6 Dec 2011, Chantilly, Virginia, United States…Ansel Oliver/ANN
Every Thursday morning, Jose A. Barrientos Jr. leaves his home shortly after 5 a.m. and drives to Washington Dulles International Airport to minister to his flock for several hours.
Instead of church members in pews, his congregants are scurrying commuters and employees in one of the nation’s largest international airports.
Barrientos is a Seventh-day Adventist minister and one of 18 assistant chaplains at the busy hub. Not only is he the youngest, he’s also the only Hispanic chaplain there, which makes him to go-to guy in offering assistance to Spanish-, Portuguese-, and Italian-speaking passengers, as well as the maintenance staff, the large majority of whom are Hispanic.
He and other chaplains offer support by roaming the terminals looking for people to assist with directions, calming down passengers at baggage claim who haven’t received their luggage, or reading faces to find those who might need solace. Barrientos also takes a turn once a month leading the Wednesday evening Protestant service held at the inter-faith chapel in the international terminal.
His full-time job is the children’s ministry youth pastor at Community Praise Center Adventist Church in nearby Alexandria, but he volunteers several hours each week outside the church at Dulles.
Denominational leaders hope that more Adventist ministers serving as community chaplains at airports is an idea that will take flight.
“We favor more pastors extending their ministries into the community,” said Gary Councell, director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, the denomination’s ecclesiastical endorsing agency. “We only have influence when we mingle with people and spend time with them for their interests instead of our needs.”
Adventist pastors who become endorsed by ACM serve in places such as corporations, fire and police departments, sporting events and cruise lines.
At airports, many people will talk to a chaplain just to share their good mood for a few minutes, while others are desperate for spiritual support, such as a woman who was sobbing during a chapel service after discovering her significant other was unfaithful. Still, some are seeking other things.
“Need help finding your gate?” Barrientos asked a man wandering toward a dead-end corridor loaded down with a large backpack, computer bag and neck pillow.
Barrientos is clergy, but also serves as a guide, restaurant critic, and a first-rate public relations representative. He brags up the architecture of newer terminals and boasts of upcoming renovations. Dulles airport is currently involved in the largest public transportation construction project in the nation.
“You’ll love it. When it’s done, you’ll say, ‘I want to travel more,'” he tells passengers.
Opened in 1962, Dulles is 26 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. and employs almost 30,000 people. Last year it served nearly 24 million passengers, according to its website.
“It’s a huge, huge place,” Barrientos said one recent morning while walking through the pre-dawn chill to the terminal. “Are you ready to do a lot of walking?”
His supervisor, Ralph Benson, wears a pedometer and estimates he walks five to nine miles each day on the job. An American Baptist, he frequently sees Barrientos on the job and requests his assistance in working with Spanish-only speakers.
“He’s wonderful, everyone loves him,” said Benson, who serves as director of ministry for the Metro Washington Airports Interfaith Chapels Inc. The non-profit organization provides ministry for The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which owns both Dulles and Reagan National airports.
Barrientos has dark, spiky hair and wears a charcoal gray suit with a green tie. It’s up to each chaplain how he or she wants to dress, he says, but he chooses formal apparel — he needs all the cred he can get. He’s 28 years old and has a cheery, young face and a slight build. Most Hispanics, he said, don’t expect a minister to be young.
“But you’re not old,” a quizzical passenger on the underground train between terminals said to him in Spanish.
Passengers are often surprised that his job exists.
“I didn’t even know airports had chaplains,” said Betsy Buckner, who with her husband had flown all night after visiting friends in Argentina. They were looking for the Air France executive lounge during their five-hour stopover before a flight home to San Diego, California.
“Passengers are usually one of two extremes: people are either really, really happy or really sad,” Barrientos said. Many passengers he meets are going to visit loved ones, while others have just lost loved ones.
Airport ministry is fast — a chaplain must get to know someone quickly, and just as fast, let them go.
“It’s easy for me. I like to make friends,” he said after chatting up a security guard. “[My girlfriend] will tell you I talk too much.”
When not talking with employees or leading passengers, Barrientos lets people know about the chapel and its services. Of the literature rack, he says the Adventist book he has to restock most often is El Camino a Cristo, the Spanish version of Steps to Christ, written by Adventist Church co-founder Ellen White. About 300 people visit the chapel every day.
The first airport chapel was established in 1951 at Boston Logan International Airport. It was a Catholic chapel named “Our Lady of the Airways.” Now more than 140 airports worldwide have chapels, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, a non-profit organization.
Many airports began offering several denominational chapels, but the trend in recent decades is to offer one interfaith chapel, such as the one at Dulles, which offers services for Catholics, Muslims and Protestants.
Barrientos leads the 7 p.m. Christian prayer service the third Wednesday of each month.