When the United Airlines flight landed in Houston Wednesday a very happy pastor and his missionary team breathed a huge sigh of relief.
What started out as an eight-day journey to share the faith quickly became a daily roller coaster ride, which they didn’t sign up for.
Thrive Church pastor Nathan Herrington and a total of 13 missionaries including his wife Ali and their daughter left the United States Friday, March 13 only to have the borders closed on day two for flights leaving Honduras.
When they left nobody had any idea that COVID-19 would change things so rapidly.
“We felt the peace of God before we even boarded,” Nathan said. “We checked our hearts and asked each other do you have peace and we did. We felt we would be even better off in Honduras where there were no outbreaks.”
Commercial flights started canceling as all travel in and out of the country was shut down. They tried to arrange passage on other flights but those soon canceled as well. Upon contacting the embassy, they were told no flights would be leaving until May 6. With a budget only allowing for the original eight day trip this would prove a challenge.
“Things were changing every two to four hours,” Nathan said.
The group was told it was not the embassy’s normal practice to supply transportation for displaced U.S. citizens and to keep checking for commercial options. They also were told charter planes were option, with what seemed like a virtual pat on the back and good luck getting out.
It was at this point that Ali Herrington decided they should make a YouTube video on day three or four.
“We made the video and then started worshiping and doing devotional for about four hours,” she said. “We started getting calls from Costa Rica, all over America and from Athens City Councilman Ed McCain who helped us get in touch with Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Lance Gooden.”
Everyone was doing their best, but short of updates there wasn’t much they could do. The relational support proved the most helpful at the time for them to bounce off ideas. Ali was staying strong, but her greatest moments of weakness came when separated from her young son.
The night they made the video, a missionary nearby missionary who they had never met contacted. He told them his United Airlines Representative had told him of a flight that may be available that wasn’t open to the public yet, but he had to act immediately to reserve the 13 spots.
“So we had reserved tickets that were unconfirmed for this private flight on Wednesday, March 25,” Nathan said. “It did go public and was sold out by the next day. We still had no confirmation and didn’t know if it was sold out with us or without us.”
All government and embassy sources knew nothing of the flight and no flights were scheduled until Thursday, March 26. So until the group actually landed in Houston there was no guarantees or confidence the flight was going to actually happen.
A friend who had come to visit their church and had connections with U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border patrol said his friends in both department confirmed the flight did exist and was scheduled to land in Houston around 4:35 p.m. Wednesday, March 25.
“We were still concerned because the U.S. Embassy and the Honduran Government still didn’t know about it,” Nathan said.
The U.S. Embassy, a Honduran Governor, and congressman all wrote letters authorizing safe passage to help them get through the numerous military police checkpoints required where they were stopped and questioned but allowed to pass through.
Upon arriving at the Honduran Airport, which was guarded by Military Police, they were required to show proof they had a flight departing that day. When they came up to the check-in they were surprisingly greeted by the only United Airlines employee they had built a relationship with over the past six years, David Perdomo, who helped give the group a sense of peace that God was guiding their steps and took care of them through the remainder of the process. Herrington also found it humbling that God was working through regular people even more than through government entities.
“We still knew that nothing was done until we were in Houston,” Nathan said. “Anything could still happen and our government officials were still sharing not to get overly confident that we could still get shut down. We grew to always have three to four backup plans.”
Prior to this time, 12 to 18 hours a day had been spent on social media, phone and texts, gathering information that would be null and void by the next morning. After a brief power outage that could have jeopardized the flight, the time came to finally board the plane.
“We boarded the plane and were told that this was not a regularly scheduled flight, but an American rescue flight,” Nathan said.
The remainder of the process was smooth sailing as they arrived in Houston to plenty of customs agents, no lines and the shuttle waiting outside ready to go.
“The custom agent asked me, do you have anything to declare? I said YES, I want to declare I am happy to be home,” he said.
When the couple returned to pick up their son who had been seeing them via FaceTime, he was beside himself when this time the door opened and mom and dad were actually standing there.
“It is good to be home!” Nathan said. “I’m actually looking forward to the 14 days of self quarantine, it’s exciting for me.”
After such an amazing journey, to arrive back home, lessons were learned.
Pastor Herrington says the group has plans to return next year but will be caught up via news and current events prior to leaving. They still believe it was God’s will for them to go.
“One of the big points we got out of it is that if we will let go of our divisions, differences and instead focus on our similarities, there is nothing we can’t accomplish,” he said. “The only thing that matters right now is working together for the greater good of humanity.”
Relationships were strengthened, started, grown and restored to help the reach a common purpose.
“All of the distractions were let go in order to reach a solution to the problem. Relationships are huge. Finding similarities in our lives regardless are greatly important to help us accomplish what we need to in society and humanity. If God can provide peace through others, He was doing it.”
As the leader Herrington stayed strong and kept things stable for the team, but did not deny that alone in their room, emotional processing was happening daily.
“He will never lead you to a place that he won’t lead you out of,” he said. “That is very comforting in a world that is generally gripped with fear. Fear may try to emerge, but love for others and unity can really cause change that can effect the world.”
Thrive Church will be hosting online services at www.livewithpurpose.church and on its Facebook page Thrive Community Church Athens at normal service times of 9 a.m and 10:45 a.m. Sundays.
The church also plans on creating a fund for displaced missionaries which people can find on its website as well: www.livewithpurpose.church/give.
The team wishes to think all of the donors, including Marcus Lamb of Daystar Television Network who generously donated $3,000 dollars to help them get home and the numerous other people who assisted on various levels in getting them back.
“God was lifted up and honored through this,” Nathan said. “You can’t out-give God.”