POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 3, 2014
ATLANTA » The young man, weighed down by luggage and despair, was a first-time flier on his way to a funeral in Detroit. His father's.
He was unaware that most airlines no longer haul checked bags free, and he was short on money. So workers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport did what they often do when passengers encounter a problem: They sent him to the chapel.
The Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, in the atrium next door to a steak-and-brew restaurant, offers more than a two-item menu of spiritual guidance and comfort. It is the concierge for the disconnected. Maj. Larry Cowper of the Salvation Army and the Rev. Donna Mote of the Episcopal Church lent the traveler a sympathetic ear. Then Mote accompanied him back to the check-in, pulled out the chaplaincy credit card and covered the fee.
"We are kind of an extreme customer service," said the Rev. Chester R. Cook, senior chaplain at Hartsfield-Jackson, whose three full-time pastors are augmented by some 50 volunteers representing 10 faiths. The airport, the world's busiest, serves more than 225,000 passengers a day.
As flight delays worsen, security lines bulge and nerves fray, chaplains at airports across the country are cruising up and down concourses, casting a trained eye on the swirl of humanity in search of anybody who appears in need.
The range of tasks is becoming as limitless as the blue sky, including playing mediator at a ticket counter, buying a hot meal for the hungry, arranging hotel rooms for the stranded and bus rides for the broke. They still offer religious services, and even conduct the occasional wedding, but God's work in the airport concourse is increasingly about solving pressing earthly problems.
"The very essence of what we do has shifted," said the Rev. Chris Piasta, a Catholic priest who oversees Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at Kennedy Airport and also spends time at La Guardia Airport, which does not have a chapel. Being an airport chaplain, he said, is no longer about sitting idly in the chapel waiting for the afflicted to arrive.
Many U.S. airports have clerics of some kind, but none more comprehensively than Atlanta's, where the chaplaincy is under the auspices of a nonprofit sustained by grants and donations. Only Cook draws a salary from the chaplaincy; the two other regulars are assigned and compensated by their denomination.
Mote, the Episcopal pastor, was newly arrived last November, still in training, when, on a hunch, she checked the departures board for lengthy delays. Noticing one, she proceeded to the gate area and found a traveler agitated by the realization that she would miss her aunt's funeral. "I'm on the edge of a panic attack," the woman confided.
A simple request from Mote - that the woman discuss her aunt - turned into an impromptu memorial service. Then the chaplain elicited a belly laugh and led the woman in prayer.
Chaplains also play the role of peacemaker, like the time Mote defused a confrontation by stepping between an irate traveler and an airline aide. She gently placed her hands on the frustrated flier and "talked him down," she said, noting that airline policies restricting physical contact with fliers do not apply to chaplains.
She was not around to prevent a young man from striking his girlfriend in a boarding line. While he was carted off to jail, Mote negotiated with the airline to place the shaken woman on a subsequent flight at no extra charge.
"We can do things to have an impact," said Cowper, whose experiences run from the tragic to the trivial in his nearly six years at the airport: helping workers cope with the suicide of a passenger or a co-worker, phoning consulate general offices to assist a foreign traveler with an expired passport or fixing issues with improper names on plane tickets.
Recently, Celeste Millen of New Port Richey, Fla., and an adult daughter were burdened by excess luggage when they saw Mote in cleric's garb on a train en route to Hartsfield-Jackson. She helped with the bags and also guided Millen to a check-in counter near the train at the airport, then lingered to wish them well on their journey.
"It was like an angel had come to us," said Millen, joking that her daughter is an over-packer. "She had a manner that put us at ease."
Chaplains also tend to the airport workforce.
"To the traveling public, we are Good Samaritans," Cowper said. "To the airport employees, we are pastoral."
On his daily strolls, Cowper makes a point to address those whom he labels the "invisible workers," behind-the-scenes laborers like Bryant Woods, a shoeshine man. Last summer, before Woods underwent prostate surgery, Cowper shared a prayer at his station.
"He helped me get through the surgery," Woods said.
Cowper has also ministered to a Transportation Security Administration crew that was coping with three employee deaths in a short span.
And there was an older boy of limited mental capacity, essentially abandoned by his mother who sent him on a flight with no money or instructions.
On the brighter side, besides conducting weddings, he has met a man who introduced himself as Jesus.
After his shift one evening, Cowper answered his cellphone, and a gate agent put a passenger on the phone who said, "I'm on my way to kill a man."
Cowper pried out some details: The passenger believed an investigation into the apparent murder of his daughter was dragging, and he was after a suspect. They chatted, and the caller said before hanging up: "Thanks. You've given me something to think about."
Sifting through the news over the next few weeks did not turn up any account of a revenge murder, to Cowper's relief.
At an airport, where fliers and workers are bound to the clock, crises large and small must be addressed quickly.
"We have a very small window," Cowper said from his office. Just outside, in the chapel, a sign promotes the Christian worship service Sunday mornings, from 11:30 to 11:45. There is also an Islamic service most Fridays; those for other faiths are held periodically.
Unlike Europe, where partnerships between airports and chaplain organizations are common, the standard model in the United States is for airports simply to provide space to the clerics and give them free rein of the premises. Chapels are common in the Eastern and Central United States, but major airports out West remain without them, something the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains would like to change. The board of the association, meeting last week in Amsterdam, chose as the theme of its summer convention how to promote its value in airports.
The chaplains have certainly seen the need. In Atlanta, as Mote picked up the bill for the young man's luggage, he lauded her for emitting positive energy. Then he offered to pay her back - eventually.
Mike Tierney, New York Times