What About Bob?

It's hard to argue with a man on a mission

Say you're on a plane back to the Twin Cities, feeling guilty after yet another tryst-filled business trip. Or maybe you're afraid you'll be fired from your airline job when the next random drug test exposes your habit. Perhaps you're a passenger stuck at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and you phone home only to find out your father has already died.

You could unburden yourself to the person sitting next to you on the plane. You could confide in a co-worker. Or you could talk to Bob.

Pastor Bob White, that is. He has been helping airline employees and passengers with divorces, addictions, death, and all manner of grief for nearly three decades. All but two of those years have been spent in a couple of cramped rooms--335 and 335A--on the second floor of the main terminal of the Twin Cities airport.

On a wing and a prayer: Pastor Bob
Siddiqi Ray
On a wing and a prayer: Pastor Bob

Perched above the newly upscaled concourses and boutiques, White's office and its adjacent "counseling" room aren't easy to locate. He knows this, and confirms in a long-suffering voice that he's been over this before: "Yeah, you need a road map and a knapsack to find me." Nor is he surprised to hear that no one answering the airport's general information line seems to know who he is. And yes, he's aware that other airports proudly promote their chaplaincy services. Over the years, while attending the annual conference of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, he has listened to his fellow ministers talk about new sanctuaries and nonsecular meditation rooms being outfitted in airports around the world.

And he has told his story, too. Peter Holloway, a past president of the association, has known White for ages. "He has had some difficulties over the years," Holloway notes. "Probably more than any other airport chaplain in the world." To what does White owe this distinction?

Tom Anderson, attorney for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (which owns and operates the airport), says that what separates White from other airport chaplains is, well, the fact that he's not one. "We don't have a chaplain," Anderson says bluntly. "We've always taken the position that he is just another tenant. As far as we know, he's doing counseling in there and that's what his title is: counselor. He is charged rent for his office space like everyone else."

But White isn't "everyone else," at least according to Paul Omodt, spokesman for Northwest's Master Executive Council for the Air Line Pilots Association. Omodt credits White with setting up support groups for pilots and flight attendants and offering succor and spiritual guidance to hundreds in their time of need. "He has always been there when we needed him to come out and talk to someone."

White says that by now he is used to being snubbed by airport management. A man in his 50s who wears a clerical collar, White speaks in the soft, deliberate voice of an experienced listener. But his fingers belie his calm manner as they nervously pick up and slick down his thick, side-parted hair. At the mention of his status, he laughs in a sad, even resigned, sort of way, and says he's not sure whether his staying on at the airport is due to, as he puts it, perseverance or stupidity. Over the years the MAC has come close to evicting White several times. Why? Because he arrived on the premises uninvited nearly three decades ago, and has since insisted on identifying himself as the airport's official chaplain (though he does stress that the title is not meant to "imply that the MAC endorses me").

Educated as a Lutheran minister and a licensed marriage and family therapist, White opens his office to people of all religions who want to pray and to nonbelievers who are just after a little peace and quiet. The small room offers four chairs and a book-lending library. There are self-help tapes, too, but those can't be checked out right now because they can't be gotten to: they're blocked by construction debris and an abandoned luggage cart. White does, on occasion, visit with passengers, but he spends a good part of his day ministering to airline employees. He speaks proudly of what his airport congregation has been up to of late, including the founding of the Northwest Habitat for Humanity Group, which aids in the construction of new low-income housing in the Cities.

"We're working on mental-health education right now," White says, even though "it's hard to identify what people are going through because they're always flying off somewhere." Depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse, he notes, are fairly common in airline circles, in part because "people work staggered hours and are away from their families and friends for long periods of time, and that can be very stressful."

White can talk a blue streak about other people's problems, but he's hesitant to discuss his own. He says his troubles with airport management go back to 1973, when he approached commissioners about securing space so he could start an airport ministry. (He hatched the idea after crossing paths with several airline employees at a Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter in St. Paul.) But the MAC didn't want a chaplain, in part, commissioners told him, because sponsoring a man of the cloth at the publicly funded airport might muddy the line between church and state.

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