ATLANTA (AP) — The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.
Colladay's parish happens to be the world's busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.
On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband's body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.
"He didn't say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring," Gilbert says. "I didn't know that airports have chaplains."
Most people don't.
Airports are mini-cities with their own movie theaters, fire departments and shopping malls. Many also have chapels, typically tiny non-denominational spaces, in out-of-the-way locations. They offer an escape from constant gate change and security announcements and are staffed by 350 part- and full-time chaplains worldwide — Roman Catholic, Protestant and, to a lesser extent, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh.
The positions are highly sought-after and considered glamorous, with chaplains saying they love the excitement and unpredictability of airports.
The job is unlike other church assignments. There isn't a permanent congregation. No baptisms, weddings or funerals. Instead, airport chaplains preach to a crowd that is transient by nature.
Trust must be earned quickly. There's little time for small talk. Everybody is rushing to catch a flight.
"You only get one chance to impress them; one chance to help them," says Bishop D.D. Hayes, a non-denominational pastor at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. "Many times, we touch lives we never see again."