AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

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 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 in his silver Ford Fusion 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.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they 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.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

The job is unlike other church assignments. There isn’t a 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 non-denominational pastor at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “Many times, we touch lives we never see again.”

I’m confused: Chaplains aren’t there to proselytize, but this is a “church assignment” where one might “preach to a crowd that is transient by nature,” and one chaplain reports, “we touch lives we never see again.” How, apart from the word “preaching” and the job being a “church assignment,” is this work, as described, markedly different from the work of Traveler’s Aid International, also kindly profiled in a recent media report? Or, for that matter, from the attentions of a dedicated airport worker or airline employee?

My confusion grew when reading this bit:

The first airport chapel was founded at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1954. Today there are chapels as far away as Geneva, Istanbul and Bangkok. 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. As flights near boarding, worshippers duck out.

“People are a little bit uptight already. It’s a great environment for ministry,” says the Rev. Hutz Hertzberg, the 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.”

Why didn’t the AP reporter ask a bit more about the “ministry” that this environment is “great” for? If there are services, what is preached? And again, what makes someone such as the Rev. Hertzberg of Chicago different from a Traveler’s Aid worker? And what does the word “Protestant” mean, in this context? More information, please?

We don’t know the answers, I suspect, because the questions weren’t asked. While no one expects an airport chaplain to hold a full-fledged revival service on a runway, I have to imagine that something more than just quiet hand-holding or the dispensing of handkerchiefs takes place. Might there be some rather important, spiritual conversations? And might some of those talks result in discoveries by travelers or, more likely, airport employees who might see one of these chaplains more regularly?

I have the feeling that might be the case — but again, it’s only a feeling, because those questions and answers aren’t there. And, while not wanting to be too politically correct, I should note that the majority of clergy interviewed were male and either Catholic or vaguely Protestant. (As a reader pointed out in the comments, the Rev. Wina Hordijk of Amsterdam is a female.) I’m guessing there are additional female clergy, not to mention a few rabbis and imams out there in airport chaplain-land, and finding these would have made for a more complete picture as well.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to note the correct gender for the Rev. Wina Hordijk and to rephrase the final sentence above.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Will E.

    I wasn’t surprised by the American chaplains describing themselves/being described as Protestant – that’s the label in the U.S. military for its non-Catholic Christian chaplains. I do join you in wondering what the Protestant label means in Europe for chaplains such as the Rev. Dassonville and the Rev. Hordijk — who, if my Google skills are correct, is female: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SStyUYkgomc (love the term luchthavenpastor, BTW)

    • Mark A. Kellner

      I stand corrected — and will amend the post accordingly.

  • Darren Blair

    I’m thinking that these articles were approached more as “special interest” pieces rather than “religion” pieces, in which case whoever did them likely didn’t *know* to ask for such details.

  • Julia B

    Francis has essentially said that Christians are in danger of becoming no different than NGOs. Seems like this fits right in with that assessment.

  • Matt

    In the case of the Revs. Dassonville and Hordijk, “Protestant” may be a specific term. The largest Protestant denomination in France is the “United Protestant Church of France,” a recent unification of Lutheran and Reformed churches. The largest Protestant church in the Netherlands is the “Protestant Church in the Netherlands,” another Lutheran/Reformed unification.

    • Julia B

      I think there is a similar union of Reformed and other non-Catholic Christian churches in Germany.

  • Kevin Spencer

    The writer’s understanding of religious discussion is wanting, here. Note the use of “proselytize” when “evangelize,” something that all Christians are called to do (but in the right time, context, and invitation) is more appropriate here.

  • airportchaplains

    Why does the whole issue have to be treated in a binary manner “either, or?” Jesus was healing people right where they were quite often without religious context. The airport chaplains have the same attitude: when they need to address the issue from a pure religious standpoint they do that. Quite often, however, it is simply being there as an understanding and empathetic human being.
    As for pope Francis, he calls it a church that goes out to the streets and becomes relevant to peoples lives, instead of staying “indoors’ and preaching to the choir.


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