Supporting life’s journey as an airport chaplain

Airport chaplain Bruce Rickards outside with view of Heathrow buildings and runaways behind him

Three minute read

Heathrow airport is a city within a city. It serves up to 250,000 passengers a day and more than 80,000 people work for the 400 companies that keep Heathrow on the move.

We spoke to Bruce Rickards, airport chaplain and friend of Poppy’s, about his role providing care for staff and visitors, including for those who are bereaved.

How did you become an airport chaplain?

I'm an ordained minister within the Church of England. I had my own parish in south-west London for over ten years, which is when I first came across Poppy’s.

A few years ago, I felt like it was time for a change. The opportunity came to apply for a post at Heathrow. I've been there for nearly three years now. My role as a chaplain is to offer pastoral care to people and to offer spiritual support if requested.

Heathrow is huge! How can you possibly cover the whole airport?

I live in my trainers because they are best for walking in! I usually do over 14,000 steps a day, just walking around the airport.

We’re the world’s fourth busiest airport, which is why we have a large chaplaincy team. We’ve got more than 20 part-time and full-time chaplains at Heathrow. Some are volunteers and some are paid like me.

We’re a very diverse team. We represent the six major world faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism.

As chaplains, we have to be able to care for people of all faiths, and those with no faith, and treat everyone with dignity, love and respect for who they are. Our mission statement is to that we are here to support everyone's life journey.

Everyone includes staff, passengers and people dropping off or meeting people at the airport. We are all on life’s journey, whether that's simply a physical journey or a spiritual journey as well.

How does the chaplaincy support people who are grieving?

We deal with people's emotional and psychological wellbeing, including dealing with grief and sometimes with death. We are here to support them in a holistic way.

The airport provides prayer rooms dotted around the site. We help look after them so that people have somewhere to go if they need to grieve, to pray or just want some quiet.

I sometimes lead memorial services in the airport chapel, a space shared by all the Christian denominations.

We also have a garden of remembrance, which is a beautiful space right in the middle of the airport. When a passenger or a staff member dies, their families or friends can have a memorial plaque put up there.

We have a service on All Souls Day, when we remember those who have died during the year, including those from the airport community. There is a very strong community of people working at the airport — they have a lot of very loyal staff.

And what about situations when someone is taken ill or dies at the airport?

We have a 24-hour on-call system, so that there’s always a chaplain available in a crisis. We assist whenever we can.

We work closely with the management of each terminal, the border force, the mortuary, the police, ambulance service, and fire brigade. We're part of a much bigger jigsaw.

So, when there is a crisis, such as you might encounter in any large city, whatever that crisis may be, we all work together.

If it is a death on board or something like that, we have to work with the passengers on the plane. We have to work within the authorities, we have to work with the captain of the plane and follow the protocols at the airport. It’s so important having colleagues we can trust.

What’s different about this role to your previous role as a parish priest?

There’s a huge amount of variety as an airport chaplain. When you go into the airport, you don't know what you're going to face each day.

As a parish priest, I journeyed with people through their lives. Whereas at the airport I often just get a snapshot of someone’s life as they pass through.

Emotions can run high in an airport. Air travel is usually for a holiday abroad, but sometimes there can be a more sombre story behind someone’s journey.

Regardless of the reason for travel, if someone is going through a difficult time, those pressures in their life don’t disappear when they enter the airport. That’s where our role as chaplains comes in, we can walk alongside passengers, and be there if they need us.

I build relationships and rapport with staff. But there's a higher turnover of people and it’s very fast-paced, and so it's very different type of ministry. It's dynamic and exciting, but very rewarding as well.

Ultimately I'm still a priest — there to serve everybody, out of belief that humanity is created in the image of God and loved by God whoever they are.

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