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Airport chaplains let fliers connect with heavens

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 2013 9:41 a.m. MST

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," says Vibert Edwards, who prays daily before starting his shift as a baggage handler at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

To relate, chaplains learn airport lingo, for instance calling workers who unload luggage from planes "ramp rats."

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."

Getting them to services isn't always easy.

The focus of this year's annual conference of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains in Atlanta — yes, the chaplains have their own trade group — was marketing. Announcements are made prior to services, but most travelers are too preoccupied with their travel plans to notice.

"We sometimes have to reach out to people who have no idea we exist," says the Rev. Chris Piasta, a Catholic priest at JFK's Our Lady of the Skies Chapel, home to a statue of Mary standing on a propeller.

JFK is one of the few airports with separate chapels for each religion. Most airports share non-denominational spaces. Crosses are placed on altars prior to services and removed after. Bookshelves are stocked with texts of all religions, often in multiple languages.

Even those who know chapels exist sometimes can't find them. They are tucked away in odd corners of the airport: next to baggage claim in St. Louis, sandwiched between two tram stations in Orlando and above a Cinnabon and barbecue joint in Charlotte, N. C.

"Can you imagine the smells we're getting?," says Ben Wenning, a Roman Catholic deacon there.

Chaplains are also on hand for major crises.

When volcanic ash shut down European airspace in 2010, New York's chaplains provided stranded passengers with bagels and cream cheese, 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," says the Rev. Gordon M. Smith, a Protestant chaplain at Canada's Calgary International Airport.

Within the clergy, airport postings are in high demand. The job typically doesn't open up until an existing chaplain dies. And even after death, some chaplains remain close to the airport.

When the Rev. Peter Holloway, an Anglican priest at Australia's Melbourne airport, died in June at the age of 91, he was buried in a cemetery directly below the landing approach to Runway 16.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

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