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Family & Religion

Posted on Sat, Sep. 06, 2003

Spirit and the skies


By Kim Vo
Mercury News

Walk around a San Jose airport terminal, through the cool recirculated air, past the ticket counter lines and food court smelling of french fries, and you find all the joys and worries of the world.

There is a cuddly couple heading on their honeymoon. A niece visiting her coast-side aunt. There, too, is a woman, terrified of flying yet needing to zoom across a continent to see a dying relative. There is a man, self-important and impatient, waiting to step through the metal detectors.

Kathryn Liebschutz has seen them all. Pacing Mineta San Jose International Airport in flat comfortable shoes, usually with her Dalmatian, Dolly, by her side, she approaches a traveler and says:

``I'm Mrs. Liebschutz. I'm one of the chaplains here at the airport. Is there anything I can do to help?''

Liebschutz is a member of the airport's Interfaith Chaplaincy. Volunteer chaplains and lay church leaders walk the airport terminals offering help, humor and solace to travelers and employees alike.

The number of such chaplaincy programs has been growing. There are now at least 141 worldwide, from Australia to Zambia, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains. However, San Jose is the only major Bay Area airport with a chaplaincy program.

San Francisco International Airport has a meditation room where people of all faiths can pray; airport officials are also working with the Archdiocese of San Francisco to offer Saturday Mass. Oakland airport dispatches chaplains through the Red Cross when there is an emergency. They haven't been used in at least a decade, a spokeswoman there said.

Liebschutz doesn't wait for the big emergencies. She walks the airport at least twice a week, and when a blackout hit the East Coast last month, she arrived nearly two hours earlier than planned. Mornings are routinely stressful, and she worried it would be even more so for business travelers trying to get back east.

It wasn't too bad. Early in the morning, some travelers waited for their flights to clear, but overall it was calm. Cries of `awww' greeted Liebschutz and Dolly as they walked the terminal, a sea of outstretched hands in their wake. Children reached out to pet Dolly, airport workers to roughhouse with her or offer treats.

``She's one of the best stress relievers,'' Liebschutz said. ``Kids love her.''

Amy Munson of Colorado watched her 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, play with Dolly while waiting for the flight home. ``It's neat,'' she said. ``It's more personal and a neat way to travel.''

Most encounters are like that, a sunny experience that makes the wait time and workday pass faster.

``She does so much good,'' said DeeAnn Perrins, an airline sales agent. ``You cannot not have a smile on your face when you see Dolly and Kathy.''

But Liebschutz is there for the more vexing problems, too. Recently, a man fumed while waiting in the security line as his wife nervously tried to assuage him. They had bought first-class tickets, he said, wasn't there a first-class line? Liebschutz talked to him, explained whom he could write to, and by the time he was done venting, it was his turn to step through the metal detectors.

Liebschutz says she doesn't mind if people yell at her, though she occasionally wants to wash out passengers' foul mouths. ``If they take it out on me, they won't take it out on a stewardess,'' she said, then corrected herself. ``Airline attendant. Sorry, I'm from the old school.''

Sometimes people shirk when they hear she's a chaplain. ``I think they're sure I'm going to raise the Bible and start screaming and shouting,'' said Liebschutz, a lay speaker with the United Methodist Church in Morgan Hill. It doesn't happen. Proselytizing is against the rules. ``Telemarketer for the Lord? No, I don't think so.''

Like everything, the job has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

Before, the most dramatic moments for the chaplains included helping grieving travelers who were going to attend a funeral or visit an ailing parent. Once a pastor was asked to fetch oxygen tanks for a passenger en route to New York.

But Sept. 11 brought a new level of fear and urgency. That morning, all chaplains were summoned to the San Jose airport to help passengers stranded by grounded planes or console those just arriving who might not have been aware of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

In the following days, the chaplains were a daily presence, trying to ease people fearful of again boarding a plane, counseling security workers nervous about losing their jobs, helping travelers navigate new rules.

Now, every time the rules change or the risk level changes from yellow to orange, tensions rise. Clergy say that's an indication that their work is especially needed now.

``Sometimes in the midst of all these bureaucracies, having someone present whose sole concern is taking care of people is much needed,'' said Rabbi Leslie Alexander, who sits on the Interfaith Chaplaincy board.

Caring for people is what the Rev. Dwight Kintner envisioned when he started San Jose's chaplaincy program in 1995. At first, he said, airport commissioners were leery: They imagined Hare Krishnas chanting at the airport.

But Kintner eventually convinced them that the airport -- a place filled with ``tension, tedium and delays'' -- would benefit.

These days, chaplains are at the airport two to three times a week, usually working three-hour shifts. There aren't enough volunteers to fill all the days, though Kintner would eventually like them to be a daily presence and perhaps have a prayer room when the airport is renovated.

The chaplains receive training not just in counseling, but also in how to administer first aid, read the triangular warning signs and enter a dangerous building -- and when to stay away from dangerous situations. The interfaith board -- with its representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahai faiths -- also strives to cater to the diversity of the almost 5,000 employees and 11 million annual passengers.

Under an airport counter lies a spiritual tool bag. There are votive candles and a menorah. Rosaries and crosses. Prayers in Spanish and laminated cards imprinted with the ``Policeman's Prayer to Saint Michael.'' Wafers and grape juice boxes. Anointing oil for last rites -- still, thankfully, unused.

The chaplains take seriously their charge to offer comfort, not theology, a position that convinced some ``eager evangelicals'' that the interfaith group wasn't a good fit, Kintner said.

Alexander says the job is difficult, but at its core, basic.

``Part of training is how to listen to what people need and listen to what they really need,'' said Alexander, herself afraid of flying. ``Maybe they don't need anything but a smile and a joke. Sometimes, they need more.''

Contact Kim Vo at or (408) 271-3635.

©Copyright 2003, The Mercury News (CA, USA)

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