Southwest Airlines Captain Follows Deacon’s Call

Captain Rebecca Sparks radiates the spirit of her great-grandparents, who were some of the original 19th-century settlers of the Texas Panhandle. One of Southwest Airlines’ first female pilots, Sparks began her journey in high school to the captain’s seat of a 737 and, by a more circuitous route, she was ordained a deacon in June 2018.

Doted on by her grandparents, aunts and uncles, Sparks grew up on the family ranch surrounded by horses and wide-open West Texas sky near Palo Duro Canyon, southeast of Amarillo. By lantern light, her Uncle Oscar regaled the five-year-old Sparks with true stories of cowboys and Indians and even let her try chewing tobacco. The first time she drove a car, she was eight.

“It was an extraordinary childhood,” she said. “Looking back, it was like a novel.”

Sparks’ father, a B-52 mechanic and instructor in the Air Force, went into the insurance business when she was just a year old. By the time she was a teenager, the family had moved to New Braunfels, where Sparks continued to nurture her equine passion on a drill team with the sheriff’s posse. As long as she had horses around, Sparks said she stayed out of trouble. She did raise eyebrows riding across the golf course though.

The oldest of three children in a very close family, Sparks was raised Baptist. “My mother was a church secretary and my dad led the choir.” She remembers hearing “Holy Hubert” Lindsey at a revival she attended with her grandparents. “He said, ‘You don’t want to be just another box of cornflakes,’ and my 17-year-old heart just latched onto that,” Sparks said, explaining that she felt a revelation at the time and began to laugh. Before long, everyone in the room was laughing as well. “I call it my baptism by the Holy Spirit,” she said, and it left her with a profound faith in God.

Sparks could have graduated early from high school, but chose to take a ground school course to become a private pilot instead. The following summer, she worked at the airport, paid in flying time as she gravitated toward the open sky.

She attended Central Texas College in Killeen to continue flight training and found work as a corporate and commercial pilot after completing her degree. At the same time she cycled through a number of denominations looking for a place to land. “I was Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Assemblies of God …” Sparks said. She attended an Episcopal church with friend and mentor, Doris Bearden, and was deeply moved by the liturgy and the reverence she experienced.

“The words held so much meaning. I learned there was a path forward and a journey I was going to be on with other people,” she said. “That’s something I think is profound about the Episcopal Church. People develop belief through their shared experience. Everyone is invited to come as they are and there is freedom to become the person who was in the mind of God from the very beginning,” Sparks said.

Sparks became an active member of St. Christopher’s, Killeen, despite a robust flight schedule. She joined Southwest Airlines in 1981 and was the seventh woman captain by 1991. Many of the activities she engaged in at work reflected a pastoral nature that foreshadowed her ordination as a deacon.

Southwest Airlines asked Sparks to spend several weeks with the family of a pilot killed in a private plane crash, to help them through the grief. When a Southwest training scheduler’s husband died unexpectedly, Sparks again exercised a ministry of presence for the widow. When she flew over the World Trade Center a week after the terrorist attack, it was Sparks, from the cockpit, who called on passengers and crew to pray.

St. Christopher’s former rector, the Rev. Janice Jones, was the first person to bring up the diaconate. “She said, ‘You are already doing it!’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s right. I am a person who looks outward and brings people in,’” Sparks said. “I loved getting the Sunday school kids out and involved feeding people who lived under the bridge. I loved being engaged where there was a need.”

“Becky’s joyfulness in the midst of whatever is going on really caught my attention,” Jones said. “She shared life and her deep faith so easily. I watched Becky ready with a hug, a laugh, a prayer—always reaching out, both in and beyond our church, always willing to serve. Becky already had a deacon’s heart; thinking about ordination just made sense,” Jones added.

After a discernment process, Sparks attended IONA School for Ministry for bivocational clergy and deacons, developed by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Classes, taught by seminary professors, meet one weekend a month for three years.

During her preparation for ordination, Sparks continued to fly for Southwest, as a check airman who helps certify other pilots’ preparedness and  she participates in the “Adopt a Pilot” program, speaking to fifth graders about her job. She also works in the company’s professional standards program and leads efforts to acknowledge schedulers and other support staff in the company.

Sparks has always had a deacon’s heart to “represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856) Her actions honor the humanity in everyone. When asked by a homeless man for money recently, she instead shared a meal and conversation with him. She has flown WWII veterans on Honor Flights to Normandy and Washington, D.C. She has worked as a chaplain in hospice.

“What I’ve learned is to be present with the person I’m with, whether I’m giving a check ride or talking to someone who is struggling with a situation. I can’t say how or why God moves me where he does. I do know that he wants me to be present,” Sparks said. “Love is the only thing that will keep this universe in its place.”

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