Airport Chapels: 'Flying On A Wing And A Prayer'

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Scott McCartney, who writes The Middle Seat column and blogs for The Wall Street Journal

The first airport chapel opened 60 years ago in Boston. Today, there are hundreds in airports around the world, and they continue to attract fliers — some are nervous about air travel, some face personal crises or loss, some just need a place to pray. Wall Street Journal columnist and blogger Scott McCartney discusses what brings so many people into airport chapels.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Religious ministry can occur at a church, in a mosque, in a chapel and in an airport. More than 100 airports have chapels with airport chaplains available to counsel people through life, whether it's nerves from flying or coping with a stressful situation.

Scott McCartney interviewed several airport chaplains and found that they do a lot more than many of us realize. Today, we want to hear from our fliers. Have you been to an airport chapel? Have you ever had an encounter with a chaplain in an airport? Tell us your stories, and if you're a chaplain yourself. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is

Scott McCartney writes "The Middle Seat" column and blog in The Wall Street Journal. His article, "Flying on a Wing and a Prayer," ran earlier this year. And he joins us today from Dallas, Texas. Hello, Scott McCartney. How are you?

SCOTT MCCARTNEY: Good to be with you.

SEABROOK: Great. You talk about, in your article - it's just wonderful - all different kinds of things that airport chaplains do that are not expected. And one chaplain you quote calls his work a ministry of presence - being where the people are when they need him. What are some of the things that they do?

MCCARTNEY: I think they counsel people through the stress of flying in daily living. They, you know, people, often you're flying because you're going to a funeral or you're going to help a relative through medical treatment, or you're going for medical treatment yourself, or things that are extremely stressful. And encountering a chaplain on the way is part of that ministry of outreach.

They do plenty of practical things, giving people directions, helping them when they run out of money, even lobbying on their behalf with airlines. When people get stuck or stranded, airport chaplains know the managers for the different airlines at the airport and can help them find accommodations or maybe get a cheap fare to get home.

SEABROOK: You write in your article that chaplains also sometimes handle crowd control?


MCCARTNEY: Well, yes. Some savvy airport people have figured out that when the chaplains are around, people are better behaved.

SEABROOK: Yeah. They act like human beings when you're here.

MCCARTNEY: That's right. And so picture the gate agent who has a crowd of 200 angry people. And you might call the local police, and that can escalate things. But they found if they call the chaplain and the chaplain shows up wearing a collar, and people calm down a little bit and I think put on their best behavior.

SEABROOK: Calm down, people. God is watching.

MCCARTNEY: That's right.

SEABROOK: One image stood out from your piece to me, the image of JFK Airport in New York. There are four airport chapels in a row - tell me about that.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah, four chapels sit side by side. There's a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Jewish and a Muslim. And, you know, it's a very interesting interfaith mix. The busiest of the chapels is the multi-faith chapel, which is now outfitted as a mosque. They have prayer rugs and signs that point towards Mecca. And they, the chaplains all get along. They all help each other. They all understand each other's holidays and crowds. And it's really kind of a nice example of multi-faith culture existing side by side.

SEABROOK: Did you go there for the piece?

MCCARTNEY: I did not, no. I've been there before and have seen it, but I talked to some of the chaplains there on the phone this time.

SEABROOK: Do you go to airport chapels yourself?

MCCARTNEY: Only as a matter of reporting and curiosity. I have not prayed in an airport myself.

SEABROOK: And have you, what have you found is the hardest job of the airport chaplain? You wrote in your story that at times, people get bad news while they're traveling.

MCCARTNEY: They do. I think the most difficult thing and there, you know, all chaplains tell stories about this. They've had examples or instances where they have been called to basically deliver very bad news. So in some - in one case, it was parents traveling on a vacation and something had happened to their daughter at home and they have to be, as they're making a connection at Chicago O'Hare, the chaplain at O'Hare has to be with them and tell them that something terrible has happened with their daughter. Similar example of a flight attendant working a flight and something happened to one of her family members. And so the, you know, the airport - her boss comes, the airport folks, but also the chaplain - she knows right away things are very bad. But the chaplain is there to instantly help, be some comfort to that person.

SEABROOK: I want to go to Kimmy(ph) now in Napa, California. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KIMMY (Caller): Hi. You guys have brought up a lovely topic for discussion here.

SEABROOK: Thank you. Go ahead.

KIMMY: I just wanted to kind of share with you, I was - I do a great deal of traveling for business, and so I was away from home when 9/11 happened. And a week late - and we weren't - those of us who were at the same meeting were unsure about whether or not we're going to get home, but I was supposed to go home and then turn around and get back on a plane again. So exactly a week after the date, I was on another plane. And I had gone to the chapel because as many travelers know, it is also one of the usually quiet places in an airport. And I've never seen a chapel with so many people in it. And I watched the chaplain there, and he went from person to person. And there were people there who were obviously of Christian faith. I think there may have been a few like me who were raised Buddhist. There was a fellow who was wearing a yarmulke, so I'm assuming he was Jewish. And there were a couple of ladies who were Muslims. And what I thought that helped a lot of us was there was an extremely scary part of a lot of - for a lot of people, thinking, oh, my God, the backlash is going to be horrendous.


KIMMY: There's going to be an awful lot of hate going on out there. And people are going to start drawing lines, and it may not be the best way to handle this. And we watched that fellow, and he made his way through the 12 or 15 people who were there, and it didn't matter. He was there to comfort. He was there to listen. He was there to just give hugs, which was nice, I got to admit. And there was a much calmer sense of community in that room, unfortunately, than I was privileged to see in a lot of places since then.

SEABROOK: Kimmy, thank you so much for your call. Scott McCartney?

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. I think one of the interesting things about this ministry is - an airport chaplain, much like I'm sure a hospital chaplain or a military chaplain, has to routinely deals with people of different faith. You walk up to somebody and you have no idea if you share the same faith, but yet that chaplain has ways of connecting with people regardless of differences in faith. And I think they're quite skilled at being able to deal with people's fears and concerns and worries and all without that natural bond of a shared faith.

SEABROOK: I was really interested to hear in your article that there is a professional organization of airport chaplains.

MCCARTNEY: There is. They have an annual convention. They rotate it around the world. They - I think they provide materials and help to new airport chaplains. It's a bit of a dying art. With budget constraints and all, I think their numbers have declined some. But, you know, they have an organization that supports the profession.

SEABROOK: And often, their organizations, the chapels and the chaplains themselves are forced to, sort of, raise money by donation or maybe by being connected to a local diocese, because most airports are run by the local municipality or the state.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. There's a bit of a separation of church and state issue for - in some communities, certainly not all. But some communities have decided that the local government can't support a religious institution at the airport, and so the chapel essentially has to pay rent just like anybody else at the airport. They do this, and then there's also the question of, well, who pays the salary of the chaplain? Some dioceses do support an airport chaplain, and some don't, of different faiths. Many of the chaplains have to go out and raise their own salary and money to cover their expenses. They have different, you know, some have sort of an annual banquet or even golf tournament.

They get airlines to donate things like free tickets and all. The airlines try and support as they can, but it's, you know, can be a difficult thing. And it's, you know, sometimes hard for somebody without a natural constituency to be able to connect with donors and impress upon them the need for the service.

SEABROOK: And let's not underestimate the importance of just finding a quiet place sometimes. Sally in Batesville, Arkansas. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SALLY (Caller): Oh my gosh. An airport chapel, I have stayed in many times when I was in between flights and just needed a place to lie on the floor because I had back pain.


SALLY: And I'm not the only person. And so I want to let other people know...


SALLY: ...that is - it is one of the values of just having a quiet place.

SEABROOK: A quiet place in this world.

SALLY: And I encountered chaplains once in a while. They would just inquire as to, you know, if I was all right. But...

SEABROOK: Interesting. Thank you, Sally, so much for calling.

MCCARTNEY: One of the things that people obviously know is that cell phones, computers, none of that is allowed inside the chapel.

SEABROOK: Oh, how wonderful.

MCCARTNEY: And so, that really does help make it the quiet place where you can - if you want to get away from, you know, all the noise of constant beeping or announcements or whatever, TSA alarms going off, the airport chapel can be a good place.

SEABROOK: Listen to this, everyone, Scott McCartney. This is from Denise in Anchorage: As an atheist, my fiance and I didn't want a religious ceremony. But back in 1986, there were not as many options as there are now. I called the Sea-Tac - the Seattle-Tacoma National Airport - chaplain, and he did the job. We were married in the Space Needle by the Sea-Tac chaplain.


MCCARTNEY: And chaplains do marriages right at the airport. Some people get married and right in the, you know, walk on the airplane and they're gone. And...


MCCARTNEY: is part of the service they provide.

SEABROOK: So why go to Vegas and pay for it when you can just

MCCARTNEY: That's right.

SEABROOK: ...get ready for your honeymoon? Go to the airport and get married there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Scott McCartney, you wrote in your article that some chaplains assist passengers with money for hotel rooms or clothing if they get stranded. You talk about a chaplain at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport who lobbies airplane supervisors to waive fees?

MCCARTNEY: Right. And it's - Atlanta has quite an extensive chaplaincy. The chaplain there is - actually is an employee of the airport. And some airports do provide some small funds for emergencies or that kinds of things. Some of them lobby the restaurants and concessions to provide vouchers that the chaplains or customer service agents could hand out to somebody who's, you know, typically, flights get canceled, you get stranded overnight.

People who don't have credit cards or don't have cash or didn't expect to be sleeping on the floor in the airport at night and certainly didn't expect to be paying, you know, the high prices you sometimes encounter at an airport for a hamburger or whatever, and they need help. Sometimes, it's a matter of - people show up at the airport thinking somehow they're going to, I mean, that's the place to go if you need to get somewhere. But they show up with no money, and really sad situations of people who have been evicted from homes and things like that.

And so the chaplains do try and have some resources, whether it's money that they've raised from the community or raised from airlines or airport - the airport administration or other things where they could provide for a bus ticket or a motel room or even paying a baggage fee or something like that for somebody who was caught unaware. And, in many cases, they do lobby airline employees to waive fees or penalties or things like that for people who are in dire straits.

SEABROOK: So it's almost like an advocate for the flyer when no one else will take up their charge.

MCCARTNEY: Yeah. I think that's right. I think there's a, you know, there's a real lack of advocacy in travel these days, and the chaplains have stepped up and filled some of that. It used to be a whole lot more customer service, but that's gone. It's a confusing process and experience for people who don't travel often. It can be plenty frightening, and it can certainly cost a lot more than you think it's going to cost.

SEABROOK: You mentioned that one chaplain you spoke to takes confession regularly.

MCCARTNEY: Yes. And, you know, there is a convenience factor to this. A lot of the chaplains do regular Mass or other kinds of services for airport workers or people like that and for some travelers who know the schedule and come in. There are travelers who, you know, have a two-hour layover and seek out the chaplain and want to go through confession.

SEABROOK: A quick call from Andrew in Charlottesville, Virginia. Go ahead.


SEABROOK: Yes. Go ahead, sir.

KENSINGTON: Yes. My name is Andrew Kensington. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. And I'm just piggybacking off of your segment about what flight chaplains or airport chaplains. I recall a situation when I was a very young person, about 14 years of age.

SEABROOK: Really quickly, sir. We have little time left.


SEABROOK: Yes, sir. Go ahead. We have very little time.

KENSINGTON: All right. When I was on a cruise ship with my family and we got caught in the tail end of a hurricane and the ship almost sank.

SEABROOK: My goodness.

KENSINGTON: And I spent half of my time in the chapel just praying to God that, you know, we would be all right. And it was terrifying because you look out the window on the one side and all you can see is sky and air.

SEABROOK: Thank you, sir, so much for your call. If I think Scott McCartney and I have it our way, we'll have chapels and chaplains in many more places. Thank you so much, Scott McCartney, for your time today.

MCCARTNEY: Oh, it's good to be with you.

SEABROOK: Scott McCartney is a writer for The Wall Street Journal's "Middle Seat" blog. He joined us from Dallas, Texas. Tomorrow, whether we like it or not, identity matters. We'll talk with Gary Younge about his new book, "Who Are We - And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?" This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Happy Independence Day.

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