Charlotte airport holds worship services
By Michael Gordon
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) ó When the door is always open, no one is truly late.
Worship started at 9:30 a.m. sharp on Sunday at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. Five minutes later, Steve and Carol Conti of Pittsburgh appeared at the doorway, parked their luggage in the front and took a seat in the back.
US Airways pilot Ron Kukuruda ducked in 10 minutes later. David Young was the last to arrive, finding his seat just before the start of communion, five minutes before the closing prayer.
All found time between the ticket counters and their takeoffs to climb 26 steps just past the Cinnabon in the airportís main atrium to practice their faiths.
ěIt is unbelievable,î Steve Conti said afterward, gathering his luggage to catch an 11:30 flight. ěEither we donít make church today or we have to go late tonight at home. A 30-minute Mass, and to get something out of it, fantastic.î
The worship services at Charlotte/Douglas are nothing new. But the airportís larger spiritual footprint certainly is.
A month ago, the Sunday services ó a 9:30 a.m. interdenominational ceremony sandwiched by Catholic Masses ó moved to the roomier airport auditorium.
Just down the hall, a new prayer/meditation room opened in June. For the first time in three years, when the expansion of the airportís security checkpoints claimed the original site, passengers and employees have a dedicated getaway for their daily spiritual needs.
The new facilities are operated by Charlotte/Douglasí 23-year-old chaplaincy program, one of about 50 at airports coast to coast.
The auditorium seats about 75. The prayer room is more intimate, though it is twice the size of its predecessor. There is a Bible, a Quran, a Jewish Book of Prayer, a rosary. One corner is filled by prayer rugs and a directional map to turn Muslims toward Mecca.
The guest book includes the names of worshippers and religions from around the world. From Europe, from the Middle East, from across the Carolinas. Christians, Muslims, Jews.
ěThanks a lot,î wrote Okba E on Sept. 23. He listed himself as a Muslim and resident of ěPlanet Earth.î
Travelers make up most of the Sunday worshippers, and they find the new facilities in a variety of ways.
The Contis heard a public-address announcement after they flew in from Knoxville, Tenn. Young, on his way back to the North Carolina coast after attending the Ohio State football game Saturday, bumped into the sign at the bottom of the stairs. For sharp-eyed passersby, CHAPEL peeks out in small block letters above the Cinnabon logo. This Sunday, all told, the services drew about 45.
ěWe never know who the travelers are going to be,î said the Rev. Conrad Hoover, the retired Catholic priest who joined the chaplaincy program about two years ago. ěBut they are all so grateful that thereís a Mass.î
At the airport, Sunday morning is like every other morning. Everybody here needs to be somewhere else, with little or no extra time to get there.
Suffice to say, the religious services get to the point. One hymn, one verse. Five to seven minutes, tops, for the sermon.
Hoover, the former pastor at St. Ann in Charlotte, keeps a clock on the altar. Sometimes, when he gets carried away with the spirit, Head Chaplain George Szalony is there to bring him back to earth ó and the irrefutable demands of the travel day.
ěThis is the only place youíll ever hear this: Itís OK to leave after communion,î Szalony tells those gathered for the 10:30 Mass. It lasted 29 minutes. No one left early.
A Transportation Security Administration employee sat in the front row. For security reasons, she didnít want her name used. She recently rejoined the Catholic Church, and learned about the services from an airport website. She showed up just after 9 to make sure she could find the auditorium. Szalony and Hoover were standing outside.
Here, 20 feet above the moving sidewalks and the beeping passenger carts and the nonstop rattle and hum of a human highway, the TSA worker and the white-haired priest fell into a private conversation. After a few words passed between them, Hoover put his hand on her head. She smiled in surprise, then tears ran down her cheeks. As she was leaving, she said she hoped her job wouldnít keep her from making the last Mass of the day.
And it hadnít. As Hoover ended his last prayer, her eyes were still so bright it was hard to tell if they had dried.