Recently when I returned from a trip to Israel I had to spend several hours at OR Tambo International Airport waiting for a flight to Port Elizabeth.
Fellow travellers who had to wait some hours for another regional connection invited me to join them in a time of intercession in the airport chapel.
And so, I was introduced to the new Gateway Chapel which is easily accessible at its location in the basement level of Terminal A at the entrance to the basement parking area — a floor below the international arrivals concourse.
We spent what must have been a few hours — but which felt like minutes — praying in the small but well-appointed interdenominational chapel. It was good to see some people who work at the airport popping in for heartfelt prayer moments while we were there. Some sat down with eyes closed and head bowed while others paced around as they called on the Lord. God’s presence was tangible.
What a great facility for Christians who spend time at the airport as passengers or workers! Just think of the prayer and ministry possibilities at Africa’s busiest airport where around 18 000 people work and about 21 million passengers pass through every year.
I wondered whether many airport users know about the chapel which was officially launched in August and which is open 24/7 and is manned during certain hours by volunteers.
According to Tricia Lovell director/secretary of the chapel, most airport workers and users are unaware of the chapel. But she said its opening, in a central location, after a challenging nine-year journey, was “making a big difference”. But it was just the first step in a vision to raise the chapel’s profile and to establish prayer chapels at other SA airports.
She said a prayer chapel was opened at the airport for the first time in 1995 by the Catholic Church, inspired by the presence of chapels at other international airports.
Other denominations joined in the airport chaplaincy ministry which grew and thrived until 2003 when the old chapel was demolished and they moved to an out-of-the-way site because of extensive airport renovations. The ministry went into a decline until renewed interest was sparked during the 2010 Soccer World Cup and the derelict chapel was restored and plans were laid for launching a brand new chapel in a more suitable location.
Fortunately, the Catholic Church came on board providing about a third of the approximately R800 000 needed to establish the new chapel, said Lovell. God continued to lead the way as other sponsors contributed and at last building work was begun in a rubble-strewn shell of a space allocated for the project. Much of the building work had to be done at night because of airport noise regulations.
Lovell said she walks the floors of OR Tambo every Thursday, distributing Bible literature and connecting with people.
“I always ask people if they know where the chapel is and they don’t know. Staff changes regularly and they also work different shifts, so it is quite a mega thing to try and reach all the people that use that airport,” she said.
Short-term publicity plans include erecting signage, including an illuminated “Open” sign over the door. She said that they would also love to provide advertising brochures at the airport immigration area but funding was needed.
Lovell said the airport chaplaincy team, however, has a bigger Great Commission goal to establish prayer chapels at other SA airports.
“We always knew that the OR Tambo chapel was a prototype. We are at a point now where we have to go to the Airports Company and to link in with church networks to encourage others to come on board,” she said.
She said that the ORT chaplaincy is affiliated with the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains (ICAC), which is represented at more than 100 airports around the world, including eight in Africa.
The ORT chaplaincy supports travellers and airport personnel in various ways, including in crisis situations. Recently when a Catholic passenger died on a flight from Cape Town, a chaplaincy priest was called out to minister to the family who were waiting at the airport. A Catholic mass is held in the chapel at 1pm on Sundays. The chaplaincy also conducts memorial services for airport personnel and companies.
Lovell said she normally spends about six hours at the airport on Thursdays.
“There are some things that I do routinely, like distributing weekly Scripture readings and doing admin in the chapel office. But I have absolutely no idea what else is going to happen because while I am walking the floors, someone can come to you and they want prayer, or the Holy Spirit just says to you: ‘Turn’ and you will just see somebody – usually a passenger that is standing and you go to them and you realise you actually did have to go to them. Sometimes they are just lost, or sometimes their journey has been a sad one.”
She said that on some days other volunteers walked the floors for about an hour in the evening. They hoped to get back to maintaining a chaplaincy presence daily.
In addition to establishing a daily presence of volunteers to reach out to the airport community, the chaplaincy, which is linked to the airport’s emergency procedures, hopes to raise a team of 450 people to be on standby for emergency situations where they would assist family and friends of passengers involved in an incident. Volunteers, who would like to offer their time and talents to serve in the ORT chaplaincy ministry can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Patricia Lovell at 071-164-0927.
More information about the chaplaincy can be found at http://airportchapel.co.za/index.php