Story by Mark A. Staples published in The Lutheran Magazine (December 2012)
It can take Romeo Dabee (pronounced Day-Bee), the Protestant Chaplain at JFK Airport, an hour to walk from his parked car outside Terminal 4 to his office near the Christ for the World Chapel on the fourth floor. Since last December, Dabee, a 36-year-old ELCA pastor, has served here under the auspices of the Council of Churches of New York.
As Dabee leaves the parking lot, he steps in front of an airport vendor's vehicle. The driver had nearly struck a passenger crossing the street to enter the terminal. Dabee isn't about to ignore the episode. His clerical garb catches the driver's attention. Dabee says two words: "Slow down."
Dabee's low voice diffuses, rather than escalates, the episode. His point made, he moves on.
That's just one episode in the fast-paced, confused atmosphere that is JFK International Airport in Jamaica, N.Y. There are seven terminals and more than 70 airlines, 10 square miles of territory and 42 million passengers each year.
Everyone is on the move, wearing the varied, colorful garb of a hundred homelands and chatting in 50 dialects. Some 30,000 employees from varied backgrounds staff airline desks, ground transportation, cleaning crews, cooking enterprises and carry out myriad other tasks visible and less visible to the scurrying travelers. JFK is a whirling, jet-propelled cosmopolis, a U.N. on wings and wheels.
Everyone on a journey
"Everyone here is on a journey," Dabee said. "When you want to be part of a ministry that serves the globe, this airport is the place to be ... a place to let Christ be known around the world by witnessing in one space."
Last week Dabee was a helpful host to orphans arriving from the Ukraine to spend the summer with prospective adoptive families. Today his colleague, a Jewish rabbi, welcomes to the airport schoolchildren bound for an educational adventure in Tel Aviv.
"The airport is a unique animal, more of a community than a congregation," Dabee said. "You serve travelers, strangers you may never see again, and the community of staff who work in the airport whom you get to know over time."
Continuing his "commute" from the parking lot, Dabee encounters a woman who appears to be struggling for bearings and cheerfully offers directions.
Occasionally he is rebuffed, Dabee said, adding: "You can't let that bother you because right around the corner will be someone else you can assist. Hospitality is a crucial aspect of ministry here. I work to assure that people are somehow not blocked off from [help] ... that travelers can hear a sane or still voice [and] see a smile that brings ... peace in a stressful environment."
Next stop is Mr. Kim's dry-cleaning service on the first floor, where Dabee exchanges greetings with the proprietor. He then says hello to the currency exchange employees and a baggage handler he has come to know. Then there's a quick chat with Ajay Dhawan, who helps direct JFK operations for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and serves as president of a consortium that helps airlines relate to Terminal 4 and security management.
Finally Dabee arrives at the faith-based oasis. Here he joins Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains who oversee their respective ministries but find ways to connect through special events. Those have included a Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance; a Sept. 11 remembrance; and disaster preparedness training with police, fire, FBI, Red Cross, the National Transportation Safety Board and other officials.
Dabee came to this role after serving two N.Y. congregations: Our Saviour Lutheran, Jamaica, and Gloria Dei Lutheran, New Hyde Park. While learning about Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, he never pictured "being led to a ministry ... where I would be working so closely with an imam and a rabbi," he said.
Dabee's chaplaincy knows few boundaries as he walks through terminals greeting strangers and meeting unanticipated needs. That has included presiding over memorial services and weddings.
One memorial service was for an in-flight supervisor at JFK who had succumbed to a chronic illness. "He was obviously a beloved figure to so many," Dabee said. "The funeral, back home with family in Ohio, was not something many staff here were in a position to attend. So we [held a memorial] service that included preaching, prayer, hymns, psalms and a eulogy to bring closure to them."
One wedding was for an employee of the New York Port Authority at the Lincoln Tunnel. Both he and his fiancée had demanding schedules and no home church. His background was Baptist; hers was Anglican. "They told me our Christ for the World Chapel would be the perfect setting to involve [their] families and working colleagues in the wedding," Dabee explained. "It was a big celebration."
Dabee also provides encouragement to many employees and friends. One such friend has been seeking a second job, in part because her airport position doesn't include benefits. "She has needed a driver's license to qualify [and] has had trouble passing the test," he said. "Sometimes ... there is a need just to be a presence, to provide comfort and reassurance to the whole person."
That includes the man in the Jet Blue terminal who asked Dabee to pray for his ill father.
The airport chapel is open for use by all Christian groups and receives funds from individuals and some aviation businesses, Dabee said. Each Wednesday at noon the airport's sound system broadcasts an invitation for travelers and staff to attend a brief worship service.
"It lasts only about 12 to 15 minutes," Dabee said. That window of time is enough for an opening prayer, Scripture, a meditation hymn, prayers of the people, the Lord's Prayer, a blessing and a sending hymn.
The congregation? It's comprised of passengers between flights, baggage handlers and other staff seeking solace amid hectic schedules.
At one service, a young man who lives in Ohio told Dabee that his sister's husband had died unexpectedly in India. The service helped him face the long trip home for the funeral.
"Funerals are a big reason why people travel through the airport," Dabee said, recalling an instance when he went to the gate with one grieving family. "I was able to do a blessing right before they got on their flight."
This December, Dabee is working on songfests during the Christmas holidays to greet passengers in JFK's arrival hall. He's also planning some 30-minute Bible studies to better serve office staff and other airport workers.
"The heart of this ministry," Dabee said, "is to bear Christ to others in a busy, confusing environment ... to offer them a word of promise and hope just when they need it."