Angels at the Airport
Not everyone bustling through a crowded airport concourse is headed to a business power lunch or a leisurely Caribbean cruise. Some travelers, such as those heading to bereave a lost loved one or visit a sick relative, pack emotional baggage that can't be claimed on a luggage carousel. Even happy, healthy travelers can find themselves frustrated by the headaches of modern air travel-unforeseen fees, long security lines, and unpredictable delays.
Rev. Mr. Peter Broussard and Chaplain DD Hayes
Increasingly, airport chaplains are there to help passengers with problems both big and small. More often than not, their guidance has very little to do with spirituality and a lot more to do with tackling immediate issues such as finding a departure gate or a place to spend the night.
Airport chaplaincies have been around since the first one opened in 1951 at Boston's Logan International Airport (today over 30 airports across the U.S. claim non-denominational chaplaincies), but, for the most part, the quiet "airport angels" who work for these organizations have flown under the radar, unnoticed by most.
A September 9th feature on NPR catapulted these do-gooders onto the national stage when they profiled Chaplain Chester Cook of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The United Methodist chaplain works out of the airport atrium chapel of the Atlanta airport, which welcomes an estimated 250,000 passengers per day (of these travelers, approximately 1,500 pay a visit to Cook's 1,040-square-foot chapel). NPR reports that the core of Rev. Cook's ministry of compassion-in-transit is modeled after the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan-the Gospel tale that recounts the traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who rescues a beaten and robbed wayfarer, dressing his wounds and paying for his expenses at an inn.
Cook explains that airport chaplains do not just aide passengers in the event of a spiritual melt-down, they also reach out in practical ways that help weary travelers. Cook, for example, has been known to pay for a stranded passenger's flight re-ticketing fee out of his own wallet. He also guides lost and out-of-breath passengers to their gates through the terminal's congested labyrinth. In the profile, Cook tells NPR he once aided of an elderly woman who was told by the airline she couldn't fly out for three days after the carrier refused to change her ticket. The lady was put on the next flight to her destination after Cook threatened to call the local news channels. He remembers asking the airline manager to empathize with the women as if she were his own 81-year old grandmother. Despite Cook's many good deeds, the minister is quoted by NPR, saying, "Your heart goes out, and sometimes you can't do anything."
Cook's Atlanta airport chaplaincy has 40 part-time chaplains, including former pilots who minister to current pilots and retired military who chat with soldiers, according to NPR. USA Today reports in an August 3rd article that the Atlanta chapel has recently undergone a $200,000 face-lift, removing denomination-specific symbols to promote an interfaith appeal to Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. The chapel also ministers to flight attendants, baggage handlers, and other airport employees, as well as runaways and women fleeing abusive relationships, according to NPR.
Cook and his chaplaincy are not alone. We reached out to other chaplaincies across the country to find out what their day-to-day airport jobs were like and many of them reported similar experiences to Rev. Cook.
Rev. Mr. Peter Broussard, who works as a chaplain at the Coos Bay Airport in Oregon, for example, can recall many memories of comforting passengers who pass through the airport. Once, he encountered a woman who was flying standby all the way to Columbia because her son had died. "I was able to talk with her, comfort her, pray with her," Broussard recalled. As the two were praying, another woman asked if she might pray join them. Broussard came to find out that the woman's husband had just died and she was on her way home.
Of course, the chaplain is not only at the airport for the benefit of the passengers-he's also there to comfort employees.
At one point, Broussard was called in to intercept a flight attendant who was changing planes in Albequerque as part of her shift. "They had found the body of her father-he had been hiking and got lost in the woods," Broussard said. He told her about what had happened and comforted her when she landed.
Chaplain DD Hayes from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport in Texas tells a similar tale of people he has comforted, including a woman whose husband and son had recently passed away. "We spent time with her and gave her support," he explained to us. Not all travel woes are so tragic-he also tells a story about a struggling actress from California who had missed her flight and needed a place to videotape her audition for a movie. Rev. Hayes let them use the chaplaincy to film the audition.
"So my day can go from consoling someone who suffered a tremendous loss, to helping an actress get a part in a movie," he said. "I haven't found out yet if she got the part. I'm praying for her."
Religious or not, it helps to know that there is someone on your side when you're in transit. The next time you find yourself in need of a helping hand (or even just a friendly ear) at the airport remember that the chaplains are there to help. You can find a full list of airport chaplaincies across the country here, but we've also rounded up a list of the major airports across the U.S. where these unexpected "angels" work:
Top Ten Major Cities with Airport Chaplains
Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport: ATL Chapel Website
Chicago O'Hare International Airport: ORD Chapel Website
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport: DFW Chapel Website
Denver International Airport: DEN Chapel Website
New York (JFK): JFK Chapel Website
George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston: IAH Chapel Website
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport: PHX Chapel Website
Newark Liberty International Airport: EWR Chapel Website
Washington Dulles International Airport: IAD Chapel Website
Charlotte Douglas International Airport: CLT Chapel Website