Tyler Cowen points me to God on the Fly? The Professional Mandates of Airport Chaplains (Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 4, 8 January 2018, Pages 437–455),
This article contributes to Bender et al’s efforts to explore religion “on the edge” by analyzing how religion and spirituality are present in one set of public institutions—airports (2013).
I ask how airport chaplains articulate the professional mandate or basis on which they do their work. Rather than making legal or economic arguments, common in the literature about professional mandates, airport chaplains emphasize the moral demand they perceive for their work. They speak of the need to be present, to see and be attentive to grief, and to serve as a last resort.
As a case, airport chaplains raise questions about Andrew Abbott’s (1988) approach to the professions by defining as “work” actions within airports that other professionals do not. Rather than being in competition with other professional groups for the right to do this “work,” they are working to become a companion profession, one that comes alongside.
I have to admit I’ve never been inside an airport chapel. I walk right past them. I’ve read plenty of articles suggesting that they’re peaceful refuges in crowded airports, a place of peace and quiet to relax religion aside. And I suppose that at least usually the case. But I’ve always felt strange just walking in.
Maybe that dates back to being a child and feeling strange walking into a church, like I was doing something wrong because I’m Jewish. Of course I’ve (arguably) grown up a lot since then. I’ve been a part of Catholic weddings, where other groomsmen took communion, I simply crossed my arms because it seemed disrespectful to engage in the ritual that I didn’t believe in. (I had discussed this in advance with my friend the groom and with the priest performing the service.)
I often think of airport chapels serving mostly transient passengers but of course they also serve airport employees. In fact the first ones in the US were Catholic, in the 1950s, started to serve staff rather than passengers. The very first in the U.S. was at Boston Logan named “Our Lady of the Airways.” The second was at then-Idlewild (now JFK) in New York, “Our Lady of the Skies.”
Airports as mini-cities have myriad amenities (although some amenities are missing, fully stocked drugstores and dry cleaners are surprising absent from most in the States and I was disappointed when the barber shop at DFW learned it would get kicked out after 43 years). There are spiritual needs as well as audio/visual needs.
DFW Barber Shop
The description of an airport chaplain wandering around, with intent, looking for people that need them was interesting — being there is work, and even religious work needs sales or prospecting.
Something else that happens behind the scenes that most of us don’t think about,
Chaplains also play roles around death when dead bodies move through airports and people who work at airports die.
…Chaplains are also frequently the individuals who notify loved ones when someone dies in flight. A few times a month in Atlanta, for example, a passenger becomes seriously ill or dies in flight—typically on an international flight.
Prayer Room, Etihad Residence Lounge New York JFK
Airport police will also sometimes refer problems to the airport chaplain as an alternative to arrest. And I recall a Scott McCartney piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that the chaplain can sometimes help with crowd control, people behave better around religious figures.
Have you ever spent time in an airport chapel? What did you go for? Did you interact with the chaplain? I wonder if it’s part of the regular routine for any readers, whether as passengers or airport or airline employees.