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 before.
Colladay’s parish is 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 said. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”
Most people don’t.
Airports are mini-cities 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 are staffed by 350 part- and full-time chaplains worldwide.
The positions are highly sought-after, with chaplains saying they love the excitement and unpredictability of airports.
There isn’t a permanent congregation. No baptisms, weddings or funerals.
Trust must be earned quickly – everybody is rushing to catch a flight.
“Many times, we touch lives we never see again,” said the Rev. D.D. Hayes, a nondenominational pastor at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
There are daily or weekly services, 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. 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.
Often, the chaplains just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions.
“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” said the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Chaplains 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 teenager crying by herself. The girl was supposed to travel Europe with her boyfriend – but he dumped her.
“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk said.
Then there are the more serious situations.
The Rev. Jonathan Baldwin, who is assigned 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 obtained a quiet room for them to meet, break the news and cry privately.
Chaplains don’t just support fliers; there are also 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,” said 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. Catholic dioceses assign – and pay – for priests at larger airports. In some cases, airports or airlines will provide financial support. Many chaplains are volunteers.
Services are quick and informal. If 20 people arrive, it’s a big crowd.
Chaplains are also on hand for major crises.
When volcanic ash shut down European airspace in 2010, New York’s chaplains provided stranded passengers bagels, fresh shirts and socks, laptops to check emails, and helped refill medications.
After a crash, they help console victims’ families.
“When the first responders leave, we’re the ones who show up,” said the Rev. Gordon M. Smith, a Protestant chaplain at Calgary International Airport.