For people of all faiths…and those of none.

Anyone who takes the time to survey the world of airport chaplaincy with anything more than a passing interest will soon discover that there are as many different varieties of chaplaincy as there are airports. Every airport has a unique set of characteristics: its physical location, size, the nature of local businesses, passenger & cargo ratios, management structure, national significance, and on and on. All of these factors play into the response formulated by local faith communities when meeting the need for a presence at the airport.

And of course, the most fundamental questions to be addressed are all about people. Who works at the airport? Who travels through it? What is the faith experience – if any – of these individuals? What kind of spiritual and emotional support might they value when they are at work or traveling? What can the chaplaincy bring that enhances the atmosphere for both passengers and personnel?

In a place like London Heathrow Airport, the response to these questions must surely include a Multi Faith dimension. Each and every chaplain and volunteer is there for the benefit of people of all faiths, and those of none. In an hour of need we cannot discriminate by creed or colour, or by any other category of humanity. Insofar as we are able, and the individual will allow, each chaplain will do their utmost to be of some meaningful assistance. It goes almost without saying that Heathrow, one of the world’s most prominent international airports, located within the boundaries of a hugely diverse and multi-cultural city, should rightly have a chaplaincy corps which reflects the broad strokes of that diversity.

Chaplains are not Lone Rangers, or shouldn’t be. They are not self-appointed and self-sponsored do-gooders, hobbyists and clerical aviation-geeks merely indulging a personal interest. No, they are properly vetted representatives of local faith communities or societies for non-religious world-views, giving hands and feet and heart to express the collective interest in promoting the common good. Chaplains are an extension of our broader society and thus a mirror of its diversity.

Does this mean we lose our distinctiveness or that we gloss over our differences? No, we cannot afford to be either naïve or sentimental; we embrace instead a more mature and measured dialogue than is, sadly, often witnessed between members of our faith groups in other forums. Whilst maintaining our own identity we must choose to focus on those things that unite us rather than those that divide us.

And there is plenty that unites us. All people, no matter their creed, know something about the importance of compassion and care in time of need. All major faiths and philosophies espouse doing good to one’s neighbour. And holy scriptures throughout history have drawn on the lessons of pilgrimage, of the importance of the journey, a theme that resonates deeply in the setting of an international airport.

Multi-faith airport chaplaincy is not about the promotion of religion; it is about the simple recognition that people everywhere take their faith with them when they travel or go to work. The chaplain is present as a resource to encourage them in finding value and meaning as they make their own life journey.

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Random II

Uxbridge bus station exchange: Three women animatedly speaking Polish. A young man has had enough and approaches them: “Speak f*cking English!” he says loudly. The women stop, quietly sizing him up together. Then they turn back to each other and one says to the others, but loud enough for all to hear: “F*cking English.” They have a laugh and continue on their merry Polish way.  I guess he asked for it.

***

Last week a young couple checked themselves out of their flight and called the ambulance services. The concern? On changing the diaper of their baby boy they discovered his ‘crown jewels’ to be smaller than normal. The ambulance crew, eyes rolling, pointed out that the weather was considerably cooler than it has been till now and their little bundle of joy wasn’t quite dressed warmly enough. Flight missed; parenting skills improved. Another day at the airport.

***

After clearing my head with a walk out to Terminal 2B, having a cup of coffee and a think, I headed back toward the main terminal and my desk at the Chapel office. Taking a staff elevator, pressing my ID pass against the keypad, I descended from Departures to Arrivals, and turned the corner into the long underground corridor leading toward Immigration and Baggage Reclaim. And then I remembered: as I was finishing my coffee I had seen an Egyptair 777 pulling up to its stand.

The corridor was packed with Middle Eastern travellers, many clad, appropriately, in various forms of robes, kaftans, and long loose dresses. Pilgrims perhaps, heading home after the festivities. I joined the throng, choosing to walk on the tile floor rather than be carried along on the “travelator”, the motorized walkway beside. Soon I was caught up behind a slower moving elderly woman. I slowed my pace, in no real hurry to get back.

Following along behind her, my eye caught sight of a man farther ahead, also elderly and in white robes, walking slowly on the travelator: now and then he would turn to check the progress of the woman in front of me, his weathered face bright with an enthusiastic grin. At one point he gave her a reassuring wave and a toothy smile, careful not to lose his balance as he turned.

I understood: No doubt when the option of automated Walkway or No Walkway had presented itself to this elderly couple, Abu had enthusiastically embraced the motorized opportunity, whereas Um had steered decidedly clear of the innovative contraption.

Never mind; as I looked ahead again, the man had reached the end of the first walkway and paused in the space before the next one, waiting for the woman to catch up. Eventually we caught up, him smiling, her shaking her head, smiling inwardly at his boyish enthusiasm.

And then ever so discreetly and fleetingly, as they turned to walk on, he reached out to hold her hand, for just a few steps, and let go again. As we approached the beginning of the next section, he veritably skipped onto the travelator, smiling broadly, glancing behind him again as he sped ahead and as she continued to gently shake her head.

Love, tenderness, companionship, enjoyment of one’s partner: the same in every land.

Travel Notes

When the wind blows from the North we can hear the train.

Not the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump we heard as the carriages crossed the viaduct at the end of the street in the Czar Peter neighbourhood of Amsterdam, when the bedroom windows stood futilely open on hot summer nights; nor even the vague and distant rumble of the Canadian Pacific, now in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when the traffic at the corner had finally gone to bed, leaving the throb of massive diesel engines and myriad steel wheels to roll up to us from the Matsqui prairie, mixing gently with our dreams.  No, here the Chiltern Railways up Ruislip way sounds more akin to someone sliding a dinner plate across a stainless steel counter, a long metallic swoosh drawing ever away, disappearing into silence.

What did travel first sound like to me?

Perhaps it was the comforting two-stoke knock of the Recreio, the reliable Amazonian riverboat that would fetch us from the mission station in the pre-dawn darkness, tying up briefly at the flutuante, the mantels of the Coleman lanterns casting white-hot light across the dock as the assorted luggage and goods of the locals – homemade hammocks, pods of Brazil nuts, large smoky balls of real rubber – were quickly loaded aboard, headed upriver to the markets at Manaus and onward to the world beyond.

Later, as a teenager in Brasilia, bed-time coincided with the last flight from BSB, a VASP Boeing 727 whose Pratt & Whitney engines emitted an almighty scream as it climbed for the clouds, headed north over the planalto. I would pull the sheet up over my head in a vain attempt to fend off the mosquitos, and dream of far-away places.

The other day, descending the stairs of a London double-decker, pitching this way and that as the bus drew up to the stop, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow commuters and stepped out into the roar of the airport. The smell of kerosene filled the air.  Looking East toward the rising sun I could see the ascending lights of five aircraft stacked up in their final approach; “Five times two”, I told myself, “ten miles of traffic I can see with the naked eye; and probably about a thousand passengers, all told.”

I never get over it.  How modern transport has so completely changed the world, how it has become so easy to move across the globe.  Ninety years ago, in 1927, my grandfather took his bride from Chicago to Seattle in a Ford Model T; upon arrival, my big-city grandmother didn’t like the look of the frontier town one bit, so they turned around and went home again.  The trip took three months.

Three of our daughters will be gathering in Edmonton, Alberta for Christmas this year, but we’ll be staying home in London.  Before the New Year we need to be in Amsterdam, where our fourth daughter is expecting a baby.  Oh well, I suspect we’ll all meet up again sometime next summer.

Where, I’m not yet sure; but really, does it matter?  Wherever it is, it’s less than a day away.

The Small Thing

“Excuse me!” cried a desperate voice from behind.

Paul, lead chaplain for Heathrow’s Terminal 2, and I both turned to see a family – mother, father, adolescent son – hurrying toward us across the concourse, dragging an assortment of hand luggage with them, the woman waving a piece of paper in the air.

“We checked the Flight Transfers screen,” she continued, breathing hard, “but we can’t find our flight.  Can you help us know where to go?”

Paul took the paper from her, a flight itinerary, and started to scan for the necessary details.  I on the other hand, my curiosity piqued by a familiar accent, started a different line of inquiry: “Where’s home?” I asked, already sure of the answer.

“De Nederlands,” said the father, characteristically avoiding the digraph that would have rendered English.

“Nederlanders!  Dacht ik al,” I said, much to their evident surprise and delight.  Continuing in Dutch we exchanged short, relevant histories: they, traveling back from holiday in British Columbia and transferring at Heathrow; me, former long-time resident of the Netherlands, chaplain at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, and now doing the same kind of work in London.

“Well,” said Paul, pausing for effect.  Paul used to work for American Express and has an endearingly direct way of dealing with people; no fluffing about, just the necessary facts.  He had ignored our conversation as he studied the document and was now ready to tell us what he knew.  “As I see it, the basic problem is this: you’re at the wrong airport.  Your onward flight is from Gatwick, in about three hours time.  You’re not likely to make it.”

The family were incredulous.  Wrong airport?  How could this possibly be?  How long did a normal transfer between London’s western and southern airports take?  Why would a ticketing website do such a thing?  How could they get to Gatwick?  Did they have to pick up their checked luggage first…?

“Never mind,” I said,  “all we can do is our best and hope it will work out.  Paul’s got a dodgy knee so we’ll leave him behind.  If you follow me, I’ll take you through immigration, baggage reclaim, customs and the trip to the bus station.  No guarantees that you’ll make it, but let’s go!”

And so began a hurried but calm guided tour through the intricacies of travel transfers, the most hated aspect of international journeys.  An hour later I waved the family off at the Central Bus Station, nurturing a small but reasonable hope they would make their flight, and sure that this would not have been the case if they had faced the task alone.  As I walked back to my office I realized we had never even exchanged names; there was no way for me – or them – to follow up on our joint endeavour.

I am so pleased that my day-to-day responsibilities afford me the opportunity to offer hands on help to those in need.  Yes, most of my time is taken up with duties involving paper and ideas and planning.  But if I keep my eyes open I can always find a way to be practically engaged with airport personnel or passengers.

Perhaps my experience reflects a wider felt need?  I notice from my forays into social media that we are all fairly accomplished at holding strong opinions on a wide variety of issues.  We passionately share our opinions, ideas, articles, and videos on every conceivable subject, not the least bit encumbered by the supposed taboos of religion and politics.

But isn’t there something in us that longs to be engaged in actual acts of compassion, that hungers to make a real difference in the lives of others?  Even just a small thing?  How often do we put down our laptops, i-pods and smartphones, leave our opinions behind and find someone we can serve, in whose life we can make a real, tangible difference?

It is so easy to complain about how the world should be a better place. And it should be.  So what are we doing to make it so?

Random

Wearing a business suit and putting on a lanyard at the bottom of which dangles a security pass extending to me complete airport access gives me another privilege too, an odd and unexpected social permission: to look at people .  The assumption on the part of those who see me is that I must be a person of some authority, that I have the right, perhaps the duty, to let my gaze linger if I wish, to carefully consider what I see.

And I do.  I look at people.  Far more than I ever do when I am a traveler myself, I pay attention to those I see, I read their faces, see their emotions, sense their weariness and anxiety, their tears and confusion.

Today I saw a woman whose face was badly scarred and whose manner told me she had suffered much for it.  She seemed to make herself smaller, following an erratic path as she repeatedly shrank from oncoming passers by.

When she saw me looking at her, knew that I had seen her features yet did not shy away from holding her gaze, she was visibly strengthened by the encounter, pulling herself up to her true height.

***

In Peterhead we saw a house whose uneven roof tiles told a story.

During the war the airplanes came one evening to bomb the harbour.  They missed their target, the bombs falling several hundred metres up the hill in the centre of town.  At that moment a children’s piano recital was being held in one of the homes.  The house took a direct hit, the piano flying over the roofs of an adjoining row of houses.

All the children died, but one.  Moments before the bomb exploded the young lad was sent to another room for misbehaving.

We wondered at the untold story, of a life lived under the weight of such grace.

***

Coming home, boarding the train, I slowed to fall into step behind a blind woman with a guide dog leading the way. As we proceeded slowly down the aisle, low and behold, another blind woman was seated up ahead with an almost identical dog.

The dog still leading the way saw this too and, reaching the other dog, decided that his person had gone far enough, choosing for her an empty seat directly across the aisle. So now the dogs were nose to nose, greeting each other.

The woman who was seated first noticed her dog acting strangely and said something to him. The woman seated second recognized her voice and said, “Oh, is that you Jane?”. And then they had a good chuckle and started off on a conversation.

Obviously the dogs were friends too.

To Madrid, for a stamp.

“No sir, that won’t be a problem,” said the heavily accented Dutch voice on the other end of a dim, crackling telephone line.  In the 1980’s calling anywhere from Ceuta, one of the two Spanish enclaves on the North African coast, was always problematic, even if it was only to Madrid.

“With our centralized computer system you do not need to have the machtiging actually stamped in the passport; you can just take the reference number with you when you visit the vreemdelingendienst in Amsterdam.”  It was a visa officer at the Dutch embassy on the other end of the line, explaining to me that Renata’s provisional residence visa, with the impossible-sounding name of machtiging tot voorlopig verblijf, had been granted and we could now confidently book our airline tickets.

Our eighteen months of Moroccan Arabic language study had come to a close and, with our infant daughter – born at the Cruz Roja hospital on Monte Hacho, one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules – we were headed back to an exciting new project in Amsterdam.  Two weeks later, our few possessions crammed into a pair of old, red vinyl suitcases that seemed to miraculously expand no matter how much we fed them, we boarded the Iberia Airlines flight from Malaga.  We had purchased return tickets because they were cheaper than one-way; the second leg would go unused.

Or so we thought.

A few days after our arrival I caught a tram to Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, to the local headquarters of the Vreemdelingendienst, to comply with the within-8-days-after-entry registration requirement.  I pushed the three passports across the table to a disinterested middle-aged immigration officer:  USA, Canada, and another newly minted American one for our daughter, recently secured at the US Consulate in Fuengirola.

“Oh, and I have this too,” I said, sliding toward him a piece of paper bearing the number of Renata’s MVV.  Americans could get their residency papers after they arrived; Canadians needed the permission granted beforehand.

“Where’s the stamp?” queried the officer, ignoring my note and leafing expertly through Renata’s Canadian passport.

“The embassy in Madrid said we didn’t need it,” I replied confidently, “Said all you needed was the dossier number.  You can check on your computer that it has been granted.”  I was happy, proud even, to be the harbinger of the dawning age of computers.

“No stamp; no registration,” he said flatly, sliding the passports back toward me.  “You have five days to get the stamp.”

“You’re joking, right?  Are you telling me I have to go to Madrid just to have the embassy put a stamp in her passport?  Why can’t you check your computer?”

“No stamp; no registration,” he repeated.  And with that I was excused.

It must have been May 25th when I arrived back in Malaga because I remember watching the European Cup final on the tiny TV at a seedy Malaga hotel before turning in for a fitful night’s sleep in a hot and windowless room.  PSV Eindhoven beat Benfica on penalties; a month later the Dutch national side would win the European Championship with a magical performance by Marco van Basten; it was a good year to be a Dutch soccer fan.

The next morning I hopped an Iberia commuter flight from Malaga to Madrid.  It was a 727, probably the last time I ever flew on one, and it was full to capacity.  Nearly everyone was smoking.

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At Madrid Barajas I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the address of the Embajada de los Países Bajos.  On arrival I took the elevator, found the office and was relieved that there was no one else waiting in line for services.  I explained the situation to the clerk behind the counter, gave her Renata’s registration number, watched her get out a large rubber stamp and whack it down on a page in the passport, and within ten minutes was downstairs again hailing a cab back to the airport.

The easiest way home now was a direct flight from Madrid to Amsterdam.  But because I had not been sure of how things would go at the embassy, I had not booked a ticket.  I ended up buying a business class ticket, on the spot, from the KLM desk.  It was exorbitantly expensive, downright abusive really, but I had grown weary of the whole project and just wanted to get home.

It was one of the most memorable flights I have ever had, worth every peseta.  A high pressure weather system had moved in across all of Western Europe and the sky was crystal clear during the entire flight.  With a map on my lap and a wonderful view I was able to plot our northeast-bound journey, watching the clearly visible landmarks and cities move by slowly below me.  It was enthralling.

Back in Amsterdam, ahead of my five day deadline, I slid the Canadian passport across the desk to the now slightly bemused immigration officer.

He duly completed the registration, stamping a page-filling visa on the page opposite of the stamp I received in Madrid, and then flipping the document back to me.

“Did you have a nice trip?”  he inquired wryly, with only the hint of a smile.

“Yes, I did,” I returned, equally dry, not wanting to give him an ounce of pleasure.  “I did indeed.”

Sanctuary

The space is large and quiet, the air still; at my feet blue and green tiles warm gently as they bask in the diffuse glow of the afternoon sun tipping in through a glass roof high above.  It’s quiet here, distant voices bouncing to me over the vast floor, the hubbub of the crowd reduced to a murmur.

If I listen, close my eyes and really listen, all I hear is the gentle throb and hum of a public building – air conditioning? escalators? – punctuated by the melodious cadence of voices close enough to hear and to know they speak various languages, but whose words are indistinct.

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My Sanctuary

This is my cathedral, my sanctuary, my sacred space.  Over the years, as evidenced by my journal entries, I have returned repeatedly to this very spot – this seat at the far end of the landside Departures terminal at YVR airport – to reflect, to pray, to write.

It was from that phone bank, that booth there, that I telephoned my mom in 2007 to say our plans had completely come apart and we were unexpectedly heading in a different direction; I was on the next flight out, back to Amsterdam.  She cried, and I did too.  In this seat, over the years, I have variously fretted and rejoiced as I confided my anxieties and aspirations to my journal.  And it was here, last November, that I reviewed my notes one more time before boarding the flight to London that would see me secure my present employment.

Vancouver International Airport succeeds better than any other I know in recognizing the airport as sacred space.  Here, West Coast architecture, augmented by natural design features (wood trim, gentle colours, curved lines) and remarkably numerous and striking artwork all work together to heighten one’s awareness that travel is a spiritual exercise.

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Totem, Graham Clarke Atrium

In this place we are all at a threshold, the bleep of a scanned boarding pass marking another life event: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a visit with a dear friend, a job gained or lost, a few days away to catch our breath again.

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Two journeys

On this occasion my passage is joyous; I am heading home following my daughter’s wedding.  But even as I said goodbye to my father-in-law this morning, at his condo in Abbotsford, I wondered at his frailty and if his passing might one day soon be the reason for my next visit.  Or perhaps the birth of another grandchild?

I don’t know.  But I do know that I will again seek out this corner, this quiet place, this sanctuary.