Chaplain offers spiritual assistance to those carrying excess baggage, writes Peter Ross
IN A busy corridor of Glasgow Airport, en route to the international departure gates, Commissioner Keith Banks of the Salvation Army pauses by a window and looks out towards the steeples and spires of Paisley, each a silhouette against a brooding sky. “That’s the church out there,” he says, “and I am the church in here.”
Banks is an airport chaplain – an in-house cleric who must have some claim to the largest congregation of any religious figure in Scotland. In addition to almost 4,500 employees, the airport also has up to 30,000 passengers passing through every day. To each weary traveller, if they so wish, Banks will offer spiritual guidance. He will also point them in the direction of the toilets.
A calmly spoken man of 69, Banks is balding with a short white beard and a gentle manner which inspires confidences. He walks the corridors in a navy cardigan with maroon epaulettes and a small metal badge which reads “Chaplain”. He has a pleasant word for everyone, and they for him, from the sales assistant in Sunglass Hut with the questions about faith to the police officers who put their own faith in the stubby black machine-guns they cradle while strolling sharp-eyed through international arrivals.
On at least three days of every week, Banks drives to the airport from his home in Largs and spends the day walking around, passing time with staff – the lad in the Celtic Shop whose sister has been in a coma, the security guard whose nephew was killed in a car accident over Christmas – and keeping an eye open for passengers who “look like they are carrying some sort of burden”. He knows from experience that even those who are checked in often remain laden down; though some of us may hide it better than others, we are all carrying excess baggage of some sort. He looks for weeping and marks of woe, and has learned to distinguish between genuine heartache and those tearful members of the Tartan Army newly returned from a skelping in Skopje or the Faroe Islands.
“Chaplaincy, for me, is about communion; not in the theological sense, but as in building a bridge to the person you’re talking to,” says Banks. “I could be called upon to offer pastoral support in any situation. In this past week, three members of staff have had bereavements. And I’ve met passengers in real distress. One woman had received a phone call to say her son-in-law had died tragically – suicide – and she was waiting for a flight to see her daughter. I went up to her and said: ‘Excuse me, I don’t want to intrude, but I notice you are in distress. Can I help?’ No-one has ever told me to go away. They open up.”
People travel for many sad reasons. Airports aren’t all stag parties and straw donkeys. Keith Banks has comforted a mother whose 17-year-old son was flying off to join his regiment in Afghanistan. He has boarded a plane and met an elderly woman whose husband died during the flight from Australia, noting the poignancy of her having to carry two sets of hand luggage down the gangway. His capacity for empathy is strengthened, no doubt, by the fact that he too has experienced loss. His wife Pauline died, or – to use the Salvation Army’s wonderful phrase – was “promoted to glory”, in 2008.
Glasgow Airport has three areas dedicated to multi-faith prayer: a room on the ground floor besides international arrivals, and two small nooks in departures; one at gate 26, the other at gate 29. The latter, being for international flights, is much busier, especially with Muslim passengers waiting to board the lunchtime flight to Dubai International Airport, a gateway to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Around 200 people fly to Dubai from Glasgow every day with the Emirates airline. They can be queuing to pray sometimes. The Islamic faith requires five daily prayers, and the time for boarding coincides with the second: Dhuhr.
The prayer area at gate 29 is completely open to the public, so it is possible – and rather moving – to watch as passengers remove their shoes, unfold the prayer mats provided by the airport and perform the ritual, eyes closed, first standing with forearms crossed, then bowing, and eventually pressing their foreheads to the ground. Among them is Ali Ahmed Aslam, better known as Mr Ali, the veteran Glasgow curry mogul, travelling to his native Pakistan for a three-month holiday, which no doubt – as the inventor of chicken tikka masala – he has thoroughly earned.
I also speak with Mohammed, a 28-year-old electrical design engineer from Edinburgh, journeying to Hyderabad to attend the wedding of his younger brother: “It’s going to be quite a big affair, I think. Around 1,000 guests.” Mohammed is glad that he will not be required to give a speech.
Muslim prayers must be performed while facing in the direction of the Kaaba, the building in Mecca which is Islam’s most sacred site. To aid this there are brass plates screwed into the floor in all of the airport prayer areas, on each of which an arrow points towards an engraved crescent and star. Nevertheless, these signs are often missed and it is not uncommon to see the younger Muslim passengers – such as Wida, a 33-year-old PhD student – wandering around with smartphones, trying to locate Mecca using GPS. Wida, on her way to Brunei, is wearing a hijab and blue jeans. She performed a traveller’s prayer before leaving Edinburgh, has made her ritual ablutions and prayed at the airport, and plans to chant for safety before the plane takes off.
It is very striking to watch prayer at the airport, as it is such a contrast with what is going on round about. Muslims kneel and supplicate in direct communication with Allah while, only a few feet away, fellow passengers conduct loud facile conversations on mobiles or clank by with bags full of perfume and booze. It is strange, on first consideration, to think of airports as spiritual places. They seem so worldly and commercial. Glasgow Airport covers some 340 hectares, of which only a few square feet is given over to prayer.
Yet it seems natural to me that airports should recognise the idea of other realms. First there is the whole idea of ascension, heading into the sky, which even the most atheistic of us cannot help but associate with our stubborn Sunday school notion of heaven being somewhere up there. Then there is the fact that, no matter how persuasive the statistics about the safety of commercial flight, to board a plane and climb to 30,000ft is to confront on some level the prospect of our imminent death and whatever may come after. Most important of all, there is something about airports with their atmospheres – detectable if one pays attention – of hope, yearning, loneliness and love which speaks of the best and deepest parts of our natures; for want of a better word, our souls. The music drifting softly through international arrivals, dominated by such secular hymns as Jeff Buckley singing Hallelujah, expresses this emotional tone rather well.
Lorna Cammock, a mandolin enthusiast and member of the Kirk, is a regular in the prayer room next to international arrivals – a hushed and peaceful space. She didn’t fly until she was 74 years old but has made up for it in the six years since, visiting Brandenburg twice a year and often meeting friends, and strangers, at the airport for coffee. The retired head teacher carries around a diary containing words of greeting in 40 languages.
“I like the whole atmosphere of the airport,” she says. “People there are detached from their everyday life and you hear them making phone calls which usually end with ‘I love you.’ These are in-between places where there’s a thinness in the veil between this world and the next.”
In the baggage reclaim hall, just before customs, a group of 24 pilgrims from the Glasgow Buddhist Centre are huddled together, performing the ritual known as transference of merits. They are newly returned from a month-long journey through northern India and Nepal, following in the footsteps of the Buddha. They are dressed in loose colourful clothes and some of the men have shaven heads. After travelling for 22 hours from Calcutta, the mood is a mixture of exhaustion, exhilaration and sadness that the pilgrimage is over. They recite in unison a verse in which they give away to all beings the merit gained during the pilgrimage, ending by shouting “Sadhu”, the Buddhist word for hooray, three times, loud enough for all the gods of the seven realms – and those mortals awaiting their luggage from Dubai – to hear it.
Shortly before leaving the airport, I visit one of the control towers. The chaplain and I stare out across the runway to the rain-shrouded Kilpatrick Hills. There is, we notice, a star moving in the east. As it nears, however, it becomes clear that this is no celestial object but, rather, an easyJet flight making for Las Palmas and diverted to Glasgow after developing a fault. The holidaymakers stuck on the plane will be praying for the flight to be all right, while in the prayer areas Allah and Buddha and God are being praised by the faithful.
Airports really are tremendous minglings of the sacred and profane: temples to technology and wealth but also places where, faced with a five-hour stopover en route to Benbecula or Sharm el-Sheikh, we might well find time for contemplation of the eternal and the complexities of our own lives. As Keith Banks puts it: “I often look at the crowds of people checking in and wonder what is the story behind every face? Really, the whole of human life is in an airport.”