A `Ministry of the Moment'

Air passengers can't fly away from their troubles, but they can see the chaplain at O'Hare Airport

TO airborne travelers, O'Hare International Airport sprawls across the prairie like a new Colossus, its glass and steel gleaming a silver promise of freedom from the bounds of time and space.

Yet on the ground, modern humanity at the world's busiest airport apparently is as vexed as ever by the constraints of space and time. Chaos is always just on standby at O'Hare, eager to join the maelstrom of rushing travelers, lunging taxis, and roaring jetliners.

Who is there to console O'Hare's lost travelers, overburdened baggage handlers, and wayward pilots? Who is there to aid the overwhelmed enlistees in O'Hare's grand mission of transcendence?

Meet the Rev. John Jamnicky.

Fr. Jamnicky, a Roman Catholic priest, runs the nondenominational chapel at the airport, tending to travelers and airport employees in what he calls a ``ministry of the moment.''

In many ways, Jamnicky is the ultimate chaplain for the modern era: His parish is the global village.

Jamnicky recently stepped down as president of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, an organization of some 120 clergy from 75 airport chapels around the world. The association gathered here to elect a new president and engage in a workshop on how to help people involved in catastrophes like plane crashes.

Jamnicky, who has worked at O'Hare for 12 years, says he and his far-flung colleagues tend a needy flock. Their parishioners, while flitting freely across time zones, are bound to stressful timetables. The congregants might know many places, but many of them lack a sense of place and family.

Jamnicky seems well suited to the most modern version of pastoral work. He was born the son of a steelworker in what he calls a ``mill workers' ghetto in Southeast Chicago.'' His smile is as bright as a runway strobe light, and his voice is brash enough to traverse even the longest airport concourse.

``You have to be someone who can warm up people very quickly, someone who is able to listen in an instant, assess the situation, and respond very quickly because a lot of people who need your help will soon just fly out of here,'' he says.

For example, a woman in July appeared at the chapel and tearfully told Jamnicky she had flown from Los Angeles that morning after resolving to leave her husband. Her flight was to leave for her native country in South America within an hour. Because of her visa status, it was unlikely she would be able to return to the United States. Jamnicky persuaded the wayfarer to telephone her husband and tell him of her plans. After several minutes on the phone, she decided to fly back to her spouse.

``Our particular ministry probably receives more appreciation than that of a local pastor who slaves for his people day after day because people expect very little from us,'' says Jamnicky. Still, a chaplain ministering in a commercial enterprise like an airport lacks the autonomy of many local pastors.

Jamnicky spent 10 years as a priest at a church in East Englewood, a poor part of Chicago. Although he no longer regularly ministers to people across the class spectrum, his chapel is open to people from the complete range of faiths.

``I have walked by the chapel on numerous occasions and there will be a Muslim on the prayer rug up in front praying, a Catholic on a kneeler praying, and a Jew on the side in prayer, all exactly at the same time and in the same space,'' Jamnicky says.

``It's beautiful that we can all be here together praying to God in different languages, and with different prayers, and in different postures but all with the same basic kind of faith, love, and respect,'' he says.

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