At Most of America's Busiest Airports, Little Known Chapels Offer Places to Pray and Worship

One of the chapel locations of the Interfaith Airport Chapel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia.
One of the chapel locations of the Interfaith Airport Chapel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia. | (Photo: Facebook)

A few years ago, Adrien Neely was getting ready to have lunch at the food court inside the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia but he couldn't find himself a vacant table. So Neely asked a woman eating alone if he could join her and she obliged. "What do you do here?" the woman soon asked him. "I am a chaplain," Neely replied. She was shocked.

"What would a chaplain be doing at the airport?" she asked Neely as she tried to recover from the surprise.
"Well, you see all these thousands of people milling around? Not all of these people are going on vacations. Some of them are going to funerals and to visit loved ones in hospitals," Neely said.

The woman broke down shortly after he said that. She told Neely her husband had died two months earlier and she was just then returning from the funeral of one of their best friends.

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"She said: 'I didn't know there was a chaplain here. I didn't know there was such a thing,'" said Neely, who's the executive director of the Interfaith Airport Chapel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The airport has maintained its ranking as the busiest airport in the world in 2014. More than 96 million passengers passed through the airport that year, according to the Airports Council International, amounting to more than 260,000 passengers a day.

"She looked like a pleasant traveler until you find out why she's traveling. Not everyone is going on a happy holiday you know," Neely explained in a telephone interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday.

And like the woman, many of the millions of travelers passing through America's busiest airports who could use some quiet time in praise or reflection on God for support are not always aware that at most of them, there are dedicated chapels or prayer rooms, some with attendant staff, to cater to their spiritual needs.

Of the 30 U.S. airports classified as a large hub — airports that handle 1 percent or more of the nation's annual passenger boardings — by the Federal Aviation Administration, 18 or 60 percent of them have a dedicated chapel or prayer room, according to Pew Research.

Many Major U.S. Airports

Most of these airport chapels and prayer rooms are designated as interfaith spaces, but at some airports like the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, there are four dedicated places of worship: a Catholic church, a Protestant chapel, a mosque and a synagogue said to be the only one in a major airport in all of North and South America, according to Pew Research.

Despite its massive passenger traffic, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Interfaith Airport Chapel, which has three locations in the airport, appears to mostly get visits from members of the airport's 60,000-member workforce. Neely explained, however, that the airport is working on better signs to inform regular travelers of the chapel's presence.

"We have 60,000 employees at the airport and I would tend to think that a lot of our traffic is from the 60,000 employees that work here. They know about us, they can come on break time to pray or ask for help or prayer. We have services here for all faiths. Many of the Muslim folks come in all during the day for their prayer times. We have Christian services, Catholic communions … various denominations come in and hold their services, so it's open to all," said Neely.

"It surprised me. I thought there would be a lot of travelers coming in and out of the chapel, maybe nervous travelers or travelers that are grieving, maybe they are headed to a funeral. There's someone in the hospital or something. We are doing our best to get new signs put out through the airport notifying people where these chapels are located," he continued.

Sign advertising the Interfaith Airport Chapel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia.
Sign advertising the Interfaith Airport Chapel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia. | (Photo: Facebook/Adrien Neely)

Beyond simply having a place to pray, worship and reflect, there is a lot of ministering that takes place via the airport chapels that most people don't know about.

"It surprised me when about six years ago my buddy [who] is a chaplain out here said: 'well, you need to come see what we're doing at the airport.' I thought 'oh my goodness' that will be a little bitty room where old ladies go in there that are nervous about flying. You know, people that have never flown before will go in the chapel and pray 'oh dear God this plane won't crash.' I just couldn't imagine a chapel at an airport."

Among the many duties the airport's chaplains have is working alongside military honor guards as deceased soldiers are transported to their final resting place. "We probably do about six military honor guard services a week for our fallen troops. They are not necessarily combat related, but Delta Airlines has a very active honor guard program for the military," explained Neely.

"Delta Airlines called us a couple of years ago and said we have a deceased passenger on the plane coming in from Johannesburg. It was our duty to call the family and let them know that their loved one was coming in. … Thank goodness that's a rare thing," he added.

The first U.S. airport chapel, according to Pew Research is the Our Lady of the Airways, which opened at Boston's Logan International Airport about 60 years ago, and since that time many airports all over the country have added spaces for prayer, worship and meditation.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Interfaith Airport Chapel has been operating for about 33 years and is open 24 hours a day, according to Neely who says the many ways the chapel's presence at the airport has ministered to people is so varied he cannot predict how things will turn out each day.

"There is so much variety out here. Somebody says 'what do you do at the airport? I say, I don't know, it could be totally different tomorrow than what it was today," he explained. "You just never know who's gonna walk into this chapel. It could be an employee, it could be a traveler."

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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