Above the chaos of travelers at the Charlotte airport is a refuge for weary passengers and employees – a peaceful, quiet chapel.
The Rev. George Szalony, director of the chapel, regularly wanders around the terminals to greet passengers, stopping for an occasional cappuccino and providing what he calls a “ministry of presence.”
“I always make a point when I’m going through (security lines) to get people to smile more,” Szalony said.
“It seems like a small thing, but it takes the pressure off.”
The chapel has been a part of Charlotte Douglas International Airport for 25 years, but it has only recently begun to expand its influence in a bustling place.
Szalony has been director for four years. The chapel relies on a team of 18 volunteers from all faiths who spend their time offering solace to travelers, hearing confessions and giving directions to the lost.
The chapel faces similar challenges as most religious institutions, Szalony said, such as limited money, a greater need for volunteers and a desire to draw more people to services. But operating in an airport introduces unique responsibilities for the chaplaincy.
About 75 percent of travelers at Charlotte Douglas are connecting passengers who may never return. Dealing with a rotating congregation with a diversity of needs can be challenging, Szalony said.
“We have to do some fancy footwork to figure out if you’re Islamic, Jewish,” Szalony said. “You have to be prepared to help everyone.”
Sunday services are held in an auditorium that seats about 75 past the security gates, a place for worship that didn’t exist three years ago. Two Catholic Masses sandwich an interfaith service, normally drawing a total of about 40.
In the intimate prayer room down the hall are holy books for Christians, Muslims and Jews. One corner is filled with prayer rugs and a compass to direct Muslims toward Mecca.
The guest book includes the names of worshippers who traveled from all corners of the world.
The chapel, located above the food court, is open every day from 5 a.m. to midnight.
Much of their work is grief counseling, Szalony said. Comforting people on the way to a funeral. Praying with families of fallen soldiers.
The Rev. Alice White, assistant director of the chapel, said their biggest hurdle was moving the chapel from outside the security gates, where it was three years ago, to inside the terminal. This location allows chaplains to better respond to people’s needs.
“No matter what nationality or creed you are, you still will respond to a smile or a helping hand,” White said.
In the coming years, Szalony wants to see the chapel grow even more, and he has made a series of goals:
• Increase the number of hours a chaplain is available and assign chaplains to be present from 6 a.m. to midnight.
• Raise money to provide stipends for chaplains to show up daily.
• Use social media to publicize the chapel’s resources and spread its message.
“The newest thing in ministry today is how do you use electronic communication to reach out to people,” he said. “We are constantly trying to sell ourselves.”
Existing in a city-owned airport creates boundaries for what the chaplaincy is able to do. The chapel receives no money from the city and has to pay rent like other tenants. It operates on a small stipend from the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and donations.
When asked if the airport’s transition to an airport commission might open the possibility of receiving more funding, Szalony said there’s no way to tell.
“Everyone is settling down and waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he said.
God is here
White said Szalony is responsible for making the chapel what it is today.
“When I started here, hardly anyone knew a chapel was here,” she said. “He does a fantastic job.”
Szalony said many of the chaplains start their day by looking at delayed or cancelled flights, then head to a concourse to speak with passengers.
Working at a chaotic airport keeps you young, White said, because each day brings new joys and challenges.
“We wear collars because it calms people down,” she said. “When someone walks up with a collar, people say ‘Oh no, God’s here, I better behave.’ ”
Crampton: 704-358-5112; Twitter: @liz_crampton
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