The 24-member group from St. Michael's Truth Lutheran Church in Mitchellville had meticulously planned its pilgrimage to West Africa for nearly two years. Malaria pills and yellow fever vaccinations had been administered; bits of Ghana's native language had been learned; each had paid $2,400.
On July 26, the group, accompanied by their spiritual leader and pastor, Emmanuel Grantson, met early in the morning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, eager for their two-week journey to begin.
Then the bad news hit: The 13-hour flight to Ghana was delayed from 11:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. At 4 p.m., the group's members were told the flight would leave at 6 p.m. At 6 p.m., the departure was pushed to 9 p.m., at which time they were told the flight had been cancelled.
The passengers, many of whom are West Africans who had saved their money and vacation hours to make the trip back home, were shuttled to a nearby Ramada Inn on Fort Meade Road in Laurel. Their luggage stayed on the plane because, the group was told, it was easier. The flight would leave the next day, an official from Ghana Airways told the tired, sweaty, frustrated crowd.
"The next day came and went," said Deborah Lewis, 56, of Forestville, one of the two dozen congregants from St. Michael's. "The lack of communication was very unprofessional. We were told one thing only to have it change. By Wednesday [July 28], we weren't sure what to believe."
What Ghana Airways didn't tell the more than 200 passengers on that flight was that its operating license had expired and that U.S. inspectors had spotted corrosion on the DC-10 the airline uses to fly into and out of the United States. Despite warnings from U.S. transportation officials to cancel its flights, the airline had twice flown its aircraft into and out of the United States. But passengers of Ghana flights didn't learn about the problems with the airline until July 28, after many of them had already boarded a shuttle at the Ramada Inn, which was to take them back to the airport for a supposed late-night flight to Ghana.
"It was really a low blow because even after all that waiting, and waiting without our luggage, we really wanted to leave on the trip," said George Lewis, 63, Deborah's husband.
Transportation officials said earlier this week that the aircraft will remain grounded until an investigation is conducted. Arrangements with a charter airline were made to fly stranded passengers to Ghana and to return those marooned in Ghana to the United States.
None of that was of comfort to Bowie resident Ernestine Hayes, 65, who said the group's members spent hours each month preparing for their trip. The trip, she and other church members said, was a "chance of a lifetime."
Grantson, who emigrated from Ghana in 1981, said that although he has visited several times, this was to be his first trip home in four years. As the church pastor, he said he had looked forward to navigating the group through his native country and villages as well as helping them find connections between West African religious rituals and Christianity.
Although the congregants have not yet received a refund from their travel agent, they are already in the midst of planning again for the pilgrimage.
"It was just so disappointing that this didn't work out for us, but we're going to try again next year," Grantson said.
"But you can bet that next year, we're going to use a different airline."