ATLANTA » The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met.
Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice or someone to pray with.
On this day a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.
"He didn’t say a whole lot, but just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring," Gilbert says. "I didn’t know that airports have chaplains."
Most people don’t.
Airports are minicities with their own movie theaters, fire departments and shopping malls. Many also have chapels, typically tiny nondenominational spaces, in out-of-the-way locations. They offer an escape from constant gate change and security announcements and are staffed by 350 part- and full-time chaplains worldwide — Roman Catholic, Protestant and, to a lesser extent, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh.
The positions are highly sought-after and considered glamorous, with chaplains saying they love the excitement and unpredictability.
The job is unlike other church assignments. There is no permanent congregation. No baptisms, weddings or funerals. Instead, airport chaplains preach to a crowd that is transient by nature.
Trust must be earned quickly. There’s little time for small talk. Everybody is rushing to catch a flight.
"You only get one chance to impress them, one chance to help them," says Bishop D.D. Hayes, a nondenominational pastor at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. "Many times we touch lives we never see again."
Services are held daily or weekly, but most ministering occurs elsewhere.
Chaplains see troops off to war and are on hand when bodies of the fallen return. They comfort fliers visiting sick relatives and those traveling for medical treatment themselves. During weather delays, chaplains take the heat off gate agents by standing nearby — passengers tend to be on their best behavior when in the presence of a priest.
They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often the chaplains just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.
"When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes," says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.
The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend — but he dumped her at the start of the trip.
"I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag," Hordijk says.
The Rev. Jonathan Baldwin, who is assigned by the Church of England to London’s Gatwick Airport, was once asked by a couple to join them as their son and his new wife returned from their honeymoon. The groom’s sister had committed suicide the day after the wedding. Baldwin found a quiet room for them to meet, break the news and cry privately.
Chaplains also support thousands of airport workers. Employees at ticket counters, security checkpoints and control towers are under extreme stress. They often need to chat with somebody independent from their job.
For those who work Sundays, the airport chapel becomes their de facto church.
"You come into a chapel, you know you’re in God’s house," says Vibert Edwards, who prays daily before starting his shift as a baggage handler at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The first airport chapel was founded at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1954. Today there are chapels as far away as Istanbul and Bangkok. Catholic dioceses assign— and pay for — priests at larger airports. In some cases, airports or airlines provide financial support. Many chaplains are volunteers.
Services are quick and informal. If 20 people arrive it’s a big crowd. As flights near boarding, worshippers duck out.
"It’s a great environment for ministry," says the Rev. Hutz Hertzberg, senior Protestant chaplain at Chicago’s two airports. "In the 21st century we need to bring the ministry to where the people are instead of waiting for them to come to our churches."
Scott Mayerowitz, Associated Press