At Charlotte airport, a place of prayer amid the hustle and bustle
CHARLOTTE — The business traveler, checking email on his smart phone while dragging behind his carry-on.
The parents, gripping their children's hands as they walk swiftly to their gate pushing a cart full of luggage.
The irate flyer, yelling at an airline employee about delays in his trip.
The woman in a wheelchair, left alone near the gate, hoping to make it to her grandson's party thousands of miles away.
Deacon George Szalony sees them all every day as he walks the concourses at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The director of the Airport Chaplaincy team looks for travelers in need, in distress or who would simply need someone to talk to.
Since 1988 there has been a Catholic presence at Charlotte's airport, Deacon Szalony says. For the past four years, he has led an 18-person team of Catholic deacons and Father Conrad Hoover, ministers of other faiths and volunteers who make up the interfaith ministry at the airport. Eleven are Catholic.
Charlotte is one of more than 130 airports internationally that have a designated chapel. More than 250 have airport chaplains, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains.
Nearly 40 million passengers passed through the Charlotte airport last year, and the airport chaplains seek to serve the spiritual needs of those passengers and visitors to Charlotte, Deacon Szalony says.
"It's a very exciting environment in that we're always dealing with people who need the presence of God in their lives, and we're able to bring that to them every day, seven days a week."
Airport chaplains listen to people dealing with the stress of both flying and daily living. Some travelers are filled with anxiety because of circumstance – they are on their way to funerals, medical treatment or family emergencies. Many don't have the time to go to church before rushing to the airport.
The chaplains follow two rules, he notes:
1) No proselytizing is allowed: The chaplains are here to just meet the person, whoever they are.
2) "Where you're here, you're a chaplain. We want people who are passionate about their faith, but when you're here, you're neither Catholic, nor Jewish, nor Baptist ... You deal with what's in front of you."
Above the chaos of barefoot passengers gathering their belongings at security checkpoints and the busy restaurants and shops, travelers can retreat to a silent, peaceful chapel.
The inviting inter-faith room is equipped with prayer necessities: yarmulkes, prayer rugs, books and rosaries. A Christian Bible, Torah and Quran sit on a small altar.
"Most visitors are happy they have somewhere to spend a few minutes with God or in prayer," Deacon Szalony says. "To use this space, you're obviously on your way out (of Charlotte). So if you're here early enough, it gives you some time to pray or compose yourself before your flight."
There is no tabernacle in the chapel, and crosses and the Mass kit sit behind the office door. Eucharist is only at the airport for Masses on Sunday, Deacon Szalony says.
"And we're asked for it all the time, almost daily. But the program doesn't have the resources to offer it," he says.
Since June 2011, more than 400 people have signed the chapel's guest register, but there's no way of really knowing how many people visit the chapel. On signs inside the airport, a small symbol of a kneeling person – the international sign for a house of worship – points the way to the chapel, he says.
From encountering people of different faiths in the chapel, he says, he learns something new every day.
"Just how much God means to different people. People just come in here to stop and pray. In a way it's exciting, and it renews your own faith."
The non-profit chaplaincy program leases space for the chapel from the airport, Deacon Szalony says. Most team members volunteer their service. The chapel and its ministry, which includes helping stranded or hungry passengers in need, operate on a small stipend from the Diocese of Charlotte and donations.
Deacon Szalony spends 30-40 hours a week at the airport. He splits shifts with the other members of the chaplaincy team, staffing the chapel as many hours as they can while it's open, from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily.
He was ordained a permanent deacon in 1968 in Illinois, and he worked at Pelton & Crane, a dental equipment company, before retiring.
Prior to being assigned the director of the chaplaincy at the Charlotte airport, he served as the director of diaconate formation for the Diocese of Charlotte.
When he's not at the airport, he enjoys ballroom dancing with his wife and spending time with his seven grandchildren.
WALKING THE CONCOURSE
The life of the chaplain here at the airport is to spend time out walking the concourses, Deacon Szalony says.
More than 90 percent of their time is outside of the chapel, interacting with travelers and airport employees.
To borrow from a chaplain in London, Deacon Szalony says, "'What airport chaplains do is loiter with intent.' – If in effect, we're wandering looking for somebody who looks lost or appears to have some sort of emotional distress or we've been called by one of the gate agents. Most of the time we're just helping people.
"In the event where we have flights delayed or diverted to Charlotte, having someone come in with a collar and just be present at the gate, kind of calms people. It has a tendency to defuse their anger."
When they're at the airport, the chaplains and volunteers carry a special cell phone. All employees of the airport have the number to call to dispatch someone to the needed location.
When someone is going through some sort of situation at home, the "hustle and bustle of the airport" often catches up to them. Deacon Szalony and his team "are simply looking at people; looking for the signs that someone might want to talk.
"There's something about travel that brings out the pressure in people," he says.
The chaplains also see a lot of senior citizens who get lost and confused, and they are often called just to sit with some people who are overwhelmed. They also carry meal cards that they can hand out to travelers who may have had several delayed flights or didn't have any cash left to buy a meal.
"People are humbled. Embarrassed. Thankful," he says. "When you need help, you need help. I'm just glad I can help."
On Sundays, announcements over the airport loudspeaker and temporary signs alert travelers to the two Masses and an interfaith service held in an auditorium near the chapel. The 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Masses, celebrated by Father Conrad Hoover, are kept to about 30 minutes.
Each Sunday, about 15 to 20 people attend the services, Deacon Szalony says. Last year, more than 1,500 people attended these Masses. More than 630 attended from January to April this year.
"We never quite know who's going to be there," notes Father Hoover. "We have some employees who come regularly and travelers going all over the place.
"I just see it as being very important that we can provide that, and the travelers are amazed that we have Mass for them and they can come and participate when they didn't think they would."
Father Hoover also often hears confessions in the chapel's office at the airport.
"You just never know what someone's going to open up about. In one situation, I was called over after the end of the Mass. It turned out a young woman had just learned, at the airport, that her husband had taken his own life. She was at the airport with her 4-year-old daughter. We spent time with her and talked to her about she was feeling.
"It was incredible to be able to listen to her in her shock and her grief."
Father Hoover has been involved in the airport chaplaincy ministry for two years. When he first started, he says, he was asked to be there one Sunday a month. But he's there nearly every Sunday now.
"I've been very enthusiastic about it. I find this to be a very fulfilling ministry. I feel we're offering something," he says. "It's wonderful to be able to be available to people in that way. We feel like we're part of a process that could be exhausting for people. I love it. I just love it."
— Kimberly Bender, online reporter
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FROM THE PASTORS
Read and listen to homilies posted regularly by pastors at parishes within the Diocese of Charlotte:
- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
- Fr. Patrick Earl at St. Peter in Charlotte
- Fr. John Eckert at St. John the Baptist in Tryon
- Fr. Timothy Reid at St. Ann in Charlotte
- Fr. Benjamin Roberts at Our Lady of Lourdes in Monroe
- Fr. Patrick Winslow at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte
- Watch full Masses live and on demand, listen to homilies and reflections from Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury
- Listen to homilies from St. William Catholic Church in Murphy