MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

You could say that Chester Cook ministers to the largest church in the country. He's the chaplain at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and that means his flock includes 56,000 employees and a quarter of a million travelers who pass through each day.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty followed the pastor through a day of spiritual triage.

Reverend CHESTER COOK (Chaplain, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport): This is your re-ticketing area.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Chester Cook knows he can always find a lost soul at the re-ticketing counter in Terminal A. So he comes here each day, plants himself near the line and scans faces.

Rev. COOK: I'm normally looking for someone who's having a meltdown.

HAGERTY: Sure enough, today he spots a woman gasping for breath.

Unidentified Woman: I've been changed again to C57. I can't walk any farther.

Rev. COOK: Can I help you get to C?

HAGERTY: She's near tears, looks to be in her 60s, lugging a heavy bag. Cook hails down a cart.

Rev. COOK: I'm going to check it out with you. Can she ride with you? I'm going to ride with you back here, okay?

Unidentified Woman #1: I thank you for your help.

Rev. COOK: Oh, you're welcome.

Unidentified Woman #1: Who are you?

Rev. COOK: I'm Chaplain Cook.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, good one.

Rev. COOK: I'm your little angel today.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, bless your heart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: This is the essence of Cook's ministry. The United Methodist minister takes his inspiration from the good Samaritan, a stranger helping a traveler in crisis, showing kindness, often without mentioning religion.

Cook says he gets a lot of practice in these days of inflexible airline rules. He often pays people's $150 change fee from his chaplain's budget or his own wallet, and sometimes he manages to bend the rules.

As we wander back toward the chapel, Cook tells me about the time he found an elderly woman stranded in the airport. She wasn't supposed to fly out for three days, and the airline would not change her ticket. So Cook confronted an airline manager.

Rev. COOK: I said this is a dilemma because if that was your 81-year-old grandmother sitting out there, you would be fit to be tied. And I said, I'm sure the news channels downtown would love this story if I gave them the phone call.

HAGERTY: The woman was put on the next flight. These are the easy fixes, he says. The harder ones involve the runaways, the abused women, the people who end up at the airport with nowhere else to go.

Rev. COOK: It's literally the last stop, and then they end up in the atrium, which is right out front of our chapel, and they don't really know what to do next. They don't know where to turn.

How are you doing?

Mr. DALE CAMPBELL(ph): Oh, (unintelligible) pretty good.

HAGERTY: Dale Campbell was one of those people. He and his wife showed up at the chapel three weeks ago. They fled the Virgin Islands after some burglars broke into their hotel room, shot Campbell in the foot and took everything they owned.

Mr. CAMPBELL: So we hit Atlanta with nada, nothing. That's when we met Chester, and he saved us.

HAGERTY: The chaplain found them shelter, food, spending money and invited Campbell to use the office phone and computer to look for a job. Campbell says he's had plenty of company.

Mr. CAMPBELL: You know, there's the stories every day that walk through the door. I've been here and seen them.

HAGERTY: Really?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes, it's one emergency after another. It's like an ER room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. COOK: Okay, I've got to eat something.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Okay.

Rev. COOK: Do you want to eat with us?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Sure.

HAGERTY: But first, Cook peeks into the chapel. It's interfaith: There's an altar with flowers but no cross or other religious symbol. A Muslim man is on his knees facing east. A woman sits in the corner.

Rev. COOK: Excuse me hi.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, are you Chester?

Rev. COOK: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: Are you the one…

Rev. COOK: I noticed you were here this morning.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

HAGERTY: She's in her 40s, rail thin, fidgeting anxiously. She whispers that she came to Atlanta to meet someone who never showed up. She's run out of money and can't leave the airport. Cook says he'll buy her a transit card for a week. At this small gesture, she begins to cry.

Rev. COOK: We do this all the time, darling. I'm sorry you're going through this. You're okay here, okay? Let me go ahead and get you something to eat. That'll help you feel a little better. You might not feel so stressed. Okay?

HAGERTY: He takes her hand. In between deep breaths, the woman confesses she often feels like running away from God.

Rev. COOK: Well, he doesn't want you to get away from him. He wants to live life with you. God says I'm like the prodigal son: I've been waiting for you with open arms. Come on home.

HAGERTY: Theology on the run and expedited prayers, that's typically all that Cook has time for, and it's not just for distressed travelers but also for the tens of thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers, cashiers and others who work here.

Cook has 40 part-time chaplains who help him serve this huge operation, and they often specialize: Former pilots minister to pilots; retired military tend to the soldiers.

Unidentified Woman #3: We had (Unintelligible) for squad folks. Let's give him a big hand.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAGERTY: Each day, hundreds of soldiers pass through this airport going to or from Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a sea of tan and green. These soldiers and Marines have a very different set of spiritual needs. Cook says he's seen a sharp surge in anxiety in the past year, not about fighting, but about the toll that repeated deployments take on their families.

Rev. COOK: It's tough to have a newborn and then have to leave or to have a boy just starting T-ball, and you have to leave, and the wives who said: I married you to have a life with you, and now I've had 10 years of separation.

HAGERTY: Just a week ago, Cook says, a soldier walked into the chapel, which is only a few yards from the USO.

Rev. COOK: And he said he was on the third floor, and he was going to throw himself off, and I talked to him. And he said, well, everything I live for is gone now. My wife has left me, I can't be with my children, I'm on my third deployment, and I've only got two years left. So I don't really have a lot of options.

HAGERTY: For a few moments, Cook talked to the soldier about what he had to live for. He thinks the man left with a bit more hope.

Today's stories are happier.

Rev. COOK: Are these guys going back?

Unidentified Man: No, we're going home.

Rev. COOK: Home, ah. See, we do celebrate sometimes.

HAGERTY: After a 10-month tour in Iraq, these soldiers are one connecting flight from their families.

At the end of the day, Reverend Cook stands in front of the chapel, looking down at the people swarming in the atrium below. He admits that at times their problems seem overwhelming.

Rev. COOK: You just - your heart goes out, and sometimes you just can't do anything. You can't - you know, how do I leave you here tonight and come back tomorrow morning and start over because you're going to still be here? You know, it's not always a quick fix. There's not always a little solution.

HAGERTY: But Cook will go home and recharge. And tomorrow, he'll return ready to help one or two or 10 souls of the thousands who pass through the airport each day.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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