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.
The Rev. Mr. 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. Mr. 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 said. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”
Most people don’t.
Airports are miniature 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 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 of airports.
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.”
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 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 — very few passengers confess 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.
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.