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 of 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.
At the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, 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 about 50 volunteers representing 10 faiths.
In the chapel, a sign promotes the Christian worship service Sunday mornings, from 11:30 to 11:45. There is also an Islamic service on most Fridays; those for other faiths are held periodically. 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, and 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 John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and also spends time at nearby 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.
Chaplains sometimes 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.
“We can do things to have an impact,” said Cowper, who has been on the job in Atlanta for nearly six years.