during all those hours we waited in the hangar, and later when we were taken to a makeshift Red Cross shelter in a nearby music hall. All I could think was, What will I do next? How will I get out of here? What will I eat? Where will I sleep tonight? How is my family, and what can I tell them?
All I could think was, What will I do next? How will I get out of here? What will I eat? Where will I sleep tonight? How is my family, and what can I tell them?
I was not thinking about what the people around me might be going through. Where were they when the bombs went off? Were they close enough to hear the blast or be knocked off their feet? What did they witness?
Attached to my phone—texting family back home, even as I anxiously waited to find out what was going to happen next—I was hardly aware of people who were right next to me. Yet there were moments that broke through my narrow focus, when I saw what someone else was going through and paused. And those encounters formed some of my most significant memories.
I could barely hear the woman when she walked by, but I thought I heard her say “phone,” and I asked her if she needed mine. She said yes, she needed to text her family to let them know she was okay. Together we tried to figure out how to send a text to the U.K. from a U.S. phone. She told me she was from Rwanda. “I’ve been to Rwanda!” I said. “It’s so beautiful there.” We made small talk, as if we were simply out and about—and not in the middle of an international crisis.
The second moment came when I was sitting at a table with our team at the Red Cross shelter, and a young woman sat down with us. That wasn’t unusual. Quite a few people—especially those traveling alone—had wandered by and sat with us for a while. But as we started talking to her, it became clear that she was very frightened. She was traveling alone, and she had been evacuated in a rush, forced to abandon all her belongings. She was from South America and was on her way to visit a friend in Germany.
“I have no money,” she said, as tears started to fall. “I have no ID. I have no way to get home. I don’t know what to do.”
I’m not a touchy-feely person. But at that moment, it felt right to give her a hug. I asked her how old she was, and she said twenty-five—the same age as me.
Our local contact in Belgium, Covenant pastor Steve Swanson, was planning to pick us up from the shelter. He offered to drive the young woman to the train station and pay her fare. She was visibly moved, thanking him profusely. In the end, her airline took her to her final destination, but I’ll never forget how thankful she was for the kindness of strangers.
Those are the moments I remember—moments when I paused to talk to someone, moments when I stepped out of my bubble and saw the person in front of me.
After spending the night in the Red Cross shelter, I was faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to continue on to Congo. I woke up that morning from an uneasy sleep, shaking from anxiety. Part of me desperately wanted to get to Congo, but then I talked to my mom. It was 1 a.m. her time, yet she was awake and praying for me. She told me she wanted me to do whatever felt right, yet in my gut I knew that no matter how much my family said they supported me, they wanted nothing more than for me to come home.
It was heartbreaking to think about what I would be giving up: the chance to go to Congo and experience it for myself, and the chance to build valuable relationships with our partners there. Congo elections are coming up this fall, and with the present political instability, I didn’t know when I would be able to go there again.
But I knew I had to go home.
When I think about the awful reality of what happened that day, I don’t know what to make of it. In many ways, I’m tired of trying to make meaning out of the ugly things in our world. Human suffering never makes sense, and as much as we seek theological and spiritual answers, I’m not sure that we’ll find a satisfying response that soothes that ache—at least not in a way we can completely understand from our limited human perspective.
And so I’m left asking God plenty of questions. What do we do when we’re overwhelmed by the darkness in the world, when we feel like we’re so insignificant that we can’t possibly do anything to defeat it? What do we do when we feel powerless to do anything that matters in these issues of epic proportions?
I might not have any answers, but I know that our actions matter. It certainly made a difference to me when the Red Cross team worked around the clock to provide us with meals and cots to sleep on, when Covenant missionary Barb Swanson and her husband, Steve, generously welcomed us into their home and helped us make travel arrangements, and when Barb rode the train with me for two hours to the Amsterdam airport to make sure I made it safely to my flight. I also want to believe that it made a difference when I was able to pause and see the humanity of other travelers. Within such pauses, we see glimpses of God.
Actions like these might not completely defeat the darkness in the world, but they offer hope. It is that hope that I hold onto—the hope that God is present in the pain of the world, even when we don’t understand what’s going on, and the hope that the small things we do in his name have repercussions that matter.