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New airport terminal chapel located past security gates

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At a busy airport, it's all about location, location, location, even for finding a quiet place to think, a calm space for prayer or a refuge during a personal crisis.

Unlike the chapel in the old terminal, the interfaith chapel at the new James Richardson International Airport is located past the security gates, which means only passengers and airport staff can use it, says the volunteer in charge of the chaplaincy program.

"We hope to be offered a new location in the future..." says Malcolm Stanley, chairman of the chaplaincy board.

"They (the public) can't get to it unless they're flying."

Not only is the 23-square-metre windowless room past the security checkpoint, making it off-limits to visitors picking up or dropping off passengers, it is situated along a busy hallway with a door constantly banging as people pass through, Stanley says.

"There's a lot of traffic going past and it's not traffic to the chapel."

A fixture at the Winnipeg airport for the past 25 years, the chapel is open around the clock, with volunteer chaplains available 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays.

"We provide comfort for people," says chaplain Ron Muir, who has volunteered weekly for the past 10 years.

"When we talk to them, it eases them a lot."

Just weeks after the opening of the new terminal, airport chaplains are trying to gauge how many people are using the new space, off a hallway behind the second-floor departure lounge. So far, the numbers are lower than the three or four dozen who dropped in at the old terminal, but that could be because everyone is still getting used to their new surroundings, Stanley says.

"We do want to make it clear to the authorities that we're grateful they gave us a chapel," he says of the rent-free space for the chapel and the small adjacent office.

Stanley says the chaplaincy program operates solely on donations left inside a locked box inside the chapel and raised through an annual dinner. Those funds buy chapel furnishing and pay travel costs for the half-dozen volunteer chaplains. The airport provides parking passes at a surface lot to the chaplains.

Roughly half the square footage of the former chapel, which was located in a public area, the new space is still sparsely furnished with a desk and a few chairs, a literature table and a small stand containing the Qur'an, a prayer mat and a schedule of Muslim prayer times.

The previous chapel was large enough to accommodate as many as 20 people saying goodbye to a family member, or to hold small functions or prayer services, Muir says.

"In the other one, we used to do memorial services and weddings," he says, recalling one wedding where the couple got married just minutes before boarding a plane to Mexico for their honeymoon.

"In this one, you can't do anything (like that)."

But situating the chapel on the secure side of the airport makes sense since passengers don't tend to linger in the public areas but make their way through security and then take time to shop, eat or even pray, says Christine Alongi, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

"This is a test. It's a pilot program we're doing on the secure side," she says.

"There's a lot of staff who use the facility and that was a huge reason for having it on the secure side."

Ministering to employees is an important part of an airport chaplain's role, agrees Tom Kartzmark, chaplain at Ottawa International Airport, but the job also involves helping out travellers and their families, even if those encounters only last a few minutes.

As far as he knows, Winnipeg is the only Canadian airport with a chapel on the secure side.

"If the chapel is on public domain, it can be used by both sides," says Kartzmark, who started Winnipeg's airport chaplaincy program in 1986.

He says if travellers on the secure side in Ottawa need a chaplain, they can call him and he'll come through security to talk to them.

Whether they're passengers or family members waiting for loved ones, having a private place to pray is important for Muslims, says the executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association.

"Before (Sept. 11, 2001) you could pray wherever you were waiting," Shahina Siddiqui says.

"Now people avoid that because you could be profiled (as a potential threat) or make a scene."

Heightened security measures, even around chapels, may just be a fact of life, adds Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, who hasn't yet visited the new airport.

"My sense is this is a sign of the times," he says. "We've become much more security conscious, maybe to an extreme."

After returning from a recent trip to Toronto, Rev. Bruce Faurschou says he didn't notice the location of the new chapel, but would prefer everyone who visits the airport have the opportunity to use it.

"I think it's unfortunate it's not available to the public, to everybody," says Faurschou, who heads up the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario of the United Church of Canada.

"It is a public building. Too bad (the chapel) doesn't have a more visible presence."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2011 j13

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