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Airport chapels more diverse: Fliers of many faiths can find place to pray

Muzaffar Chaudhary prays in interfaith chapel at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
Muzaffar Chaudhary prays in interfaith chapel at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
John Bazemore, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Ordained a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Chester Cook has now become a jack of all faiths.

On a recent day, the Rev. Cook welcomed a Christian-oriented Army chaplain, a Muslim family and a Buddhist ticket agent to his interfaith chapel at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — a snapshot of the grab bag of faithful who make a stop in the chapel.

Across the country, chapels designed to offer passengers refuge and reflection in bustling airports are making changes: Removing denomination-specific decor, adding special accommodations and hosting services geared to accommodate an increasingly diverse group of travelers flying with faith.

In Atlanta, it means a simple stained-glass window marking the entrance to the 1,040-square-foot chapel on the third floor. Inside there's room for 30, and a library stocking everything from Gideon Bibles to Jewish mystical texts. A large floor mat provides a cushiony spot to kneel for prayer; officials don't set it aside for any specific faith.

"There are representations of almost every faith," said the Rev. Cook, who recently oversaw a $200,000 renovation that more than doubled the chapel to its current size. "There are Buddhists in their orange robes, there are some Hindus. ...I helped a Wiccan one time."

The chapel remains unadorned to maintain its interfaith feel.

The nation's roughly 34 airports with chapels cater to a mixed community with a changing range of faith needs, according to the Rev. John A. Jamnicky, former chaplain of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and a 20-year veteran of travel ministry.

He said airport chapels date back to the 1940s, when the explosion of commercial aviation, combined with a surplus of military chaplains home from World War II, gave church leaders the idea to mix faith with flying. The first known airport chapel was opened in 1951 at Boston's Logan International Airport, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains.

It started a trend. Over time, airport chapels became largely Catholic in northern cities like Chicago and New York, and Protestant in southern cities like Atlanta and Dallas, the Rev. Jamnicky said.

Chapels created at airports in Norfolk, Va., and Tulsa, Okla., in the last decade have been interfaith. And in Cleveland, airport officials have discussed toning down the Catholic orientation of the airport's ornate chapel.

Airports also are looking to conserve space, said the Rev. Michael Zaniolo, chaplain at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports.

"Instead of having four or five very small chapels, we've got one nice-sized chapel," he said.

The airport chapel in Atlanta offers a one-size-fits-all religious experience. A silhouette of a person kneeling is the only prominent icon in the chapel. Spare rosaries, yarmulkes, prayer shawls and a Catholic Mass kit are tucked away for use as needed.

A large compass on the chapel floor was created with multiple faiths in mind.