Flying with Luther on the 500th

by Victor Nelson

I did not intentionally plan to fly on Oct 31, 2017, which was both the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and Halloween. For the sake of convenience and a low ticket price, however, that was the day I selected. When planning the trip, I also did not at first think of wearing a Martin Luther costume. But the idea came to me as the travel day was approaching. I thought, what do I have to lose?

4:45 a.m. Tuesday, October 31. I pass through Security at Albany International Airport with the Martin Luther costume tucked in my carry-on.

5:00 a.m. I put on the costume, pinning on a sign that reads:

For a KitKat:
Who am I?
What did I do 500
years ago today?

5:05 a.m. I’m sitting in the gate pretending to read my iPad and feeling very self-conscious. I am praying for the day and for an opportunity to witness. Others arrive, look over my way, and totally ignore me.

5:15 a.m. A woman sits down next to me, glances over, and then moves. Not a very good start. As the chairs in the gate fill up, no one says anything! I wonder, should I change out of the costume? I’m feeling very uncomfortable. This is not me.

5:40 a.m. The Southwest gate agent announces, “Good morning, and Happy Halloween! We will begin boarding in a few minutes. I don’t see anyone wearing a costume. Too bad, as I have a prize for anyone with a costume on.” Right away I stand up and go to the agent, who asks my name and says, “Victor has a costume on, and he will receive a $25 voucher for future travel. Congratulations, Victor!” People clap politely.

5:50 a.m. A few people finally begin talking to me. A man says, “You’re Luther! Our church just showed the new Luther movie.” He takes my picture. I give away my first KitKat. A couple comes up and asks, “Who are you?” I explain about Martin Luther, how he pointed to Jesus and forgiveness. The man behind me in line guesses, “Luther.” I emphasize that Luther pointed to Jesus and the forgiveness the Savior offers.

6:05 a.m. A late-arriving young woman sits next to me on the plane and asks incredulously, “Who are you?” For the next two hours, she tells me about some difficulties in her life that she’s been trying to figure out. I share a Christian perspective on each and offer her some biblical resources that I hope will be helpful. It is the most intense conversation I have ever had on a plane.

8:30 a.m. I arrive at Midway Airport, Chicago, for a two-and-a-half-hour layover. As I walk toward my gate in a different terminal, my bag of KitKats visible, people look at me. Some avert their eyes, some smile, some stare in puzzlement — but no one says anything. I quickly learn that I have to speak first to those who stare and don’t look hurried, and ask: “Did you figure it out?” They usually stop, I give a hint, and some get it. Others know that I’m Martin Luther. A man comes up to me and asks, “Where’s your hammer and nail?”

9:00 a.m. I get to the gate and call my wife. While I’m on the phone, a woman interrupts and says, “Luther!” I give her a KitKat. I have conversations with other people at the gate who don’t know who I am. I explain about Luther and about Jesus, and I give them candy. I stand up facing a crowd of people walking by, and a 25-year-old woman stops and says, “You’re Luther. We just had a Reformation Party, and my friend had the same costume.” She takes a picture to text her friend. Someone else says, “The man who started the Lutheran Church. What was his name? I don’t remember.” I give him hints. Eventually I tell him, “Martin Luther” and he says, “Oh, I should have known.” He gladly takes the candy I offer.

When I go to purchase breakfast, the young merchant stares at me. There are no other customers, so I ask, “Who am I?” He says, “The one who saves — Jesus?” I explain about Luther, and we talk about Jesus. I pass a businessman working on his laptop. He stares, so I pop the question. An airport janitor speaks to me in a foreign language. I can’t understand him, but I give him a KitKat, saying, “Jesus loves you.”

By now I’ve given away all 40 of my KitKats. I see a man and ask, “Did you figure it out?” He says he went to Catholic Schools where he studied about Luther and indulgences. Others were listening. “I’m out of candy,” I say.

Another woman sees me and says, “It’s Luther! I ought to know. I teach catechism to fifth and sixth graders.” When I tell her I’m out of candy, she responds, “You ought to get more candy or change the sign.” I buy more candy from a nearby stand. It’s expensive, but now I have 24 more pieces to give away! I find the woman at her gate and give her a piece.

An elderly woman and her daughter are staring at me. They have no clue who I am. I explain about Luther and Jesus. “I heard of Luther,” one of them exclaims, “Praise the Lord!” Waiting to board my plane, a pilot looks at my sign. “Did you figure it out?” I ask. He responds, “It’s Reformation Day!” When I ask, “How do you know?” he smiles and says, “My wife keeps me informed.”

10:50 a.m. I board the plane to Louisville. A man toward the front of the plane asks, “Who are you?” With people pressing behind me, all I can say is, “Google it! ‘What happened 500 years ago today?’” He grabs his phone and says that he will. I sit in a window seat, and there is a man in the aisle seat. He does not look my way, but stares straight ahead and pretends I’m not there. I say nothing and take a little nap on the short flight.

12:00 p.m. I deplane in Louisville, and the flight attendant says, “The Reformation, I’m aware!”

12:05 p.m. A couple waiting at the gate to board the plane points to me, “Luther! We’re heading to Germany to visit Luther sites.” We chat a bit, and they give me candy! At the baggage claim, a woman comes up to me, “It took me the entire flight to remember — Martin Luther!”

. . . 

The Rev. Victor Nelson in costume and ready for his Reformation Day flight.
The Rev. Victor Nelson — in costume and all ready for his Reformation Day flight.

In this one morning of travel, I was privileged to speak with over 75 people from different cultures and backgrounds, telling them about Martin Luther and sharing the good news about Jesus. Not only did I come away from this experience with new friends and two empty candy bags, but I also gleaned some helpful thoughts on witnessing in our various vocations:

  1. Pray. Pray for the opportunity to witness and that God would open hearts to receive the Good News.
  2. Let the Holy Spirit lead. Do not force the witness, but look for the opening that the Lord may be giving.
  3. Be ready. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
  4. Let love be your motive. Our witness is empowered by God’s love for us in giving us a Savior and out of our love for other people.
  5. Leave your comfort zone. Often we must step out of our comfort zones to witness about Jesus. Our world intimidates us into silence. God gives us courage to speak up.
  6. Focus on the Savior. Our focus can easily drift to less-essential aspects of the faith, but we want to witness to the forgiveness and hope we have from the Savior Jesus.
  7. Leave results to God. I have no idea how God may use the witness of that Reformation Day, but I trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of the people I encountered.
  8. Learn from experience. As I went on through the morning, I was learning how to be a better witness in my circumstance. As we gain experience sharing the Good News, we learn over time to be more confident and winsome witnesses.


12:20 p.m. Darrin, my unsuspecting son-in-law, sees a monk walking down the terminal sidewalk and wonders who will be picking him up. He checks his rear-view mirror, expecting to see a vanload of monks waiting. Little does he know …

The Rev. Victor Nelson is senior administrative pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Cairo, New York. 

3 thoughts on “Flying with Luther on the 500th”

  1. What a great experience to have and to share. Thanks for being the example in deed and word. Makes one wonder why only pastors (and nuns) regularly wear a “costume” that communicates the faith. And doing this in a spirit of love, by sharing candy, is a model churches could use more often.
    Thanks for your story!

  2. Darrin’s anticipated reaction was the punctuation mark, exclamatory in nature, at the end of your delightful tale. Thank you! I pray for such boldness in witnessing my faith that my Darrins might likewise behold me quizzically.

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