A Wing and a Prayer

Those who know me well will know that this is almost the motto of my life, so how appropriate that I should find myself now having to apply it daily at Newcastle International Airport, where I spend 30 contracted hours, and often many more, amongst the staff and passengers in my role as Airport Chaplain.

My working life thus far has been concerned with young people and those connected with the church, so it is something of a refreshing change now to be amongst mostly unchurched, post-modern, grown ups, though of course an enormous privilege. I learned the trade as a volunteer with Revd Andrew Letby who had built up the chaplaincy provision at the airport over the past nine years from just a couple of hours a week to a full time post, hence now I have a team currently of four volunteers with whom I share the load. It is a fairly ecumenical bunch, comprising two Methodists, an Anglican vicar, and two Roman Catholics, a priest and a lay lady. Each of us has particular responsibility for an area, so Deacon Chris Daniels visits the fire station, the baggage handlers, the maintenance unit, the police helicopter and the fuel farm; Emmeline Barnston spends her time with the migrant workers in the food and beverage outlets, and in the Departure Lounge with the retail staff; Revd. David Gray has responsibility for the air traffic control tower and all airside operations. Father Simon Lerche gives valuable hours to the security staff, who number one third of the company employees. I am privileged to have an office in the administration block and daily contact with senior managers there, as well as visiting airline staff and the Aviation Academy, Airport Police, Customs and Immigration and all terminal staff.

So what exactly do we do? It’s a question that’s frequently asked as we go around, and is very difficult to answer in measurable terms. I am learning that it is all about being there, a ministry of presence, as presence precedes proclamation. It’s all about building trust, building relationships, showing compassion, being a visible reminder that there is more to life than meeting the next deadline or target, being available as an impartial listener without threat of confidentiality being broken, or judgment resulting, for those of all faiths or none.

It’s about being the carrier of sacred things on the journey, as the chaplain was in the Canterbury Tales, being on a pilgrimage with other people, but having a particular role. It’s about providing a link to the community of faith which exists outside the community of work. It’s about listening to the stories of life and telling the stories of faith.

It’s being conscious that we are on someone else’s territory, that we are invited in. It’s about working and relating in all contexts and none, about death and resurrection, celebration and despair, all in the moment of meeting on the corridor. It’s about meeting only part of an individual, but always a significant part. And if the vast majority of our colleagues in every workplace in 2009 are unchurched, that varies hugely. Some know nothing about religion and care even less, some are separated from or have rejected their religious upbringing, some are very antagonistic because of some past experience, and some are very committed people of faith, maybe Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian.

It’s being aware that there are spiritual needs to be attended to: feeling valued, knowing that we belong, being able to love ourselves (self esteem) and love others, self realization, reflecting on the purpose and direction of life and the challenges it poses to us all. The Chaplain’s task is very much about seeing where God is at work, thereby enabling people to interpret their human experience in the light of the Gospel. As Archbishop John Sentamu recently said, ‘We are spiritual beings having human experiences, not human beings having spiritual experiences.’ It’s about intercessory prayer, confronting injustice, advocacy. It’s about being able to enact or express feelings at significant moments of an individual’s or institution’s life, through rites and ceremonies.

So I have the privilege of accompanying people on their journey through life, on a wing and a prayer, sharing their load, contributing to their faith development. I pray that my being there will heighten awareness of religious and spiritual and ethical issues. I pray that I may be able to speak for those who have no voice. I pray that through relationship I may be enabled to encourage reflection and change. I pray that I will be able to offer support in difficult situations, that I will be the last one to give up on difficult and hopeless cases, and in that sense be incarnational, able to communicate the love of God without getting in the way, able so to live by kingdom values that my being there makes a difference.

So next time you pass through Newcastle International Airport, look behind you as you queue for the security check, and, if you have time, please call in to the Chaplaincy and pray for a moment that the presence of God might be known throughout the airport community.

The phrase ‘we got back on a wing and a prayer’ may have originated from the Battle of Britain and has come to mean ‘trusting in a successful outcome, despite the slender chances’. So I continue to live on a wing and a prayer, confident that the God who invited me to share in this work knows well my weaknesses, but has promised so to equip and enable me by His spirit that He will accomplish what He has purposed.