I often highlight on this blog religious people who are less than a shining example of the faith they profess to believe in. I can be particularly hard on the ones who have taken on the mantel of religious leadership that have engaged in the very sins they decry in others. I can be harsh in my criticisms of such people.
However, I also try to acknowledge the religious folks who seem to actually be trying to live up to their faith. There are plenty of believers out there whom I have absolutely no beefs with and whom I think are a positive force in society. Listening to NPR yesterday I came across the following news item about one such person. Meet Methodist Minister Chester Cook:
By some definitions, Cook has the largest church in the country. As the full-time chaplain of Atlanta’s international airport, his flock includes the 56,000 employees and a quarter of a million travelers who pass through each day.
The United Methodist minister models his ministry on the parable of the good Samaritan — a stranger who helps a traveler in crisis and practices kindness, often without mentioning religion. Cook says he gets a lot of practice in these days of inflexible airline rules. He often pays a traveler’s $150 change fee from his chaplain’s budget or his own wallet. And sometimes he manages to bend the rules.
On a walk back toward the airport’s chapel, Cook recalls the time he found an elderly woman stranded in the airport. She wasn’t supposed to fly out for three days, and the airline wouldn’t change her ticket. So Cook confronted an airline manager.
“I said, ‘This is a dilemma, because if that was your 81-year-old grandmother sitting out there, you would be fit to be tied,’ ” Cook says. “And I said, ‘I’m sure the news channels would love this story if I gave them a phone call.’ “
The woman was put on the next flight.
Cook’s job has him helping the frazzled, overwhelmed, stranded, and lost (both metaphorically and literally). He is there to lend a helping hand whether it’s only to help you find your next flight or to deal with whatever tribulations you happen to be going through at the time:
Theology on the run and expedited prayers — that’s typically all that Cook has time for. And it’s not just for distressed travelers, but also for the tens of thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers, cashiers and others who work at the airport. Cook has 40 part-time chaplains who help him serve this huge operation, and they often specialize: Former pilots minister to pilots, retired military tend to the soldiers.
Each day, hundreds of soldiers and Marines pass through this airport going to or from Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a sea of tan and green. These people have a very different set of spiritual needs. Cook says he’s seen a sharp surge in anxiety in the past year — not about fighting, but about the toll that repeated deployments take on their families.
“It’s tough to have a newborn and then have to leave,” he says. “Or to have a boy just starting T-ball and you have leave. And the wives, who said, ‘I married you to have a life with you, and now I’ve had 10 years of separation.’ There’s no answer.”
It seems rare to meet a clergyman who’s willing to admit that sometimes there’s no answer to the dilemmas they’re confronted with. Who’s honest enough or forthright enough not to fall back on the old standby of God’s mysterious methods. Who’s willing to help out without trying to turn it into an attempt to convert you to their faith. Such people are worthy of our support regardless of whether we share their belief. We would be better off if more people, believers or not, emulated folks like Minister Cook.