Nation

Ministry from on high

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Englewood, Colo.

Scott Hastings so does not want to do this.

His face looks pale as he trudges through gusts of grit to the helicopter.

In 11 seasons as a pro basketball player -- and in his current job as a TV analyst for the Denver Nuggets -- Hastings has grown accustomed to travel. Travel, that is, by big, solid plane. This helicopter looks too small to hold all 6-feet-10, 280 pounds of him, not to mention the pilot and four other passengers.

He's man enough to say he's terrified.

Then again, this is not just any helicopter. Christened Prayer One, it lifts monks and rabbis, imams and pastors, and ordinary people of faith up over Denver each Monday morning, up into a new perspective on life and love and God.

Or so Hastings' friends tell him. Several have taken a ride on Prayer One; they've called it an amazing spiritual stretch. That seems worth a few clammy moments. Hastings, 47, squeezes into the front seat. Gently, steadily, Prayer One lifts into a sky of the most serene blue.

Prayer One was born two years ago, after amateur stunt pilot Jeff Puckett took the Rev. Tom Melton, a friend, for an aerial spin around Denver. Looking down, Melton felt his vision expand. He'd been so focused on his wealthy suburban congregation, so proud of how his flock had grown. Now he saw, all at once, how insular he'd been.

The multimillion-dollar custom homes in his community of Greenwood Village made barely a ripple on the topography that unfurled below. The grand estates with their vast gardens merged right into blocks of blank apartment buildings and regiments of look-alike suburban homes, each planted on a narrow strip of green.

"Looking at the city from 500 feet, you don't see walls or neighborhoods. It's all knit together," Melton says. "I started wondering, how can we minister to the whole city?"

Days later, he hit upon an answer:

You minister to the city, he decided, by taking the city's ministers to the air.

Melton, 58, started by inviting a few friends on Puckett's aerial tour. Word spread quickly, and soon faith leaders from all walks of life began asking for a ride. Some claimed to have visions as they flew. Some wept at the beauty below. Others used the time to pray, bathing the city in blessings from above.

Puckett came to realize that flying 22-minute loops over greater Denver could be his calling. God was using him every time he took the controls of his Bell 206 LongRanger.

He decided to set aside every Monday morning for this unlikely ministry.

The rides are free, no donations accepted. Puckett, who owns a small-aircraft dealership, covers the costs. Passengers sign up online, at http://www.prayeroneministries.com ; priority goes to those in ministry, but if he has room (and he usually does), Puckett takes on executives, educators, politicians -- anyone who comes to him expressing a passion for God and a desire to serve.

"When we meet in the morning, we're all strangers. Most are truly afraid of getting into this machine with some yahoo they've just met," says Puckett, 47. "But they come back safely, big smiles on their faces, greeted by new friends who have shared the same experience of praying over the city and feeling that God is just that much closer."

Watching that transformation inspires Puckett, renews his own faith. But he has a broader goal as well: By buckling diverse passengers knee-to-knee inside his chopper, Puckett aims to create a sense of unity across race, class and religion.

Early on, Prayer One connected two dozen Christian musicians; they meet quarterly to share songs and plan outreach programs, such as concerts in prisons. Several youth ministers also met through the helicopter and get together regularly to encourage and advise one another.

"Pastors don't often get beyond their own four walls because they're so focused on growing their own congregation," says Puckett's brother-in-law and business partner, Scott Southworth.

"They won't come out for a meeting, but they will come out to fly. The helicopter is the hook. And if we can bring them all together," Southworth adds, "the powers of darkness won't have a chance."

On this Monday, Puckett welcomes his 1,000th passenger, a milestone he announces over a preflight spread of coffee and muffins in an echoing hangar at Centennial Airport.

The floor is so shiny that it reflects the two dozen men and women who will be flying today: The Capuchin Franciscan friar in his rough brown robe, the novice pastor in worn jeans, the Salvation Army colonel in a brisk white shirt with red epaulets. A real-estate agent has signed up for a ride; also, an abstinence educator, an accountant, an avid mountain climber who dreams of burying the Bible on the highest summit on every continent.

A middle-aged black Baptist pastor has pulled aside a young white evangelical; they'reexchanging tips on reaching out to Latino neighbors. A youth mentor with close-cropped hair is working the room energetically, seeking allies.

In a moment, the passengers will break into groups of five so they can take shifts on Prayer One.

First, though, they gather in a circle, hold hands, bow heads. They pray that God will speak to them on their flights, and that they will be prepared to listen.

--

Five hundred feet above Denver, Father John Lager makes the sign of the cross as Prayer One passes over the downtown homeless shelter he runs. He signed up for this flight at the urging of friends who told him it would be a good chance to get out of the small, sad slice of urban life he sees day after day. "The city is larger than just the world I see," Lager saysbefore takeoff.

He's glued to the window now, his friar's robes tucked under him. The helicopter banks left, passing the Coors Field baseball stadium. Lager's right hand is raised by the window: Up, down, left, right, the sign of the cross. Again and again: Up, down, left, right.

The helicopter circles low over the gold dome of the state Capitol. You can see into the offices on the top floors of downtown skyscrapers. Then back over suburbia: Three-car garages; parking lots; the striped-orange of storage sheds; baseball diamonds; the raw wood frames of houses under construction.

Lager keeps thinking back to the shelter. He gets too frustrated by the clients there, he says, too overwhelmed by all the need. It's too easy to see the distance between himself and those he serves.

From this height, he understands how he has erred.

"Too often, I see people as different. God doesn't see that," says Lager, 55.

He looks down again. "You can't see separateness."

--

Each airborne epiphany is different.

Sherry Manson, who raises money for the Salvation Army, senses pain seeping from the cul-de-sacs. "Someone's being abused today. Women and children are suffering," says Manson, 57, her voice breaking. "I hope maybe our prayers gave them the strength to get out."

Greg Greenwood, by contrast, is all exuberance. Peering down at swimming pools, tennis courts, SUVs, he finds himself thinking, in awe, "God created that!" Back on land, the 44-year-old entrepreneur -- he sells low-voltage cables -- cannot stop marveling. "God is so much bigger than I can even imagine."

Josh Sosa, a marriage educator, prays for the relationships below. It's an intimate feeling, he says. And yet it leaves Sosa, 30, a bit bereft, unexpectedly alone.

"I'm praying for others, but I feel like people don't really have my back," he says. "Every house has its own agenda."

--

Scott Hastings?

He steps off Prayer One beaming.

"My fear was idiotic," he says. "That was cool. That was cool."

And humbling.

"I travel around with the NBA," Hastings says. "I talk to [basketball superstars] Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. I call games with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant."

Hastings has a championship ring from a season with the Detroit Pistons; he hosts a popular sports talk-radio show; people recognize him from TV. "I know I've got that ego, that conceit, in my heart," Hastings says.

The helicopter ride was a jolt of reality.

He was scared, yes, and that alone took him down a notch. Then just when he was feeling safe, Hastings shifted in his seat to offer up a prayer -- and the helicopter lurched alarmingly. "That was God saying, 'You're not in control.' "

Above all, though, Hastings says he was moved by what he saw from the window: People moving about with purpose, whether or not they had ever made a free throw. Homes that echoed with arguments and with laughter, whether they cost $5 million or $50,000.

From the air, "you can't tell the difference between the guy in a $30,000 suit and the guy in a 5-day-old pair of jeans," Hastings says. "Too often, I've been caught up in 'Look what I've achieved. Look what I've done.' It ain't about me. We're all in this together."

--

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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