Did you pack this bag yourself?

If someone had told me a year ago I would be meeting a flight bringing children from a war zone, or assisting  a young lady escaping a forced marriage, or counselling a South American fleeing a terrorist organisation, I would have marvelled that such a job exists. And yet it does.

More commonly, I’ve helped people denied travel by their airline, assisted with our homeless community, and often, just had to figure out what to do with our waifs and strays. There’s always a steady trickle of them appearing in the Chaplaincy offices here at Manchester Airport.

I’ve never had a job like this, where you constantly expect the unexpected. Quite often, you don’t do what you came in to do – and that’s OK!

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a large dose of adrenaline attached to this role!

Our inflight service today

Of course, there is some regularity, at least in theory, a “day job”. Our Lead Chaplain, George Lane (CofE) calls it “wandering aimlessly” – referring to that old-fashioned service of simply making time for others. So we wend our way through the airport’s staff offices, duty-free, VIP lounges, check-in desks, engineering departments, and break rooms. Our concern is the welfare of the 25,000 staff who work here. Each one has their own ups and downs, bereavements and birthdays, griefs and joys. They do tough jobs, there can be long hours starting as early as 3am, and passengers who may be less than tolerant — and they often appreciate someone with time to simply stop and chat.

One thing I do every week is visit the Short Term Holding Centre. This is where the Home Office detain individuals accused of breaching their visa conditions. This too is a place filled with stories, some eye-popping; some heart-breaking:

Legislation gone bonkers

I met a young Indian student, Samir, in the Holding Centre. He was under threat of deportation for working more hours than allowed. His job was a carer in a residential care home. “Wow!” I said, “that’s a tough job”. “No no” he replied, beaming, “I enjoy it!”. Samir has a deep respect for the elderly and is experienced looking after his own parents in India. In fact, he told me how the previous night he had accompanied an elderly lady into hospital, and remained with her till 3am, long after his end of shift at 6pm. 

It makes you wonder. The UK desperately needs carers. Here’s a guy who’s a fantastic carer, he even enjoys it! … and we want to deport him.

you can be sure there is always a story of human interest unfolding somewhere in this town we call an airport

Our cabin crew today are …

Manchester Airport Chaplaincy was founded by a Baptist Minister, Arthur Grimshaw, in 1980. Today most of our chaplains remain Christian, and our day begins with morning prayer in one of the airport’s five prayer rooms. We use Anglican or Catholic daily worship liturgies.

But of course, an airport is incredibly diverse – one of the most cosmopolitan workplaces anywhere. For example, many of our security staff and taxi drivers are Muslim, and we have multiple other faiths and ethnicities. This is reflected in our chaplaincy team which includes five Muslim, three Jewish, and one Sikh Chaplain. We’re constantly learning about each other’s cultures and beliefs, and, in these potentially dangerous times, that can only be a good thing.

Manchester Airport Chaplaincy Team

Baptists have a long tradition of defending the right of individuals to hold any faith, including no faith (that’s what the Reformation was about after all), and that resonates strongly with me. So it’s a privilege to work in such an eclectic team. It also lends itself well to humour: Recently, three of our chaplains, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, in religious dress, were walking together when they were stopped by a passer-by. “Is this the start of a joke?”, he quipped! (If ONLY they’d walked into a bar!)

Frightened and abused

Hamsa, a young man brought to us on arrival, had suffered persecution and beatings in Iran for being gay. For some hours he found it hard to speak to us at all. After much telephoning we managed to get him started on an asylum claim, and found him accommodation and a support from a local LGBT friendly church.

Generally, we don’t know what happens to the people we assist. But unusually, a few weeks later we heard from Hamsa. “… I’m gonna participate an LGBT event on Monday and it’s gonna be great. Life is better than before, I have a place and food, and feel better about my future. Thanks for everything, you helped me a lot!”. He is even volunteering at a local Church – how heartening is that!

Please ensure your seatbelt is fastened!

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a large dose of adrenaline attached to this role.

Dropping into the Police Control Room or Air Traffic Control Tower to see how folks are doing is always a pleasure and always captivating. The airport fire station is another favourite. I’m struck by the friendly banter and intensely warm atmosphere these teams have created. It’s palpable and positive. The fire station even has a team member who used to be a chef – trust me, they eat seriously well!

A highlight for me was leading one of our several Remembrance events. Mine was at the Fire Station. Many of our airport staff are ex-services, so it’s an important day and we need to ensure it is done well.

Manchester Airpotr Fire Service and Chaplains Remembrance

Added to all that, whenever we get an email from the Foreign Office or Red Cross, or a call from Border Force, you can be sure there is a story of human interest unfolding somewhere in this town we call an airport.

Sometimes we fail

Lucy, an elderly lady from Seattle, had her saving stolen by a con-man online, over several months. Eventually, the con-man suggested she meet him at Manchester Airport where her money “would be returned in full”. In desperation, Lucy arrived at T1, found a seat, and waited … and waited. In fact, she remained there for seven days and nights, hanging on to a thread of hope that all might not be lost.

Eventually, she phoned the US Embassy, who contacted the chaplaincy. We got her into a hotel, and then, a flight home.

It’s hard to spot one face among many. Still, we felt saddened that none of us, security, customer services, cleaners, or chaplains spotted her sooner.

This is a place filled with stories, some eye-popping; some heart-breaking

Touchdown?

I’m thoroughly enjoyed my first year in this role, despite it being only part-time.

But isn’t it funny how things turn out? When I first saw the ad for “Airport Chaplain” I literally laughed out loud. You see this airport has an intense familiarity for me. I worked in the tech industry for over thirty years and passed through this airport many (many) times. Sometimes visiting our offices abroad, other times a customer tour, or to speak at some conference or other. And in this place, where I spent so many days over so many years, I have ended up in a caring ministry. If you then throw in a love of fire engines planes, and police cars …. yeah, I feel I packed this bag myself.

Note: all stories referenced are real but names and details have been altered to preserve anonymity
If you enjoyed this article take a look at Chris’s personal story of coming to faith from Hinduism to Christianity
This article was commissioned by Baptists Together Magazine, summer 2023

Baptists Together Summer 2023

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

9 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nik Tetteh-Lartey
Nik Tetteh-Lartey
10 months ago

Chris… you’ve become airport security too?

Nik Tetteh-Lartey
Nik Tetteh-Lartey
10 months ago
Reply to  Chris Goswami

all good but it really looks to me that you are getting all the fun tasks ????

Sunday Austin
Sunday Austin
9 months ago

Love this! Hope you all are doing well!

mark
9 months ago

Great insight Chris. I think having a Chaplin is a must need. Being cabin crew is not easy with their long trips, strange working hours, unruly passengers and sometimes fear of death. Having a Chaplin to pray with them when they go through some stressful moments would really give them strength to keep moving forward.

Darren
Darren
10 months ago

I really enjoyed reading this! I’ve always been fascinated by airports, planes and lines so to read an inside view into ministry here was fantastic! Such a perfect person in a perfect place.

Alastair France
Alastair France
10 months ago

As always a wonderful read. Thank you Chris!

David
David
10 months ago

Really interesting. As someone who has never flown in an aircraft but one who had been fascinated by aircraft in my early teens I can remember Manchester when it was Ringway Airport with a brick painted control tower with the white paint flaking off it. Memories. Must have spent hours just waiting for something to happen!

Peter Ledgar
Peter Ledgar
10 months ago

Another great read Chris and what a fascinating job you have. Pity we don’t have a minister of common sense for these deportation issues.