pan am flight 103

People believe in things for all sorts of reasons. Faith in a divine being is no different in that sense. But my own time-tested faith in God rests primarily on experience.

Up to the age of sixteen, I had never been tested regarding what I believed. Not really. A church attender since before I was even a fetus, a nominal/sincere ‘believer’ by default, but cocooned. The hardships of life had either evaded me, or they were forming an orderly queue, preparing to pounce in the coming years.

Then, on 21st December 1988, something happened that would change our family and my life forever.

My 19 year-old sister, Helga, had been home for just a week before Christmas and was heading back that afternoon from our home in Birmingham (the original one in England) to the USA. We had struggled and struggled with each other for years, fought like cat and dog (her being the aggressive cat!). For the first time in years, that week I had experienced a loving, caring sister. On the departure day I didn’t want her to go back to her gap-year job as an au pair in New Jersey. But I needed to do some Christmas shopping, so I headed into the city, determined to get back before my sister left for the airport.

Later that afternoon, I returned home, having totally forgotten that Helga was due to leave for the airport at 2pm.

She had already left.

Afternoon turned into evening, and I sat upstairs watching something on the old TV set. Suddenly, the program that I was watching was interrupted with a news flash. A plane had come down over a town in the Scottish Borders. The cameras showed dark mounds of rubble and earth, silhouettes of walled structures that had been houses just an hour previous, with flames rising behind them. I shuddered, and experienced that momentary grief that anyone with half a heart would have in such circumstances – a deep sadness for the unknown families of those affected. Sympathy, but no empathy. I remember thinking, “Some people are going to have a miserable Christmas and New Year…”

Downstairs the phone rang. It was Auntie Winnie (I say “Auntie”, but everyone in the church and in our neighbourhood in those days was an auntie or uncle). My dad answered.

“Did Helga get away ok today?” Winnie asked.

“Yes, I think so. Why?” answered my dad.

“It’s just that I’ve seen a news flash on the TV about a plane coming down…”

I don’t know how long it took following that phone call, but at some point dad called me downstairs and the surreal began to unfold.

We turned on the TV downstairs, and sure enough, the same news item that I had seen minutes before was running. Sitting together on the couch, my parents and I learnt that Pan Am Flight 103, travelling from London Heathrow to New York City’s JFK, a Boeing 747, Clipper Maid of the Seas, had come down over the sleepy market town of Lockerbie, Scotland.

Our lives would never be the same.

In the coming days and weeks, many facts were established. Bodies strewn over the beautiful Scottish Borders countryside were recovered, along with parts of the plane and people’s luggage. Politicians and dignitaries attended memorial services; private funerals and wakes took place in the U.S., U.K. and other lands. For weeks and month,s the tabloids and the television were fascinated and saturated with the fall-out of this event……and it still runs in the media even as I write this.

There are many things that I could mention from that time. I could write of the nightmare of the local farmers, daily discovering remains of corpses, of watches still alive and ticking whilst their owners’ lives had ceased. I could write a book about the kindness of strangers throughout the intense grief and shock that we and other families underwent.

But most important, this period of my life is watermarked with the unbelievable, tangible sense of God’s presence in my darkest hour. In our darkest hour.

We found that, when everything around us seemed to point only to tragedy, to grief, to questions of “Why?”, when we were faced with such an injustice that God could have prevented…. The ‘Good Shepherd’ that I had grown up hearing about was there!

On that first night, once the many friends and church family members had come and gone through our doors, we prayed as a family. Just mum, dad and me. We didn’t understand, we were scared and confused, but we in effect said, “God, this is when we need to know that you’re real, and that you’re with us.”

He came.

He enveloped us in what I can only describe as a kind of bubble; an almost tangible, peaceful place in which he allowed us to experience deep grief, but minus the despair. I can’t adequately describe it to you as a reader… but all sense of hatred, revenge and unforgiveness just dissipated within this amazing force field. He had us. And he was not going to let us wallow and quit the journey that we had started with him.

The months and years since the tragic loss of my sister have been filled with proof of God’s goodness. As a family we were encouraged within days of the tragedy by the words of the apostle Paul in the Bible, Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil by doing good.” Here was an opportunity to use our moment in the world’s spotlight to see something of immediate and eternal worth emerge. As a result of my sister’s death, here are just a few of the things that we have had the privilege of being involved in.

In 1993, a children’s home in Santiago, Luzon (Northern Philippines) was built with donations we received after the funeral. There are currently eighteen abused and abandoned children being loved, educated and restored in that home, one hundred and eighteen children have passed through over the years, and local authorities have estimated that over fifty percent of them would not have survived without this project.

In 2004, in a place called Ooty, Tamil Nadu, in India, another children’s home was built. Thirty-two orphaned and destitute girls are being cared for and educated there as I write this. Without this home, they would not have a future.

In the Himalayan north of Pakistan, there is now a hostel for girls who would otherwise lack the protection and education that they desperately need.

In Libya (the homeland of the man convicted for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103), a home for children who are mentally or physically handicapped now possesses a top-of-the-range Landrover ambulance, enabling the staff to get the children to hospital with ease, and to take them on pleasure trips. Some of these children had never been to the seaside before, although they live just a few miles down the road from the coast.

Many other faith-based and humanitarian projects around the world have been enhanced through our personal tragedy. And many hundreds, maybe thousands of people, have invited this God into their lives because they heard and saw what he had done for us as a family.

On a personal level, this is the miracle of my God’s goodness to me: I have not been overcome with unforgiveness and anger. Instead, I have been able to walk on from that evening before Christmas in 1988, free from bitterness, able to forgive, and wanting to make a difference in the world.

As I journey on through this short span of time we call life today, my life still encounters tragedy. Not long ago, we lost my wife’s brother very suddenly to cancer. We are not immune just because we trust in an all-powerful and loving God. But I know this. Whatever comes, he has me. And I wouldn’t swap that for anything.

Read a short account of Helga’s story here.

Marcus, 43
Lancaster, England
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