Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc.

Rev. Dr. Chester Cook ministers to millions. As the chaplain to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Executive Director of Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc., Cook’s “congregation” is both transient and diverse. Hartsfield-Jackson, proudly described by the city of Atlanta as “the busiest airport in the world,” employs over 50,000 people and sees a quarter of a million people travel through its terminals every day. At the urging of local clergy, Mayor Maynard Jackson authorized space for a chapel and the installation of a chaplain in 1982. The chaplaincy program remained small, maintained by IAC executive directors. That began to change in 2002 when Chaplain Cook joined IAC and began intentionally building an interfaith team of chaplains to serve the airport community. Currently, there are clergy and lay chaplains representing Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, and Buddhism who serve anywhere from once a week to two or three times a month. In total, Cook estimates that there is are roughly forty-five chaplains who minister at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Cook identifies this model’s strength this way: “We all work together in the same framework, under the same organization on a daily basis,” he explains. It is this “working participation of clergy and imams and rabbis and Buddhist practitioners all working together to maintain the facility” who also “do chaplaincy for anyone who comes in the door and anyone who is using this airport” that makes IAC stand out. Cook concludes, “I don’t know many interfaith ministries that are cooperatively working together on a daily basis like that.”

Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, Inc. currently supervises two chapels, one in the airport’s atrium and another chapel in terminal E, added in 2004 due to increased security post-9/11. Before the terminal E chapel, passengers traveling internationally could not reach the main chapel without the risk of missing their flight. A third chapel and a Zen garden are projected to be a part of a new terminal currently under construction. The city of Atlanta owns the chapel spaces while IAC, Inc., described by Cook as the “personnel ministry arm” of the chapels, is responsible for staffing and furnishing the spaces thus forging a unique partnership to meet the needs of passengers from all walks of life. Representatives of metro-Atlanta faith communities as well as business leaders from the airport community are elected to a twenty-person Board of Directors that oversees the work of the IAC. The organization calls upon local faith communities to donate copies of their sacred texts, or other important resources such as hymn and prayer books, as a way of showing their support for the IAC.  A small library adjacent to the chapel space is also maintained through book donations.

The chapel facilities are “neutral” facilities “that every community in Atlanta has the right to use.”  Unlike other airport chaplaincies whose spaces are segregated by tradition, the chaplaincy team at Hartsfield-Jackson “will make accommodations” for different groups “if they will take ownership of [the space] and come in and practice their faith here.” The chapel spaces are versatile, the main fixture a small table at the front of the room upon which sits a bouquet of flowers. More recently, prayer rugs and a Qibla indicating the direction of Mecca are two more permanent “accommodations.” During those brief times when the chaplains of a particular faith offer tradition-specific services, the chapel remains open to all but a sign is placed on the door as a courtesy to the worshipping community and would-be visitors.

When asked to describe the IAC, Chaplain Cook makes the analogy: “We’re a salad, not a stew.” Integrity is maintained when faiths are not asked to “water down” their beliefs but live into them while affording others respect to do the same. Sometimes, Cook admits, this is easier said than done. He noted that there are some who refuse to associate with interfaith ministries. Sometimes the challenges are a bit more nuanced, such as when some of his colleagues find it difficult to minister to people who are outside of their own particular faith.  Chaplain Cook tries to model what he calls a “holistic approach” to assessing individuals whom he encounters, where the physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual dimensions influence a person’s overall “wholeness.” The ministry of the IAC can range from negotiating with airlines on behalf of emotionally distraught passengers to a phone referral to a battered women’s shelter downtown, or simply sitting in the terminal with a mother and coloring with her three small children. The hardest thing, Cook admits, has nothing to do with interfaith relations and everything to do with human ones: “My greatest challenge is when we can’t help someone.”

Still, Cook is hopeful that those who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson will not only be touched by the IAC’s ministry, but that the experience of travel itself will transform them.

He is convinced “that airport travel will do more good to bring world peace than anything else” because of the cross-cultural exchange that takes place. In short, travel allows for us all to see that “…we’re human beings [that], in many cases, value the same things.” The IAC also models this bridge-building through its membership in the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, a global network that includes over two hundred airport chapels and between three and four hundred airport chaplains who meet yearly.

The international symbol for airport chapel is a nondescript human figure bent at the knees as if in prayer or meditation. Twenty-five years ago this symbol was developed and copyrighted in Atlanta. It seems fitting that the “busiest airport in the world” would also offer a model for interfaith engagement amid the hustle and bustle of ticketing counters, security checks, and gate assignments. At Hartsfield-Jackson, the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy strives to offer human—not just flight—connections, and to be a beacon of love for all who pass through their terminals.