By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 1, 2012
Travelers towing roller bags, military service members, along with pilots and flight attendants came to the Interfaith Chapel at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at the start of Lent to receive a smudge of ashes.
Katie Hughes heard over the loudspeaker that ashes were available. Hughes and her two small children were sitting at their gate with a two-hour layover. The family made their way to the small, second-floor chapel in the atrium on this Ash Wednesday.
“That’s what we Catholics do, we get ashes and fast,” Hughes said, heading back through security to catch the flight home to Biloxi, Miss.
Kathleen Lawyer flew in from Florida for a family reunion and as she waited for her sister’s arrival went to the chapel.
“I couldn’t get to church because I was flying today,” she said.
Ash Wednesday is one of the busiest days at a parish. People who may not attend Mass regularly will still make a point to get ashes. Priests know they can count on getting phone calls all day from people asking about services. Ash Wednesday starts the penitential season that ends with Easter. Traditionally, people observe the season with prayer, giving of alms and fasting.
At the airport, the chapel for the first time in memory hosted an Ash Wednesday Communion service. Two Catholic deacons and a Protestant minister distributed ashes all day.
The day isn’t just a Catholic observance anymore. Women and men of other Christian faiths also received ashes.
Brad Sheppard, a Presbyterian minister who works at a homeless shelter in Missouri, paused before heading to his flight for ashes.
“It deepens the whole season of Easter and Lent,” he said.
Air Force 1st Lt. Brian Rothburn passed time in the USO lounge, with many other service women and men, when the announcement about ashes was made. He is returning to Afghanistan. Rothburn said receiving the ashes is a sign that he’s “a devout follower of Christ.”
Deacons Ray Egan and Gerald Collins marked the foreheads with the sign of the cross for all who asked.
“We don’t care (whether people are Catholic). If they are Christian, they know why we look to be marked,” said Deacon Egan.
“We are here to serve all the people,” he said.
Deacon Collins, who also ministers at Christ Our Hope Church, Lithonia, said helping at the airport on this popular day isn’t that different from a parish. People still need to be served, he said.
Earlier, the deacons led a prayer service. The roar of a jet engine filled the room. The handful of people attending the service heard the message of the prophet Joel to “rend your hearts and not your garments.”
As a sign of the interfaith spirit of the chapel, while the Communion service was underway, a Muslim man rolled out a prayer rug in the adjacent library and prayed.
Deacon Egan, who spends much time in the airport ministry, said Lent is “a time of searching.” He said people have ashes on their forehead as a sign of their faith and a sign of penitence. People should wear the sign of the cross “proudly, but be of good cheer,” he said.
The interfaith chapel serves the tens of thousands of airport workers and also the millions who fly through Atlanta with a quiet, reflection space. Atlanta religious leaders made it possible. It is sustained by a nonprofit organization, the Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, funded by donations and foundation grants.
Deacon Egan called it the largest unofficial parish in the archdiocese. Much of the time for an airport chaplain is spent on the concourses, talking with travelers and workers, he said.
Mary Perich works at the airport for American Airlines and attends Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta. She left the chapel following the Communion service with ashes on her forehead.
“I lucked out with the service. This was just a bonus,” she said.