A jovial young man with a guitar takes to the aisle along with a small chorus of other youngsters. They break into song and serenade those around them with a contemporary Christian hymn familiar to anyone who’s been at an Evangelical church a few Sundays.
It’s an awkward but familiar scene, in which eager believers proselytize their faith among strangers in a public setting. Except this time it’s taking place 30,000 feet in the air onboard a commercial EasyJet flight, as a widely mocked viral video of the incident from last weekend showed.
“We are taking this flight over for Jesus,” the man, identified as 24-year-old Singaporean Jonathan Neo, captioned an IG reel showing the video. The video was originally posted on TikTok and Instagram April 9 by his teammate Jack Jensz Jr, but went viral this weekend.
Some passengers—likely companions of Neo and Jensz—sang along. Other passengers whipped out their phones to take their own videos. A woman smiled as she watched Neo leading what he called “worship,” while others were less pleased with the unsolicited religious performance, with the man seated nearest Neo looking thoroughly uncomfortable.
“I asked the stewardess if we could worship over the plane. I’ve never done this before. She says, ‘Wait, I’ll ask the pilot,’” Neo said in the caption. “She comes back. It’s a go. I’ve got my team. We worship. We preach. It’s wild.”
Neo’s group then sang “How Great is Our God,” a staple at Christian church services. Jensz took a video from a nearby seat, panning through the cabin and to the window, catching a glimpse of the clouds whizzing by. “Worshipping Jesus 30,000 feet in the air!” his caption read. Sharing the video, Neo added, “We worshipped in six languages.”
While Neo’s social media accounts are now private and his IG reel is inaccessible, Jensz’ original posts on IG and TikTok are still live. The footage is now all over social media, with at least 35 million views on Twitter, and at least 563,400 views on TikTok. It triggered a flood of comments, with many commenters expressing that bringing the church onto a plane, where passengers had nowhere to go, was inappropriate and offensive.
“I would be wearing out my flight attendant call button,” said one Twitter user. “Y’all wouldn’t be OK with someone looking like me singing about Allah on a plane, so that stuff that he’s doing—that’s unacceptable too,” said a TikTok user sporting a full beard and moustache. “Inappropriate and honestly scary.”
U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somali-American, retweeted the video with the caption: “I think my family and I should have a prayer session next time I am on a plane. How do you think it will end?”
But amid the vitriol, some defended the impromptu performance. “I've had the cast of The Lion King, a military singing group, a barbershop quartet and a few others (mostly amateur groups). Sometimes annoying but not a crime, especially if they asked the pilot,” one user tweeted.
In an IG post on Monday, Australian pastor Jensz said his team were flying home after a month helping refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border. The team had asked if they could “sing one song to bring hope and joy,” as there were many Ukrainians onboard. The pilot and flight attendants agreed and introduced them to the passengers before letting them sing, Jensz said.
“I don’t have any comments on what’s happening politically,” Jensz told VICE World News when asked about the backlash from the viral video. “Our heart in all of this was to simply share the love of God with people. We have spent weeks in Ukraine helping the Ukrainian refugees. We helped by giving food, humanitarian aid and praying with them.”
Neo could not immediately be reached for comment. In an April 11 article by Christian website Thirst, Neo, who recently finished studying in London, said he had just backpacked through France and Spain, and was living in a missionary community in South Africa, when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“The Lord said really clearly: Go. I have never heard something so clear!” Neo said of the moment he felt an urge to go to Ukraine.
Neo then turned up at places in Poland where Ukrainian refugees gathered, strumming his guitar and singing to them. One Twitter user recognized Neo in the viral posts and shared his own video of Neo and his group.
“I just spent a week volunteering at the train station in Przemysl, Poland, right across from the Ukrainian border and saw the same people there,” the caption read. “They were playing to Ukrainian refugees stuck waiting hours for transportation, who'd just fled from the bombing of Kharkiv and Mariupol.”
That video of Neo also attracted the ire of commenters, with some claiming it was not what refugees needed at that moment. In the Thirst article, Neo said he and his group offered to sing for the refugees to let them know that they weren’t alone.
“People start to weep. Literally weep,” he said.
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This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the song being sung by Jonathan Neo is an Evangelical hymn.