Single-serving spirituality: Airport chapels & American religion

IMG_1805“Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I have ever met,” said Edward Norton’s “everyman” character to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club. He was referring to the “single-serving” portions given to you on flights and using it to refer to a “friend” you meet once, for example on a plane, and never see again.

Perhaps, by extension, airport chapels could be thought of as “single-serving sanctuaries” built for “single-serving devotion.” Or, maybe there is more to airport chapels and their role in U.S. spirituality than we at first give them credit for.

Around 65 years ago the first airport chapel opened in Boston’s Logan Airport — Our Lady of the Airport. Now, as PewResearch Center reported, “more than half of the nation’s busiest airports have dedicated chapels, and many of these facilities offer a variety of worship services for different faith traditions.” Whence, thousands of fliers facing crises, nervous about the journey, or seeking solace, intercession, or sleep find their way in, and into, these “single-serving sanctuaries.”

Far from the dismissive language of “single-serving” slang, airport chapels provide a template for exploring major trends in American religion. Their popularity, and their place in our religious landscape, exhibit the pluralistic, plastic, and transnational characteristics that typify U.S. spirituality today.

Interfaith space

While some airports provide facilities for specific religious groups, the majority of airport chapels are interfaith spaces. And, unlike specifically dedicated churches, chapels, synagogues, or masjids these interfaith spaces require a form that functions for various theologies, practices, and religious material.

Walk into Houston Hobby’s airport chapel near baggage claim and you’ll find a nondescript “tree of life” stained glass backlit by halogens and a small kneeling altar backed by about 16 plush chairs in rows of four. There’s a small bookshelf with Bibles in various languages, some Qur’ans, and a Tanakh. Sitting on top are rosaries and a folded musallah — or prayer rug.

As Courtney Bender of Columbia University noted, “multi-faith modernist spaces” such as airport chapels “are poised at the nexus of two often countervailing ideals”: a desire to design space that anyone could recognize and experience as “sacred” and to accommodate the multiple and specific bodies, actions, and materials that people using the space require to pray as they know how.

This dialectic, she wrote, could perhaps preclude the emergence of “a new kind of prayer” that could resonate with the modern manner in which many people believe, think, act, and move in their private lives, homes, and places of ritual devotion.

It follows that these interfaith spaces could stand at the vanguard of a new type of ritual religious space that is ever more defined by the fluid, smorgasbordian, and pluralistic landscape of American religion. A religion that not only shapes belief, but bodies and spaces such as chapels in contested and common places such as airports.

Plastic faith

As can be deduced from the above, airport chapels are not passive places, but well-used active centers for religious and spiritual expression, respite, and need. Rather than being a sideshow in American religion, they might be perceived as one of its red-hot centers exhibiting the plastic religion that evermore defines U.S. faithways.

Just ask the airport chaplains that serve to meet the spiritual needs of travelers and airport employees. Scott McCartney, who interviewed several airport chaplains for a spot on NPR, said:

“…they counsel people through the stress of flying in daily living…encountering a chaplain on the way is part of that ministry of outreach. They do plenty of practical things, giving people directions, helping them when they run out of money, even lobbying on their behalf with airlines. When people get stuck or stranded, airport chaplains know the managers for the different airlines at the airport and can help them find accommodations or maybe get a cheap fare to get home.”

Airport chapels, and by extension airport chaplains, serve the many needs of the wayward traveler. They are quintessential examples of America’s plastic spirituality, characterized by malleable and moldable religious material — beliefs, bodies, substance and spaces — that can be shaped into myriad forms by multiple actors (see David Chidester, “Plastic Religion,” in Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture).

Personally, I’m an airport sleeper. Rather than renting a hotel room for a few hours I’ll often find a shady spot in an airport to lay my head for the night or on a long layover. If an airport has a chapel, that’s the first place I’ll look for a quiet place to stretch out. Sleeping in the back-row of one airport chapel I was surprised at how little rest I received — there were so many people coming in and out for prayer, repose, and personal time. I witnessed salat and singing, meditation and one man making origami.

We all found “home” — if only for a moment — in the airport chapel through various means, moments, materials, and bodily positions. And again, rather than this being peripheral to our religious experience, it evermore defines how we approach religion and spirituality in a world in constant flux.

Religion on the move, traveling and transnationalism

Which brings me to the final point: that religion is often defined by movement of people, ideas, and materials across national boundaries and global “scapes” of politics, economics, technologies,  geographies, ideologies.

Orlando International’s airport chapel exemplifies this characteristic. Sitting betwixt and between the constantly moving monorails that transport travelers back-and-forth from hub to terminal, the chapel is often overlooked. I get the opportunity to travel out of Orlando frequently. Often, I will take a moment to grab a coffee and observe the comings-and-goings of travelers who take a moment in the chapel.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of Puerto Ricans and I’ve talked to a few. They stop for a moment to thank God, bless Mary, and pray that their journeys would start/end well. Frequently, they are less concerned about the air travel and more so about migration and moving for the sake of work in the midst of the Enchanted Isle’s flailing economy. Some are coming to the U.S. for work, some are heading home to help others, many criss-cross the Caribbean to live lives in both places and make ends meet. They, like the chapel they seek solace in, must now live betwixt-and-between multiple places and people. Not only do they take their religion with them, but it shapes the journey they take.

If they make their way to the altar in the chapel they will find a prayer card provided by Father Bob Susann that includes a “Prayer for Travelers.” If airport chapels testify to the smorgasbord faith of Americans that is plastic and on the move, then this prayer becomes a common oration as religious travelers of all sorts pray for safety heading for their many destinations, accompaniments of consolation and encouragement, patience and deep respect for all those with whom they travel, and finally an invocation to finally, when the journey is ended, to arrive at home — even if that may be in the space of a “single-serving sanctuary.”

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