Airports finding room for God in their terminals Quiet corners being set aside for travelers and workers


ALBANY, N.Y. - Perhaps it was lucky for the woman stranded in Cincinnati that airport ramp workers had Bible Study that night. Or maybe it was an answered prayer.

"She found herself in the chapel. She didn't know how she got there," said Richard Merriman, a volunteer at the 18-by-3-foot interfaith airport chapel.

The worshipers got her vouchers for a room and meal. Her next time through Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, she showed her sons the chapel.

"It was not happenstance. The Lord did it," said Merriman, an evangelical Christian. Whether it is divine intervention or a keen sense of direction, thousands of travelers find sanctuaries in 30 U.S. airports to reflect upon burdens as constant as the sky.

Now, the Albany Airport will join hubs from Boston's Logan International to Phoenix's Sky Harbor when it sets aside a quiet corner where travelers and aviation workers can face a quandary, catastrophe or their jitters.

The Airport Authority has approved a request by the Capital District Interfaith Committee for about 400 square feet in the $158 million terminal opening next year. The slice of tranquility is offered in the belief that the half billion or so people crisscrossing U.S. skies 30,000 times a day carry more than the baggage they check at the gate.

'A lot of people crying'

"You see a lot of people crying," noted Leo Allard, a newsstand clerk at Albany Airport. "I just spoke to a woman whose father was getting a heart transplant. I said it was good they'd found a heart. I was trying to boost her. We all need a place to share our soul."

Large airport chapels hold Muslim, Catholic and Protestant services. Pastors may be dispatched to give a eulogy beneath jet's wing on the death of an airline employee. Travelers and workers seek solace in sickness and in health, occasionally vowing to stay together till death do them part - before catching separate flights out.

"We had one couple who bought our chaplain a ticket so he could marry them on the plane. Fortunately, he was a retired Air Force captain," said John Roppolo, director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Chaplaincy, which by November aided 774 employees, 284 passengers and married two couples.

Albany's pocket-sized oasis won't be as elaborate as the Texas airport's, where services at three chapels are announced along with the flights, or at O'Hare International Airport, where a chaplain is always available at 312-686-AMEN.

"I had a woman here just yesterday who had a fear of flying," said the Rev. John Jamnicky, chapel administrator at the Chicago hub. "She wanted to go to confession before she flew, to make her peace with God."

A meditation room

The Albany facility also won't offer services or staff, said the Rev. Albert O. Siegel, coordinating the effort with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu clergy. Instead, the space will be a meditation room, not a chapel.

"We want to make the design such that no matter what your faith you'll feel at home to pray," said Siegel, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister and a volunteer greeter of air passengers.

His committee, with help from liturgical designer Richard Vosko, envisions a room with art glass, not stained glass. In place of an altar, cross or ark will be storage for prayer rugs, yarmulkes and rosary beads. The Talmud, Koran, New and Old Testaments will be displayed.

Vosko scours airports for chapels, reflection, prayer and meditation rooms. New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport designates spaces for different denominations. The one at Dallas-Fort Worth maintains nine chaplains part time and contributes a column to the airport newspaper.

But in Pittsburgh, Vosko found a sanctuary used for storage. The one in Cleveland was locked tight.

"Another had no seats, just pillows on the floor," said Vosko, a Catholic priest. "There was a big wall with water going up and down and New Age music."

With flight, people get to weddings and funerals their grandmothers wouldn't have dreamed of attending. They cross oceans for a cure.

Jamnicky recalls the woman and her sick aunt who flew from London for a last-chance procedure in Oklahoma. The aunt died in flight.

"They didn't get their last chance," he recalls. "The niece was very upset with God."

The first known aviation ministry opened in 1951 at Boston's Logan. There are about 65 religious spaces in airports in 30 countries. There is an International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, a National Catholic Conference of Airport Chaplains, even a how-to handbook: "Ministry of the Moment."

There is also some liturgical debate. People such as O'Hare's Jamnicky maintain that sacred spaces should not soft-pedal religion. There are no crucifixes in his chapel, but visitors will see a prayer rug for Muslims, lighted tabernacle for Roman Catholics and compass to orient people of Eastern faiths.

"There are few places on Earth where you'd see people praying at the same time, at the same place, to the same God," he mused.

Airports are minicities where employees share struggles with divorce, depression and job angst.

"Amidst the hustle and bustle it gave you a chance to sit down and have a cup of coffee. You ate lunch and had a 20-minute Mass," said Dennis Meehan, who leads ramp crews for American Airlines at Albany Airport.

A onetime aspiring Franciscan priest, Meehan, 44, has also been a chapel regular in Orlando and at JFK.

Charles Clark, an airport shoe shiner at Albany Airport, said he is occasionally asked if there is a place to pray.

People setting up the meditation room here, however, acknowledge that in a small hub where long layovers are rare, usage may not be overwhelming.

"It won't be Times Square, but if it's there, my sense is it certainly will be used," said John Egan, Albany Airport's chief operating officer. "God knows passengers and we people who work here all need quiet time and space."

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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