One of the first things that I do when I’m in an airport is check for a prayer room or chapel in which I can worship quietly. Set apart from the coffee bars, intercoms, security guards, and noisy travelers, airport chapels are places where I, a regular worshipper, and a somewhat nervous flyer, can connect with God in privacy before continuing my travels. Judging by the numerous entries in each room’s sign-in book, I’m not alone in my appreciation for this small sacred space that helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for my flight.
It isn’t often that I meet anyone else using the chapel before flying, yet on the rare occasions that I encounter other people praying there, they’re almost always Muslims. This is unsurprising, as one of the things that Jews and Muslims share is the religious obligation to pray at specific times of the day. Waiting one late afternoon at Midway Airport in Chicago for a flight back to my home in Albany, NY, I took the elevator upstairs to its beautiful chapel. The room is a simply furnished lounge, side-paneled with glass and unadorned by the symbols of any specific religion.
From the panels I saw that the sun was setting, reminding me that I was running out of time for Mincha, the Jewish afternoon service. A thousand miles away, the very ill sister of a close friend was running out of time, as her death rapidly approached. Seven thousand miles away, Israelis and Palestinians were running out of time, as the second week of the current war hemorrhaged into reality. I opened the Jewish prayer app on my iPhone and mumbled the words, reciting them out of an empty sense of obligation that added to the weight of my already heavy despair. Earlier in the day, I had joined an online prayer chain for my friend’s sister, and with Mincha now completed, I turned to the words of Psalm 23: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for You, God, are with me. How many times had I taught others about God’s accompanying presence, giving us hope to confront our mortality? At that moment, I felt like I needed to twist God’s arm or force God’s hand to keep walking with us.
As I locked my iPhone, an older couple came into the room followed by a younger man and his son who appeared to be about six. Seeing that I, a man wearing a kippah, was there, the older man asked, “Will we be bothering you?” I mumbled no, then waved my hands in front of me, that self-protective universal gesture of reassurance that you and a stranger mean no harm to each other. First, the older man, then his wife, then the younger man, then the young boy, unrolled prayer mats or simple drop cloths, placed their hands at their temples, then slowly prostrated themselves in prayer. It was time for Maghrib, the Muslim sunset prayer which is the fourth of five salat or daily prayer recitations. Like Mincha, it’s exquisitely attuned to the passage of time. Mincha for me had ended. Maghrib for them had just begun.
From across the room, I watched as they prayed briefly then chatted in English, the older couple praising the young father for bringing his child up in their faith. I had no way of knowing who these people in that chapel at that moment were, what they believed, how they felt about Jews or Israel, what they thought about anything. All I knew was that time was betraying my friend’s sister, and soon it would betray us: we’d all leave for our respective departure gates or our homes; we’d never see each other again. I reasoned, “These people pray, and I pray. She could use all the prayers she can get.” I quickly abandoned the thought that speaking to them would be a simplistic gesture, a silly peace-and-pluralism performance.
Coming closer to them, I said, “My friend’s sister is dying. I know we’re different religions, but would you say a prayer for her?”
“Of course, brother! What’s her name?”
We chatted briefly. After they left the room and I, too, prepared to go, the older man came back in. “Hey, don’t worry brother”, he said, “We will say that prayer for her.”
It was only a moment, and it will last my lifetime. Then and there, I didn’t need to beg or coerce God to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. From across otherwise impassable ravines of politics and pain, through our shared humanity and prayers midway between us, God’s arms were extending outstretched hands to keep us all steady.
A version of this essay was originally aired at WAMC Northeast Public Radio on November 16, 2023, wamc.org.