Spirituality on the go

A Reform Jew in his mid-twenties wanders through the airport atrium and finds the chapel door. He's about to board his first flight in nine years, and he wants to recite the Tefilah Haderech, the Jewish prayer for travel.

A 60-year-old Catholic woman quietly chooses a chair toward the back of the chapel and sits by herself for 15 minutes, with her eyes closed. She is "mentally preparing" for her flight to Chicago, where she will attend her father's funeral.

A middle-aged Muslim woman, who just stepped off a plane after a five-hour flight from Los Angeles, kneels on the knees of her blue jeans to observe one of the five daily prayers of Salaah. She is praying because the hour at which she was supposed to worship passed while she was in the air.

This is an ordinary morning at the 24-hour Interfaith Chapel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In the airport's fast-paced setting, the chapel provides solace for the anxieties or inconveniences accompanying air travel. In a way, that makes the airport the perfect place to minister to the masses.

The 22-year-old Hartsfield chapel is one of 146 worldwide run by the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy. In the past two decades, the IAC has served a rotating "congregation" of 85 million people.

In addition to its growing popularity, airport chaplaincy also has assumed more urgency in the past four years.

Chaplain Shirley Petty says the Hartsfield chapel, like most in the IAC, commonly has served people traveling to attend funerals. But in the days and weeks following 9/11, she consoled a growing number of people afraid to fly for fear of another terrorist attack.

Lately, she's also met with a number of U.S. troops deploying to Iraq.

"This is a ministry not like any other," says Petty. "You come into contact with people of all faiths, with different reasons to come into our chapel."

Approximately 1,800 people per year visit the Atlanta airport's chapel, which offers bibles in 25 languages and prayer books for Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Scientologists. There are no religious symbols behind the stained-glass facade of the 400-square-foot room, located between the atrium and the rental car counters - only a silhouette of a person kneeling.

"Airport chaplaincy is something that has developed over the years," says the chapel's executive director and senior chaplain, the Rev. Chester R. Cook. "Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Baptist, Methodist, whatever, there is always a space provided for everyone to pray and practice their own religious beliefs."

For more info on the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, visit www.airportchapel.org.??

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