Preaching from a pulpit on Sundays is not the aspiration of seminary students Eugene and Christina Kraybill.
Eugene, in fact, is often in the sky Sunday mornings, piloting his United Airlines CRJ-700 from Dulles International Airport – a job he enjoys and plans to continue indefinitely. Ministry, for him, is “not ‘a calling’; it’s life.”
“We really feel called to be workplace ministers,” adds Christina, who often accompanies her husband on flights, along with serving on the ground at Dulles, where both are volunteer chaplains.
They enrolled in Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) in the fall of 2010. In a Sept. 22, 2012, service at the airport, they were licensed – a step toward Virginia Mennonite Conference ordination, which they hope will occur in 2014. Balancing study with work, they anticipate earning master of divinity degrees in perhaps 15 years.
Eugene has flown for 25 years, the past 12 with United and affiliates. The couple have been chaplains at Dulles for four years since relocating to Virginia from Pennsylvania. First they lived in Herndon near Dulles, operating a guesthouse for pilots and flight attendants, before moving in 2011 to Berryville, 40 miles west of Dulles and 80 miles north of Harrisonburg. Prior to EMS they trained with the Fellowship of Christian Airline Personnel.
After approaching Dulles senior chaplain Ralph Benson to offer much-needed office-organizing skills, Christina became the first woman among the airport’s 15 chaplains – including Eugene, the group’s only airline employee. All chaplains, excepting Benson, are volunteers, including an imam and a Catholic priest.
Christina’s social-work background proves helpful. “We often see passengers who have arrived and have nowhere to go,” she says – and penniless travelers who take free shuttles from D.C. to the airport. Other times, employees request prayer – including a woman anxious about her troubled teenager.
Christina’s a native of Pennsylvania. Eugene was born in Vietnam to a Mennonite medical missionary family and spent some of his formative years in Ethiopia.
The couple made the nearly hour-and-half trip to Harrisonburg weekly together for their first two EMS courses, while separating for small-group class discussions. Sometimes they stayed overnight with relatives or in their cabin in Mathias, WV. Eugene benefited when some courses shifted to meeting for longer periods once per week. Christina took the fall 2011 semester off to renovate their 1875 railroad-worker home in Berryville. Last month she opened a Fair Trade store, My Neighbor and Me, from their house.
EMS has enrolled 11 couples over the past decade, says Laura Amstutz, EMS associate director of admissions and communication coordinator. The seminary now has 140 students.
VMC overseer Luke Schrock-Hurst and EMS professor Mary Thiessen Nation gave testimony at their licensing ceremony, where Christina shared a poem she’d written, “Airport Chaplains Walking.” It was inspired by Luke 24: 13-35, in which two disciples, on the road to Emmaus, are joined by Jesus – whom they invite to dinner before recognizing him. She remembers that story when “people ask us to meet their family, or attend a party.”
Close friends the Kraybills have made among Dulles’ international community include a ramper (who moves planes into position) and his wife, who are Muslims from Tunisia. Eugene discourages attempts at “profiling” passengers. At the airport chapel, where Christina conducts Bible classes, she also sometimes watches children for Muslim women while they pray.
When hosting employee dinners, the Kraybills included invitations to mechanics, who had previously felt excluded.
They have yet to experience a disaster. (Asked about prayer in moments of danger, Eugene replies he tries to always have “an underlying mode of confidence. I’m praying in my spirit.”) They’ve helped conduct memorial services for two workers killed in accidents on the ground. After such tragedies, Christina notes, the work “stops briefly to address the emergency, and then it has to continue.” Yet the chaplains remain.
This article was first published Oct. 8, 2012.