On his rounds at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Deacon Jim Martin stopped to talk to three workers gathered at one of the shops.
“How’s that baby?” Deacon Martin asked Harry Patel.
Patel let the airport chaplain know that all is well.
“He’s one of my friends,” Patel said later about Deacon Martin, adding that the outgoing permanent deacon helped him resolve an issue regarding a hospital bill and let him know that the Catholic Church stands ready to help people in need.
Deacon Martin also greeted Tirhas Girmay, who was working at a check-out register. “He’s always teaching me about religion,” said Girmay, who attends an Orthodox Christian church but sends her children to a Catholic school and has other relatives who are Catholic parishioners. “He’s a nice guy and brings things to me on the Catholic Church.”
Girmay called Deacon Martin a father figure who “does everything for me. If I don’t see him, I ask where he’s at.”
Deacon Martin and seven other deacons serve in the archdiocesan Airport Chaplaincy’s ministry of presence, taking shifts checking on and responding to travelers and employees in need of comfort or spiritual uplift. Some of the deacons are older and find walking distances difficult, so they’re seeking laypeople to help. Masses are celebrated by priests in the main terminal chapel on Saturdays, and deacons handle Communion services other days.
“You don’t have to be ordained to be a minister of the presence,” Deacon Martin said.
If someone has a heart attack or other issue at a gate, for example, he said, the chaplaincy may provide comfort and support to anyone affected. A minister of presence requires trustworthiness and the ability to keep confidences, Deacon Martin said. They have four functions: as a prophet, a cheerleader, a heckler (focus on God, not yourself) and as a spiritual guide.
He’ll teach anyone about those functions, about listening skills and more. And they’ll trail one of the deacons as they make the rounds of the airport. The ministry of presence requires no reports or creative agendas, just a lot of steps, Deacon Martin said.
“What a great ministry this is,” he said.
Deacon Pete Gounis, who is retired from St. Ferdinand Parish in Florissant, told of encountering people in need a few times, including one call from the USO. “You do what you can, mostly just listen,” Deacon Gounis said. “I enjoy it. Whenever you leave a conversation, people say it was nice to talk with you. We enjoy the exchange.”
The chaplaincy has much room to grow in serving as a support system for people in need, he added. Growing the ministry “will be a good benefit for the airport, the archdiocese and the people here,” he said.
Along his rounds, Deacon Martin also met with Sayed Abdali, who works at one of the shops at the airport. “He’s a religious guy, and I like that,” Abdali said. “We talk about the Koran and the Bible.”
Another worker, Carolyn Cunningham, said of Deacon Martin that “if you have a bad day, he makes you feel better.”
Deacon Martin, who also serves at St. Monica Parish in Creve Coeur, cited the benefits of a chapel, noting that workers often come in and say a quick prayer before work or during breaks. He just received a note that was left in the chapel from a traveler with a $20 donation. The note-writer stated that she came across the chapel while waiting for a delayed flight. “Such a blessing. Praise God for all your work,” she wrote, adding a request for prayers for her son who is in the military and is being deployed to a base in the Middle East.
>> Laypeople sought for ministry
Laypeople are needed to help in the ministry of presence with the Airport Chaplaincy at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
ministry of presence is defined as Christians expressing their care and
love for another by being present, which also expresses Jesus’ loving
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on
Migration established an organization of airport chaplains in 1986. The
mission of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains is “to
teach and witness to the word of God and to serve His people by
fostering their growth and renewal through prayer, study and Catholic
service for airport personnel and travelers.”
For information, contact Deacon Jim Martin at (314) 479-4876 or [email protected]