Approximately fifty years ago, the first airport chapel in the United States was built in Boston’s Logan International Airport. This chapel, along with the few others established at this time, was Catholic. Over the past few decades, as the religious landscape of America has changed, so has the orientation of these chapels. Now one can walk into almost any major U.S. airport and expect to find an interfaith space where people of all faiths are welcome to pray and worship. Most significantly, these chapels include features that cater specifically to the needs of Muslim worshippers. These adaptations have been made possible by airport chaplaincies forming their own nonprofit organizations, separate from the government funded transit authorities that run the airports.
History of Airport Chapels in the United StatesWith the number of passengers visiting major U.S. airports ranging anywhere from five million to 80 million annually,  airports are analogous to metropolitan cities. Not only do millions of passengers pass through them on a daily basis, but airports each employ thousands of people. And each of these passengers and employees brings with them the emotional and spiritual needs of the 21st century. The need for airport chapels was first recognized and responded to by Edwin Hogg, an Eastern Airlines employee. He was instrumental in establishing the first known airport chapel in the United States at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1951. A Catholic chapel, it was named “Our Lady of the Airways.”
Since the 1950s, over 40 chapels have been established in airports across the nation. As time has passed, these chapels have become more inclusive, incorporating not only Christians of all denominations, but also Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a spattering of chapels opened up at some of the larger airports across the United States at the request of airline passengers, airport employees and area clergy. These included Denver (Colorado), Bush Intercontinental (Texas), Dallas - Forth Worth (Texas) and Sky Harbor (Arizona). In the 1990s, America’s airports saw a huge influx in the establishment of interfaith chapels. Many of the larger airports that already had chapels were modified to accommodate the needs of a more diverse populous, making chapels that previously catered towards Christians hospitable to people of various religious traditions. Smaller airports such as Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Washington Dulles (D.C.), Jacksonville (Florida), Port Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis (Indiana) and Albany (New York) established interfaith chapels at this time. These interfaith chapels are intended for the use of people of all faiths. However, most of what has been incorporated in these new chapels caters specifically to the needs of Muslims.
Issues of Church and State Regarding Airport Chapels
In this move toward inclusion, airport chaplains and transit authorities have had to tread the thin line that separates church and state in this country. Generally speaking, government funded transit authorities have control over airports and their inner workings. To include a space within an airport for a chapel requires some level of collaboration between the chaplain/s offering their services in an airport and the respective transit authority. The level of integration or separation between these two entities directly affects the activities and appearance of interfaith airport chapels.
In both Jacksonville International Airport (Florida) and Albany International Airport (New York), interfaith meditation rooms include no religious iconography or paraphernalia (i.e. religious texts, prayer rugs, etc.). No religious services are held in these chapels, nor are there any chaplains. The rooms for these chapels were set aside by the corresponding airport authority for the sole purpose of quiet meditation or prayer. Because airport authorities are funded by their respective cities (i.e. the government), chapels operating under these entities are limited in activity and appearance. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Jacksonville International Airport Chapel in Florida began to offer daily prayers hosted by a Baptist volunteer chaplain. Three months later, responding to recommendations by the Jacksonville Airport Authority legal council, those services stopped. Not only that, but the office for airport clergy was shut down, volunteer chaplains were denied the use of “airport chaplain” as a title, and the use of fliers and the airport’s public address system by those volunteers was prohibited. The idea behind these sanctions was that while a chapel can exist in the airport, the Jacksonville Airport Authority (a governmental organization) cannot, according to the U.S. constitution, “advance or inhibit religion.” The chapel still exists at Jacksonville Airport, but it is completely devoid of religious iconography, chaplains, religious texts, and services.
In order to allow for more autonomy, many airport chaplaincies have formed their own nonprofit, tax exempt organizations under the IRS 501(c)(3) classification. These organizations allow chaplains to raise money as nonprofit interfaith institutions, entirely separate from their respective Transit Authorities. They may solicit funds from individuals who visit the chapels, as well as religious communities and even businesses in the area. They can then rent space at the airport, hire chaplains, hold religious services, and include religious materials and iconography in their chapels. All of these activities are prohibited among airport chapels supported by government entities.
Examples of Interfaith Airport Chapels
Each of the chapels operating as an independent organization has its own unique way of accommodating the needs of its patrons. In most instances, the ways in which chapels have achieved this goal has changed over time, just as the American population has changed. Below are a few examples of interfaith airport chapels in the United States.
When a group of customs agents from Kennedy International Airport in New York were sent to Logan Airport for training and discovered the chapel, they returned to Kennedy with plans for their own. In 1954, a Catholic chapel, “Our Lady of the Skies” was built in Kennedy International Airport. In 1966, this chapel was joined by a Protestant Church (“Christ for the World Chapel”) and a Jewish Synagogue (“International Synagogue”) in what was deemed the “Tri-Faith Chapel Plaza.” Each chapel had its own chaplain and held its own religious services. The plaza was shut down in 1987 due to airport expansion and in its place, a single room functioned temporarily as an interfaith chapel. This space was shared by members and chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. However, in 2001, the three original chapels were reconstructed and a fourth chapel was added: the interfaith chapel. While the latter is intended for the use of people of all faiths, it mainly caters to the religious needs of Muslims. A 2001 Late Edition article describes the interior of the interfaith chapel: “The floor is covered with Oriental rugs and stocked with copies of the Koran and Islamic literature. The room is mostly used by Muslim travelers and airport employees.” 50 years ago, there was no place for Muslims to pray at Kennedy International Airport. Now there is a space set aside intended specifically for this purpose.
The interfaith chapel at the Denver International Airport follows the same model as the Kennedy airport with separate chapels for separate faiths. The DIA Interfaith Chapel, Inc., a nonprofit organization, presides over the chapel that was established in 1966 and rebuilt in 1996. The 1996 structure includes two buildings: one for shared use by Christians and Jews, and one for Muslims. It is said to be the first airport chapel in the U.S. to have included a masjid (a Muslim prayer hall).
The chaplaincy at O’Hare airport in Chicago began in 1960. Men from the predominantly Catholic police and fire departments who were on 24-hour duty at the airport asked a priest from a local parish to conduct a mass for them. Eventually this group petitioned the cardinal to have a priest as a permanent chaplain at the airport. Space was set aside in the basement of terminal two, and the O’Hare airport chapel was born. In the 1980s, Protestant ministers were granted the request that their own services be held at the chapel. Around 1993, the chapel was moved to the mezzanine area and made into an interfaith chapel. The Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago, an independent nonprofit organization, was formed at this time with an interfaith board to preside over both O’Hare and Midway airport chapels. This board is responsible for overseeing the chapels and approving chaplains who are sent from their respective denominational authorities. Chaplains are, for the most part, volunteers who work part time. One of the major requirements of chaplains is that they not seek to convert those who approach them. The chapel of O’Hare contains chairs, an altar, a prayer rug, a Bible and a Qur’an. Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim services are held at the chapel. At Midway, a smaller and newer chapel conducts Catholic and Protestant services.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Interfaith Chapels, Inc. is an organization similar to The Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago in that it presides over the chapels at both major airports in D.C.: Washington Dulles and Washington National. This organization was founded in 1994 by a group of clergy and business professionals in the D.C. area. The Dulles chapel opened in 1998 and holds services for Catholics, Protestants and Muslims while the National chapel is scheduled to open soon and will begin with only Catholic and Protestant services.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Interfaith Chaplaincy, another 501(c)(3), was established in 1978 and has four separate chapels in four terminals. Each is its own separate interfaith chapel and each contains prayer rugs for the use of Muslim patrons. The chapel staff includes Catholics, Protestants and one Muslim.
At the Indianapolis International Airport, there is a “small makeshift chapel – an area marked by symbols of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism that reflect the interfaith quality of the airport’s chaplaincy program.” Inside the chapel is an altar for Christian services and a prayer rug for Muslims who come to the chapel to pray. The staff of this chapel includes a rabbi, two Methodist ministers, a Catholic priest and a Muslim imam.
The chapel at the Sky Harbor International Airport (Phoenix, Arizona) opened in 1988. On the website of the interfaith chapel, the disclaimer reads, “Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy is not legally affiliated in any way with the City of Phoenix and its operation of Sky Harbor International Airport.” Operating as an independent entity, the Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy has allowed this interfaith chapel to accommodate the needs of a wide variety of patrons – perhaps more than any other airport chapel in the United States. Their staff includes volunteer chaplains from the Christian, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i traditions. Separate services for Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims are held in this chapel.
ConclusionsAccording to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, there are now around 140 airport chapels all over the world, with at least 40 in the United States. More and more, these chapels are accommodating people of all faiths. This is especially evident in the inclusion of Muslim prayer services, chaplains, prayer rugs and Qur’ans in various airport chapels. The estimated number of Muslims in the United States ranges from two million to six million. Hindu and Buddhist populations are also on the rise, each numbering over one million. The gradual influx of chapels in U.S. airports, and their catering to members of minority faiths, is indicative of this changing religious composition of America.
The formation of charitable organizations under the IRS classification: 501(c)(3), has made it possible for many airport chapels to cater to the needs of travelers of various faiths, providing them with their own worship spaces, materials and chaplains. Public financial support from individuals, religious communities and businesses has allowed these chapels to flourish.