Their congregations are diverse and transient. Some have scheduled religious services but often, ministering happens in the hallways.
They are airport chaplains, and sometimes, they’re busier than TSA agents.
Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with two chaplains, Bishop D.D. Hayes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and Rev. Chris Piasta, at John F. Kennedy Airport’s Our Lady of the Skies.
The chaplains say they minister to travelers, but also to flight crews and airport employees. Travelers come to the chapels, but the chaplains also take to the terminals to speak to people who might want someone to talk to.
Rev. Piasta says his most memorable parishioner was a man who was unable to get back to France because he didn’t have any documents, and lived in the airport for nine months.
“He, of course, didn’t live in the hotels, so once every few weeks we had to replace his entire clothing,” Piasta said. “We had to place him in a hotel so that he could take a shower, so he could shave himself. It was a completely different set of assistance that he needed, and of course, a lot of spiritual and maybe even psychological help that was needed.”
Bishop Hayes has ministered to people who received bad news while they were on flights.
“A flight attendant was coming from overseas back to DFW because she just lost her husband,” Hayes said. “While she was flying back to DFW, her 19-year-old son got killed. So it was devastating. I had to break the news to her.”
Piasta says the thinks people reach out the chaplains, and are responsive when they reach out, because traveling can be a profoundly lonely experience.
“People who are going through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet, you might be the loneliest person alive,” Piasta said.
- Bishop D.D. Hayes, interfaith chaplain at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
- Reverend Chris Piasta, Roman Catholic priest at John F. Kennedy Airport’s Our Lady of the Skies Chapel.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. Like millions of Americans, I did some traveling this holiday season. I flew across the country from Boston to Chicago and then on to Portland, Ore. And on my stopover at O'Hare International Airport, as I was wandering around - quite frankly, looking for a place to plug in my phone - I was reminded of how many millions of strangers pass through airports, and how many millions of private stories and secret fears and hidden pains travel along with them.
But when you're in transit, whom do you turn to for spiritual support? You could try an airport chaplain. Two of them join us now. Bishop D.D. Hayes is a nondenominational pastor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Interfaith Chaplaincy. Bishop Hayes, welcome.
BISHOP D.D. HAYES: Well, thank you very much. Welcome.
CHAKRABARTI: And also joining us from the studios of NPR in New York is Rev. Chris Piasta, a Catholic priest at JFK's Our Lady of the Skies Chapel. Rev. Piasta, welcome to you.
REVEREND CHRIS PIASTA: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Reverend, actually, let me begin with you. JFK International Airport is, of course, massive. What's a typical day like for you? To whom do you minister, and why?
PIASTA: It's very difficult to decide who the flock is, really, because it could be anybody. It could be a passenger; it could be a flying crew; it could be, also, an airport employee. And my task simply is to ask whether they need my help in any sense, shape or form. That's what I do.
CHAKRABARTI: Do they come to the chapel, or do you move throughout the airport, seeing if people need help?
PIASTA: Both. Some of them are coming to the chapel. Some of them are simply walking through the terminals. And that's where I usually am. I'm trying to look for them probably more than they are trying to look for me. That's how it works.
CHAKRABARTI: And Bishop Hayes, what about for you? Is it a different kind of ministry because you don't know the people personally that you're speaking with? And I can't imagine that you have a lot of time to really sit down with them and sort of talk through things.
HAYES: Well, it depends. I think that we get to form some kind of dialogue with those employees that work here, OK, but many passengers that we come in contact with, it might be a one-time situation. So we just try to make sure that if it's a one-time situation, we try to give them the best care that we can based on what their needs might be.
CHAKRABARTI: And Reverend Piasta, I mean, how much, you know, ministering or support can you give in, say, the five or 10 minutes that someone has as they're, you know, thinking about running to the next gate?
PIASTA: Well as long as it takes because we are not only talking about people who are indeed rushing to get - to catch the plane. We are not only talking about flight crews, we are also talking about homeless people and people who for whatever reason find themselves at the airport. In my case, the longest I ministered was about nine months.
CHAKRABARTI: And to whom? Was it...?
PIASTA: To a person that was simply displaced and who wanted for all intents and purpose to go back to France, but due to the lack of any paperwork on his side, he was simply stranded at the airport for nine months.
CHAKRABARTI: He was living at the airport?
PIASTA: Yes, he was living at the airport, yes. He of course didn't live in the hotel. So once every few weeks we had to replace his entire clothing. We had to place him in a hotel so that he could take a shower, so that he could shave himself. So it was a completely different set of assistance that he needed, and of course a lot of spiritual and maybe even psychological help that was needed.
CHAKRABARTI: Forgive me if this seems a rather awkward religious metaphor to use, but it sounds like he was as close to purgatory as you could get.
PIASTA: Maybe he was. Maybe he thought he was in hell. But it proves that there was a way out of this situation, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: So that's a long-term project that you had, Reverend Piasta. Bishop Hayes, tell me about what happens when a crisis unfolds at an airport? I mean, I imagine airports, given how complex they are and how many lives are flowing through them, there are both crises small and large that happen every day. What's your rule?
HAYES: Well yes, you're right, the crisis, anytime someone is going through any kind of displacement or frustration, to them it's a crisis. Some, it might be family, it might be employment, it might just be a sickness or concern. Then when we deal with major crisis, they call us out for any type of major catastrophe that might happen at DFW, I guess one of the most interesting story that sticks out in my mind is a flight attendant was coming from overseas back to DFW because she had just lost her husband.
And I was called to meet her, and while she was flying back from overseas, back to DFW, her 19-year-old son got killed. So it was devastating. I had to break the news to her that not only did she lose a husband, but she just lost her son. So we try to stay prepared and prayed up and ready to meet the challenge, whatever the need might be.
PIASTA: People who are going through the airport are very vulnerable, and probably at 35,000 feet you might be the loneliest person alive, actually. And that's why people are coming and reaching out to us when they see us or we see them.
CHAKRABARTI: Bishop Hayes, you're senior chaplain at an interfaith chaplaincy at DFW.
HAYES: Right, right.
CHAKRABARTI: And I understand that there was one time that a Jewish couple sought you out because they had experienced a major loss in their lives.
HAYES: Right. I had a Jewish couple that was on their way home on holiday, and as they got to Dallas at a stopover, they found out that their son committed suicide. So they sought me out to spend time with this couple while they waited for their transition to flight, to get back home.
And I spent an hour with them, just kind of holding their hands and spending time with them and had prayer with them. And I just was glad to be there with them because they didn't ask me whether I was a Jew, could I speak Hebrew. All they needed was somebody to care for them. So I held their hand and ministered to them until they got ready to leave for their flight.
CHAKRABARTI: Right, and the world really does flow through an airport. I understand you even once had an encounter with a Hindu woman.
HAYES: Yes, very interesting story. She didn't want to talk to me because she thought we were so different. So I began to let her know that - can I ask you three questions. And I began to ask her, what color is your blood? She said, my blood is red. I said, mine is, too. I said, when you guys have a birth of a baby, how do you respond? She said we're happy. I said we do, too.
I said, when somebody dies in the family, how do you respond? She said we're sorrowful. I said we do, too. I said we've got more things alike than we have that are different. So let's agree to disagree, but let's concentrate on the positive things that we are alike. So it was a good - she left very enlightened.
CHAKRABARTI: And Reverend Piasta, I guess a final question for you is what's your favorite thing about being an airport chaplain.
PIASTA: The unpredictability.
PIASTA: Every day I'm coming to the airport, I face something different. And I simply call it another day at the office, whatever that is.
CHAKRABARTI: Well Reverend Chris Piasta is a Catholic priest at JFK's Our Lady of the Skies Chapel. Reverend Piasta, thank you so much for joining us today.
PIASTA: Thank you very much.
CHAKRABARTI: And Bishop D.D. Hayes is a nondenominational pastor and senior chaplain for the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Interfaith Chaplaincy. Bishop Hayes, pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.
HAYES: Thank you, I enjoyed the conversation.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
We did, too. And coming up...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: Terence Blanchard, Michelle Rosewell(ph) and Dave Douglas(ph), names in jazz in 2013, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.