What About Bob?

On a wing and a prayer: Pastor Bob
Siddiqi Ray

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.

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.

Eventually, it was agreed that White could rent space on his own dime. In turn, he agreed not to characterize himself as the airport's chaplain--a vow he admits he has broken more than once, in person, on his business card, on a Web site, and at professional get-togethers. The MAC tried to kick him out. White renewed his promise. His congregation signed petitions on his behalf and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union defended his free-speech rights. The MAC backed down. White stayed.

It's not as if airport ministers are unheard of. The first chaplaincy was founded at Boston's Logan International Airport in 1951. Today those who keep track of such things, including the Catholic Church, count 118 of them in 36 cities around the world--but not, at least officially, in the Twin Cities. Peter Holloway, who served as chaplain of the airport in Melbourne, Australia, for 15 years, says most airports have a chapel or at the least a "quiet room" of some kind. Who pays the bills varies. In Germany, for example, operating expenses are covered by what Holloway informally calls a "church tax." In Australian airports, he notes, management funds and various user fees take care of the costs. At Chicago's O'Hare, Susan Schneider, who manages the office of the chaplaincy there, says their bills are paid out of individual contributions, proceeds from fundraising luncheons, and raffles; the nonprofit also enjoys reduced rent rates.

Jennifer Bagdade, the MAC's assistant PR person, says that there have been infrequent requests by airline workers for some sort of sanctuary, though management has not seriously considered subsidizing one. For now, White pays $700 a month--the standard office rate at the airport--for the two rooms he rents, nearly double what he paid in 1996. Tax returns for 1998 show that the ministry took in just over $28,000, which went to everything from rent to White's admittedly paltry salary.

Still, he says, things could be a lot worse; White recalls that during an especially tight spell, he lived in the office for a few months. In fact, last month was the best he's ever had in terms of fundraising--$5,300, almost all of it from pilots and flight attendants at Northwest Airlines. But a look at White's contributor lists reveals that skycaps, maintenance crew members, and staff at Caterair are also part of his flock.

Jon Austin, a spokesman for Northwest, says he knows that many of the airline's employees go to White for help. And Northwest has shown its appreciation by donating tickets to him when he wanted to attend conferences or bring in an out-of-town speaker, but the company has never kicked in to cover White's rent or made other monetary contributions. That's because he has never asked, Austin says: "If he did, we would certainly consider it, because it seems like he's doing good work."

For now a peaceful coexistence, an odd sort of détente, has been worked out between White's ministry and the airport's powers that be. Management collects rent, and White goes about quietly doing his duties.

Among which, he notes, is the work of keeping up with what has become "a real international airport now, with passengers and workers from all races and faiths." One day last week, Muslim airport workers began to arrive at noon. Each took a rug from the small bookshelf next to the door and stepped out into the dim hallway to pray, as they have taken to doing every day since discovering White's quarters. One of the devout became confused, though; it was his first visit, he said, and he couldn't get his bearings. Which way was east? Pastor Bob White didn't hesitate--he stood up and showed him the way.

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