When it’s Ash Wednesday at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, minutes matter.
Deborah Neeson had to be at Gate E13 in just 30 minutes to catch her flight to Florida, where her mother is recovering from cancer surgery. But she still showed up at the airport chapel to get an ashen cross traced on her forehead.
Denise Bragiel, a gate agent for US Airways, was also short on time but long on faith: During her break, she ran to the tiny chapel to ritually remember on this first day of Lent that – as Christian clergy often put it when distributing ashes – “from dust you have come, to dust you shall return.”
On Wednesday, chaplains at the Charlotte airport worked hard to accommodate busy Christian travelers and airport employees who wanted a sobering start to their annual journey toward Easter.
In uptown Charlotte, too, Christians in a hurry could get ashes.
For the second year in a row, the Rev. Ollie Rencher and other ministers from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church offered “Ashes to Go” on the sidewalk in front of the church, at North Tryon and Seventh streets. They started early in the morning and continued until nearly 7 p.m.
At the airport, the interfaith chapel was open by 7:30 a.m., and chaplains stayed on duty until just after 8 p.m.
By noon, 75 people had stopped by to partake in the ancient tradition of receiving ashes – a symbol meant as a reminder of mortality and an invitation to seek repentance during the 40-day Lenten period that ends with Easter Sunday. That’s a day of joy, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion in Jerusalem.
The chapel guest book, by midday, was signed by travelers from, among other places, Fort Myers, Fla.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Irving, Texas; and Lisbon, Conn.
Neeson, 42, who is Catholic and owns a day care center just outside New York City, said it was worth all the rushing around to be able to observe Ash Wednesday on the go.
“I was hoping they’d have (ashes) here because they had them in Orlando two Ash Wednesdays ago, when I was coming home from seeing my mother,” she said. “To have it at this airport, I was so excited.”
The Rev. George Szalony, a Catholic deacon who directs the 14 volunteer chaplains, said he and the others try to accommodate people of all faiths, especially on religious holidays.
TSA training manager Parry Keogh’s schedule – in at 7 a.m., out at who-knows-when – meant he couldn’t make either of the Ash Wednesday services at his parish, St. Michael Catholic Church in Gastonia.
So he came by the airport chapel, where the Rev. Conrad Hoover, a Catholic priest, prayed with him and gave him ashes.
“It’s a time to reflect on the sacrifices that were made for us,” said Keogh, 57.
John and Carol Puskarich of Mooresville usually start their Lent at St. Therese Catholic Church.
But on this Ash Wednesday, they were scheduled to fly to Israel. Their flight wasn’t leaving for two hours, so they had time to stay in the chapel and hear Hoover read the Gospel and even give a brief homily, or sermon.
“We thought we were going to miss it today,” said John, 60, a physical therapist who tossed a $20 bill into the chapel basket.
Carol, 59, said part of the appeal of Lent – and Ash Wednesday – is that it’s an invitation to slow down and meditate, if even for a few minutes in an airport chapel.
“Life gets busy,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to take the moments you can to remember” the Christian message.
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