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‘When people hurt, I know hurt’: An airport chaplain mourns his 10-year-old son

The Rev. Nace Lanier, the airport chaplain, walks the halls of Reagan National Airport. (Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)

Every time he sees a plane descending, the Rev. Nace Lanier starts to pray.

He believes in spiritual warfare: that there is evil out there and that prayer can ward it off. So each day, as Lanier watches through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Reagan National Airport, he beseeches God to protect the plane until he sees it touch the ground.

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The airport’s senior chaplain has faith that prayer is essential to safe travels. The wooden cross that he grips as he says those prayers is his constant reminder of how that faith has been sorely tested.

Lanier carries the cross everywhere — wedged between his fingers as he paces the airport looking for travelers in need of pastoral guidance, passed from hand to hand as he chats with a seeker at the airport chapel, held tightly in his palm as he pulls up a photo on his iPhone. There’s the cross again, in the photo. Between the thin fingers of Lanier’s 10-year-old son Josiah, three weeks ago, as Josiah took his last breath.

Brain cancer killed his smart, friendly 10-year-old. And now, Lanier is left with his faith. And that cross.

“It’s a gift,” he says — a gift to have the special “clinging cross” that was meant for Josiah to hold onto while he fought cancer, and a gift to have the chaplaincy at the airport now. “Having God provide the chapel — in the midst of going through this trial and caring for my son, it’s a privilege and an honor, sitting in the chapel. You hear the stories. God uses this space, and these prayers.”

Lanier, 42, ministers to an unusual flock — airport employees, anxious flyers who come into the airport chapel to pray before going through security, observant Jews and Muslims who use the chapel for their daily prayers, anyone anywhere in the airport who looks a little lost. And it is this ministry that has sustained him through his son’s illness and recent death.

A former pastor in Mississippi and at Burke Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical church in Northern Virginia, Lanier took the airport position 10 months ago, shortly after that day his son couldn’t keep his balance on his bicycle, and then a doctor was crying as he told the boy’s parents that Josiah had a brain tumor.

The airport job had flexible hours that let him be at his son’s medical appointments. And his own suffering has allowed him, he says, to connect quickly with these strangers swirling through this point of departure who tell him about their trials.

“When people hurt, I know hurt,” he said. “From that pain, I can surely listen better and care deeper.”

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More than half of the nation’s busiest airports have chapels, where such scenes of interfaith prayer in one tiny, quiet room are common. “We’re a very transient culture. People are coming and going, moving all the time,” Lanier said. Sometimes, you need to get your religion on the go. “We may only know each other for five minutes — I want those connections to count.”

The chapel at Reagan Airport is behind the Dunkin’ Donuts near the TSA line in Terminal B. On a recent visit, harried flyers are grumbling about long wait times to get through security. A woman is barking on her cellphone, “I’m telling you — we need to think about our overall sales strategy.”

But inside the chapel it is silent.

The room contains Bibles in English and Spanish, Korans, pamphlets that address crises such as illness and divorce, and a photocopied Hebrew prayer to God specifically for airplane travel: “May You bring forth from your storehouses a propitious wind to carry our plane, and may you sustain and preserve those who fly it.”

Amanda Vallejo walks in and picks up a devotional booklet. She is traveling from her home in District Heights, Md., to Stockholm, where she will visit friends, and then to Barcelona, where she will make a pilgrimage to the Sagrada Familia church. But the first holy stop for the 52-year-old is here, in Terminal B, where she recited the prayers Our Father and Hail Mary.

“It’s really, really necessary, I think. You never know,” Vallejo said. “A trip is a situation in your life. You are at risk.”

After about 10 minutes inside, she leaves. Yoideth Arroyo is the next to enter the quiet space.

Arroyo has worked at the airport on and off since 2007, but today is the first time the Hudson News employee has ever entered the chapel. “Every time I go by it, I’m tempted to go in. Something told me to go today,” she said. She opened a Bible and read a few passages. She might return in the next few days, and might try to talk to the chaplain — she has a doctor’s appointment next week that’s on her mind.

“For me it’s the best way for me to just break away from the world of confusion that exists in this airport,” says Bill Carroll, 53, who works on the tarmac for American Airlines. He enters the room a few minutes after Arroyo. He hadn’t planned to use his break this way today, but then he did. “The Holy Spirit just said, ‘Just go take some time and give God his time.’ ”

While Carroll is reading from the book of Psalms, Shafiq Choudhary walks in. He takes off his shoes, then takes a prayer rug from a pile in the corner of the room and spreads it out facing east, following the compass embedded in the chapel’s wooden floor. Silently, he stands and bows, stands and bows — the Muslim midday prayers.

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Lanier — whose salary is paid mostly by outside donors, and who is assisted by five more part-time and volunteer chaplains at National — does not confine himself to the chapel. On his daily circuit around the airport, he is a walking whirlwind of prayers.

He spots people dragging their luggage off the baggage claim carousels and says a silent prayer for the happiness of their reunions with their families. A line of giggling teenage girls stroll down the hallway together, and Lanier prays that they might find excitement and education on their journey.

Like his Josiah.

He was a bundle of energy, always outdoors on his skateboard or playing basketball. A bright and conscientious student, Josiah was willing to help his classmates and his 6-year-old brother, and advanced enough to teach his 12-year-old sister math.

Anyone in the terminal who looks perplexed, Lanier strides up to them, airport employee badge around his neck and cross in hand. He offers directions, information, a listening ear.

Most of the time, those conversations never touch on religion. He’s not there to proselytize. “My God is bigger than denomination, religion. He is present.”

Above all, wherever he goes — near the security line, near the taxi line, near the windows looking out on the runway and just about anywhere else –he prays for safety.

It adds, he says, to the “ethos” of the airport. Even if passengers don’t know he’s there, he hopes he helps the airport feel more like a safe place.

He moves the cross from hand to hand. “I know a lot of people on those planes, they’re praying until they touch the ground.”

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