The Chapel

Jake Horwitz

On a Sunday night in late October, I was hunched over a small podium in an airport chapel translating between English and Russian so I could talk to my new friend Tatiana. Tatiana was a 70-year-old woman, and at the time I was a 17-year-old boy. We had just met, but we would be talking for the next few hours getting to know each other, laughing, crying, and sharing stories.

The reason I was at an airport at night was because I had been left stranded by changes in my flight from Reagan National Airport to O’Hare. As a 17-year-old and by myself, I was considered an unaccompanied minor. So when the airline went to give out free hotel rooms to those who were on my flight, they could not give one to me. Instead, they told me that I could stay in the airport “chapel” for the night. The chapel was stationed next to the security guards, who would check up on me every few hours.

I do not know many people who are much less religious than myself, so hearing that I would have to spend the night in an airport chapel, alone, with no way to escape, made me want to implode. The thought of being in a religious setting has always made me rather uncomfortable. I grew up and continue to identify as Jewish, but I have always questioned religion. I have always understood the close-knit community aspect of religion that makes it so appealing, but what I fail to grasp is why one must believe in embellished stories and the outdated laws. This was my first time traveling alone, and I was trying to get back to Chicago from D.C. Although I knew at the time that I was very independent, it still frightened me to be alone at a small airport like this overnight. It would be different if I were stranded at O’Hare because it is always busy and flights never stop. But Reagan is different. It is deserted, the lights are off, and every step you take on the linoleum floor echoes for seconds across the vaulted ceilings.

After a couple hours of waiting at my gate, a security guard finally escorted me to my new home for the evening, a ten-by-ten square- foot room, with wooden seats along the perimeter. There was a podium in the center of the room with one Bible sitting atop it. All I could do was stare and hold my breath. When they told me I would be put up in a chapel for the night, I thought that at least I would get some pews and stained glass. In the chapel sat only women, most of who were talking quietly or on their phones. I expected the night to be quiet and rather boring. As I sat there, I listened and thought about the other people who were also stranded here like me. All I saw was a sassy woman (who would be on the phone for three hours straight), this one old lady who never took her eyes off me, and a cute girl next to me who would not even acknowledge my presence. I wondered where these women were off to, if they were trying to leave D.C. to go home, or if D.C. was home and they were trying to get away for the week. I wondered why they were in D.C., what their jobs were, and who they were. They all seemed tired and annoyed at the whole situation, so I figured it would be best not to disturb anyone. The girl next to me fell asleep while watching Netflix, so I figured I would help myself and watch some muted Bridesmaids. Unfortunately the silent movie was not helping, and I was going crazy; I could not take sitting still any longer. I was getting antsy, so I decided to try and find something to eat.

When I returned to my wooden seat in the chapel, I noticed an older woman I had not seen before. She had pulled the Bible podium close to her seat and was using it to write. I tried to ignore her as I went on my phone, but at one point she tapped me on the shoulder and asked how to pronounce different English words. She introduced herself as Tatiana, and told me she was trying to write thank-you notes to some of her friends. Her accent immediately told me she spoke Russian. From that point on, we began to talk in broken English nonstop for the next couple hours. Tatiana’s flight was also cancelled and she was on her way to see her son in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She told me that since she cannot speak English very well, no one seems to have the patience to talk to her in the U.S. She explained that because of this, she often feels extremely lonely when out in public. This made me feel sad, but at the same time it made me feel like I was helping someone in need.

I do not want to compare Tatiana to a needy person on the street, although her old Russian clothing might fool the average person. Instead, she was in need of company, and it was a pleasure to be able to do something so simple. My conversation with Tatiana meant a lot more to her than it did to me. This is because I take for granted how easily I can talk to any English-speaking person in the U.S., while she and so many English-learners like her struggle to communicate with impatient Americans. I reached for my phone to pull up Google Translate, which allowed us to talk a lot more meaningfully than before.

Tatiana told me how her parents had been in gulags because her father was an engineer and her mother was a scholar, and at the time, the Soviet Union viewed smart people as a threat. Tatiana went on to tell me how her father managed to escape his labor camp to meet her mother and their daughter, young Tatiana. They left everything they knew and immigrated to America to start a new life.

I was stunned. From looking at this plain old woman, you would never guess all that her family has been through. As she mentioned places that she remembered and longed to see again, I pulled up images on my phone to show her. The sweet woman broke out in tears when she saw her old university in Saint Petersburg, the town she used to live in, and even her old apartment building. As she cried, I started to tear up too. I thought about what it would be like to not have seen my hometown in over forty years, and out of nowhere, a teenage boy in an airport is able to show me vivid pictures of the buildings I used to walk by every day.

This woman, Tatiana, was deeply religious. She wanted help finding some of her favorite Bible verses, and she asked if I could recite them out loud in English. We spent a long time trying to find Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Never having read the Bible before, I could not understand what she was saying when she kept repeating Ecclesiastes. I thought Tatiana was still speaking in Russian. But eventually, we located a beautiful poem that I later found was actually ascribed to King Solomon. The poem started like this:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Before this night, if I had been told I would have to read aloud Bible verses, I would have laughed and been almost terrified at that possibility. But seeing how much joy it brought Tatiana to hear these poems and share them with someone else was absolutely incredible. This poem struck me because it did not mention God at all, which is what I am used to in Judaism, and what I expected from the Christian Bible. From a Christian perspective, Ecclesiastes 3 is about how God has a plan for everything, and everything will happen when it is supposed to. Near the end of our night, when the tears were gone and the talking slowed, Tatiana thanked me for talking with her and insisted it was destiny or God that brought us together. Just as there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, there is a time to meet new people and have life-changing experiences.

What was really quite touching to me about this encounter was that it was not only meaningful to me, but to Tatiana as well. Tatiana grabbed the Bible and started scribbling in the front cover. Even though I am not religious, I still thought it was not the greatest idea to deface a public Bible. She then handed the Bible and a pen to me, and asked me to sign in. She had written the date and location, the Reagan Airport, and wanted me to sign the Bible so she could remember this night. I laughed and asked if she should really be stealing this Bible from the Airport, but she replied with a giggle and “Oh, they have more.”

From this experience I gained a new outlook on life. This would be what I describe as my “world traveler lens.” Seeing different parts of the world gives me a perspective I find to be extremely valuable. When I meet someone who is not from America, I do not stereotype them, but ask them to tell me about themselves, about where they are from, and about the difference between living in America and their past home. I also enjoy teaching them about where I am from and what I enjoy. Seeing the world through the eyes of a traveler lets me better understand that we really are the same, and that no matter what country someone is from, we all deserve to be treated like equals. This is exactly what I had the chance to hear from Tatiana. All in one night, I got to hear about the world through the eyes of a Russian, a mother, a deeply religious woman, someone who has experienced great joy and great loss, and someone who speaks a different language from me.

Now although Tatiana and I do not share the same religion, I feel I have gained a lot more respect for other religions and even my own through this encounter. This did not make me more religious as a person, so I believe less that it was fate and more in coincidence, but I see that religion can be a magical thing to some, and as long as it is used for good, who am I to deprive someone or disrespect someone because of what they believe in?

I like to look back at my meeting with Tatiana as a circumstance of great chance and fortune. As our meeting was a sign of God and destiny for Tatiana, it was luck for me. I believe that as we move through our lives, we find ourselves in situations good and bad, and it is what we choose to make of those situations that transform us into the people we become. I try to be an outgoing person, so when Tatiana approached me, I seized the opportunity. It would have been easy for me to ignore her and take a nap, but I have learned that sometimes the harder thing to do will lead to much more pleasure.

Instructor’s Memo

This narrative was written for an English 100 course that used the theme of being “in transition.” This broad theme spanned from personal changes to social transformations at large. Our Sequence 1 assignment asked students to give attention to everyday moments of change, as well as reflect upon an event or experience that profoundly altered their views. Jake’s memorable essay saw several stages before reaching its final form. A draft was first workshopped in class in a small group, then discussed with me during an individual conference. The initial draft had all the contents that make this essay distinctive: the focus on small and specific moments, such as Tatiana’s tap on the narrator’s shoulder; the quoted passage from the biblical poem; the series of transformations unfolding across the encounter, including the narrator’s realization of his own ease with the English language, and the overturning of previous assumptions of what religion may offer. But these elements were dampened by weaknesses in organization and clarity. After significant revisions, Jake delivered a final draft that engages readers right away and moves us adroitly through the narrator’s shifting perceptions and discoveries. The reworked structure and language do great service to what the writing wants to share, an unlikely connection forged across generations, cultures, and religious backgrounds.

—Erica Zhang

Writer’s Memo

I do not think of myself as a person who has a lot of unique moments in life, so when I was tasked with writing a narrative, I was perplexed. It was only after I really put some thought into my experiences, big and small, that I was able to uncover this small but impactful memory.

A lesson I wanted my readers to get out of this story was that one can find meaning in every moment of their life. By writing this piece, I really had to sit down and think about how that moment, in the chapel with Tatiana, shaped and influenced me. Her impact was not immediate; in fact, it was not until writing this short essay that I fully appreciated what she had done for me. The hardest part of writing this narrative was conveying this message, which has a lot of moving parts – word choice, formatting, order of events, and details. These aspects of the piece were critiqued and edited throughout the process, which only made it a stronger essay. Although it was a long process, with multiple revisions and a lot of input from friends, it was quite rewarding. My TA, Erica, suggested I start the piece with a “meet cute,” where I introduce Tatiana and hook the audience right from the start, instead of building up to her reveal. This was a challenge for me as I had never heard of this scene/writing style before, and I did not know how to go about introducing it into my paper. I was, however, able to implement this writing style after a bit of research. With help from Erica and peers, the paper turned out to be a lot more emotionally charged and meaningful than when I had begun.

— Jake Horowitz

Student Writing Award Honorable Mention: Narrative Essay


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The Chapel Copyright © 2019 by Jake Horwitz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.