National Edition

Travelers in West wing it without airport chaplains

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 6:55 p.m. MDT

"The reason is we are space constrained," said Barbara Gann, public relations and marketing director for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports. "We don't have available space to dedicate to a service. Haven't had demand. However, we do have people who work in the terminals who are trained (and) should someone request a service, we have a list of chaplains we can connect them with, the same chaplains we would use in a time of emergency."

Gann said that as the airport completes a new terminal under construction, a chapel is a "possibility" provided "we had available space."

Boon for travelers

One local supporter of both chapels and chaplaincy services — often found at area hospitals, regardless of affiliation — says bringing faith to fliers would be a boon for travelers.

"There's always a benefit for people to take time and think about a spiritual focus throughout the day in a busy life," said the Rev. Elias Koucos, rector of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church and chairman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. "I would love to see a facility where people could spend time in contemplation or prayer, depending on their desire. There are a lot of chaplaincy services for hospitals, home health (and) hospice care. I think it would be an added benefit for those with a desire as well at the airport."

At the Roman Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City, Monsignor Colin F. Fitzgerald, vicar general, expressed interest in a potential chaplaincy work for travelers. "If there was a facility available at the Salt Lake airport, we would then consider what services could be offered there," he said through a spokeswoman.

Some Western U.S. airports, such as Portland International Airport, say such services might be in less demand because the airport isn't a hub location, according to Steve Johnson, an airport spokesman.

"To date, we have just not heard a great deal of interest expressed by passengers in chaplaincy services," Johnson said in an email. "We think that may be related to the fact that we are an 'origin and destination' airport (where) passengers usually start or end their trip … spending less time in our airport than they might at a large 'hub' airport like Atlanta."

However, Johnson added, "We recognize that travelers may need a quiet space when traveling, and to that end, we offer quiet areas in our service centers located throughout the terminal."

Airport chaplains often do more than just lead a worship service. In 2012, Adventist World magazine carried a report about Jose A. Barrientos Jr., a Seventh-day Adventist minister who is a weekly volunteer at Washington Dulles. Barrientos, the magazine reported, "is a pastor, but he also serves as a guide, restaurant critic, and first-rate public relations representative."

Other airports, like Salt Lake City International, view chaplaincy as an emergency-based service. San Diego International Airport spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield said, "Information desks are located throughout the terminals and can provide passengers with contacts for local chaplain services. In the event of an emergency, the Airport Authority has plans in place to obtain chaplain services for both passengers and employees."

Even civil liberties issues sometimes intrude. Los Angeles International Airport spokesman Marcus Lowe said establishing a prayer chapel or chaplaincy service might violate legal doctrines outlining the separation of church and state, when asked why the airport lacks such options.

But MaryJean Dolan, a Chicago attorney specializing in church-state issues, said that might not be the case. While defending an in-airport chapel might be "tricky," she said, "under the right circumstances, the spaces are defensible."

As to chaplains themselves, if clergy were "hired by the airport (authority)" such a hiring "might be more easily challenged," Dolan said. However, chaplains who are paid by their sponsoring organization or via private funding such as a charity established for that purpose, would likely not violate separation doctrines, she added.

Dolan said there is "no establishment clause issue until there's some kind of government role."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

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