They have chaplains at an airport?
By Ansel Oliver/Adventist News Network
Every Thursday morning, José A. Barrientos, Jr., leaves his home shortly after 5:00 a.m. and drives to Washington Dulles International Airport to minister to his flock for several hours. Instead of church members in pews, his congregants are scurrying commuters and employees in one of the United States’ largest international airports.
MANY STEPS: Barrientos, left, helps a traveler find his gate on a recent early Thursday morning. Some days he meets with people in the airport chapel, while other days he walks several miles assisting passengers with directions.Barrientos, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, is one of 18 assistant chaplains at the busy hub. Not only is he the youngest—he’s also the only Hispanic chaplain there, which makes him the go-to guy in offering assistance to Spanish-, Portuguese-, and Italian-speaking passengers, as well as the maintenance staff, the large majority of whom are Hispanic.
He and other chaplains offer support while roaming the terminals looking for people to assist with directions, calming passengers who haven’t received their luggage at baggage claim, or reading faces to find those who might need solace. Once a month Barrientos leads the Wednesday evening Protestant service held at the international terminal’s interfaith chapel.
Barrientos’ main employment is as the children’s ministry pastor at Community Praise Center Adventist Church in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, but he volunteers several hours each week at the airport.
Denominational leaders hope the idea of Adventist ministers serving as airport chaplains will take flight.
“We favor more pastors extending their ministries into the community,” said Gary Councell, director of Advent- ist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM), the movement’s ecclesiastical endorsing agency. “We have influence only when we mingle with people and spend time with them for their interests instead of our needs.”
Adventist pastors who become endorsed by ACM serve in such places as corporations, fire and police departments, sporting events, and cruise lines.
Many people will talk to a chaplain at airports just to share their good mood for a few minutes, while others are desperate for spiritual support, such as a woman who was sobbing during a chapel service after discovering her significant other was unfaithful. Some seek other things.
“Need help finding your gate?” Barrientos asked a man wandering toward a dead-end corridor carrying a large backpack, computer bag, and neck pillow.
HELPING OTHERS: José Barrientos, a volunteer chaplain at Washington Dulles International Airport, helps the Ribeiro family find a shuttle to a nearby mall during their five-hour layover between Rio de Janeiro and Orlando. Barrientos assists Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking passengers with practical support and sometimes prays with those who may need spiritual comfort.Barrientos is a pastor, but he also serves as a guide, restaurant critic, and first-rate public relations representative. He talks up the architecture of newer terminals and boasts of upcoming renovations. Dulles airport is currently involved in the largest public transportation construction projects in the nation.
“You’ll love it. When it’s done, you’ll say, ‘I want to travel more,’” he tells passengers.
Opened in 1962, Dulles International is 26 miles from downtown Washington, D.C., and employs almost 30,000 people. Last year it served nearly 24 million passengers, according to its Web site. In 2009 Dulles International was America’s ninth busiest airport in terms of international passenger traffic, with just under 6 million international passengers recorded.
“It’s a huge, huge place,” Barrientos said one recent morning while walking through the predawn chill to the terminal. “Are you ready to do a lot of walking?”
His supervisor, Ralph Benson, wears a pedometer and estimates he walks five to nine miles each day he’s there. An American Baptist minister, Benson frequently sees Barrientos on his rounds, and requests his assistance in working with Spanish-only speakers.
“He’s wonderful; everyone loves him,” said Benson, who serves as director of ministry for the Metro Washington Airports Interfaith Chapels, Inc. The nonprofit organization provides ministry for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which owns both Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports.
Barrientos has dark, spiky hair and wears a charcoal-gray suit, and a dress shirt with a green tie. It’s up to each chaplain to decide how they want to dress, he says, but Barrientos says he prefers business apparel—claiming he needs all the credibility he can get. He’s 28 years old with a cheery, young face and a slight build. Many Hispanics, he said, don’t expect a minister to be young.
GREETING WORKERS: Barrientos often goes out of his way to greet Hispanic employees at Dulles. Here he chats briefly with a security guard in the international terminal.“But you’re not old,” a quizzical passenger on the underground train between terminals said to him in Spanish.
Passengers are often surprised that his position even exists.
“I didn’t even know airports had chaplains,” said Betsy Buckner, who had flown with her husband all night after visiting friends in Argentina.
They were looking for the Air France executive lounge during their five-hour stopover before a flight home to San Diego, California.
“Passengers are usually one of two extremes: people are either really, really happy or really sad,” Barrientos said. Many passengers he meets are going to visit loved ones, while others have just lost loved ones.
Airport ministry is fast—a chaplain must get to know someone quickly and then, just as fast, let them go.
“It’s easy for me. I like to make friends,” he said after chatting up a security guard. “[My girlfriend] will tell you I talk too much.”
When not talking with employees or leading passengers, Barrientos lets people know about the chapel and its services. Of the literature rack, he says the Adventist book he has to restock most often is El Camino a Cristo, the Spanish version of Steps to Christ, written by Seventh-day Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White. About 300 people visit the chapel every day.
The first airport chapel in the United States was established in 1951 at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. Now more than 140 airports worldwide have chapels, usually designated as “interfaith” locations, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, a nonprofit organization.