By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 21, 2016
ATLANTA—Greg Werking piloted a Delta flight from Mexico City, passed through customs, and was grabbing a meal at the food court. Over the loudspeakers came an announcement that Mass would begin in 15 minutes.
That’s how Werking came to be the lector, reading Scripture and singing the psalm on a recent Sunday to a congregation of a dozen travelers and employees at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Werking is a board member of Catholic Community Services at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he also aspires to serve as a deacon. He said he makes an effort to attend daily Mass but isn’t able to visit airport chapels when working very often.
“I heard the announcement and came back here. It was wonderful,” he said after Mass, checking his watch against his next outbound flight.
“I told my co-pilot to get the plane ready for me,” Werking said.
The Atlanta Archdiocese is making more of a commitment to minister at the world’s busiest airport, with its tens of thousands of workers and millions of travelers.
Since July 2015, a priest has been assigned to celebrate Mass there three times a week and hear confessions, supplementing several deacons already serving there.
Mass is celebrated on Concourse F at an interfaith chapel overlooking the International Terminal atrium. Shared by people of all faiths, the walls of the chapel are spare with no crosses or other religious artifacts. Bibles sit on a tabletop alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the Quran.
Twenty minutes before Mass was to begin on a recent Sunday afternoon, a Muslim mother and her daughters came in and asked to pray. They unrolled prayer rugs and found the marker in the chapel pointing toward Mecca.
Then the wood lectern and altar created by Don Filaski, a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle Church, Cleveland, were moved into place and the chairs arranged in rows for Mass.
Locksley Robinson and Kevin Rodriguez were in Terminal E, biding their time before a 4:30 p.m. return flight to Jamaica. After visiting Indiana as part of an ecumenical charismatic Christian group, Robinson said they had accepted the likelihood that they’d miss Mass because their flight to Atlanta left Indiana so early. The airport Mass was a joyful surprise.
“We didn’t have a clue. It’s amazing to hear the announcement,” Robinson said.
Rodriguez said, “We were very surprised and delighted. We took it as a divine answer from the Lord.”
The two sat together in the small chapel. Fifteen people filled the room for Mass on Gaudete Sunday. Some days as many as 30 people pack the room. Sunday Mass is celebrated at 2:30 p.m.
People are worried about missing flights, especially if they have distant terminals to get to, but they shouldn’t have anxiety about that, Father Thomas Zahuta said afterward. Also assigned as a parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, he uses just the main points from his longer parish homily to focus the reflection at the airport chapel Mass.
“You don’t have a lot of time. You give a three- to five-minute homily,” he said.
Some airport employees attend Sunday Mass at the chapel, if their shift clashes with the parish Mass schedule, he said. Daily Mass, offered on Wednesday and Friday at 11:30 a.m., is usually less well attended, with about a half-dozen people.
“Rejoicing in the Lord has to be our strength,” he told the congregation, a mix of travelers with carry-on bags, Werking in his pilot’s uniform and a federal customs enforcement officer. During the petitions, the group prayed for a “safe journey, safe trip.”
In addition to Mass, Father Zahuta celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation in the chapel office before weekday Masses. Travelers seem to like this opportunity.
He said, “They are very free because they don’t know me. It has brought in a number of people who are away from the sacrament.”
With the fear of terrorism and general anxiety about flying, people seem to be aware of their mortality, he said.
Workers, travelers served by deacons
Spiritual services at the airport are under the umbrella of Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc., a nondenominational nonprofit. Its flock includes about 60,000 airport employees and a quarter of a million travelers who pass through each day. Hartsfield served over 100 million passengers in 2015, a new record.
In addition to the chapel in Terminal F, a second one is located above the atrium in the Domestic Terminal near the Transportation Security Administration check-in. It is open daily for individual reflection and prayer and has scheduled times each week for non-denominational Christian prayer and Muslim worship. A third chapel is on Concourse E.
Nearly a dozen Christian denominations and other faiths have full-time chaplains and volunteers who patrol the concourses and visit workers. Among the part-time ministers are Father Zahuta, Deacon Whitney Robichaux and nine other archdiocesan deacons.
The deacons’ work at the airport is pastoral, visiting workers ranging from store cashiers to gate agents and helping flyers.
The deacons often provide a friendly face as mediators when flights are cancelled and tempers grow short. They also assist in the honor guard provided for fallen soldiers brought home from overseas. They can also arrange for the celebration of Mass for groups traveling through Hartsfield.
To employees, Deacon Robichaux is a face they see day in and day out. To the travelers, the chaplain offers aid, directing them to the right train to get to the terminal. Or when a woman stumbled at an escalator, he stayed with her until emergency workers could assist.
“I spend the majority of time at Concourse T. I get to know the people behind the desks,” he said.
Workers are happy to see him, especially when flights are cancelled and flyers get irate, he said.
While travelers hustle to get to the right gate, his work runs counter to the fast-paced environment. He always takes the last car on the airport train. He wants to be the last rider getting off to keep an eye out for passengers who missed their terminal stop so he can redirect them.
During a stroll around a concourse, he noticed a family of boys all dressed in football jerseys. After talking with the boys a bit, the conversation with the husband turned serious. The family was going to say goodbye to the man’s dying father. Later, as the family headed to the airplane gate, the mother mouthed the words “Thank you,” he said.
Another of his duties is to serve as an honor guard when an airplane arrives with the remains of a member of the armed services. He will greet the plane and be available for the military escort and family members for any of their needs. He also makes a point to be at the arrival gate for flights carrying refugees who are to be resettled in the Atlanta area. Often the refugees are coming right from camps in developing countries to an unfamiliar world.
“You realize people are really bewildered,” he said.
Said Deacon Robichaux, “I get questions about flights. I get questions about anything out there. I do get asked to pray for things a lot.”
For more information, visit www.archatl.com/ministries-services/airport-chaplaincy-program or ATLchapel.org.