General Mitchell International Airport opened its meditation room in November 2017 as a designated space for private contemplation, prayer, and public worship for travelers of all faiths.
Along with the rise of air travel in the Twentieth Century, chapels were installed at metropolitan airports. The first in America opened its doors in Boston six decades ago, and today that number is in the hundreds around the world. The facilities serve as way-stations for fliers who face a personal loss while traveling, or just need a place to pray.
“The meditation room is very important to us Muslims. It is a very convenient place to go and pray,” said a taxi driver named Mohammad. “The space is quiet, and clean, and very comfortable. We do our prayer in a small space away from the main part of the room, so we are not disturbing anyone who comes in.”
From original idea to its July 2017 groundbreaking, the MKE Meditation Room took 7 years of planning and fundraising. It was built at the eastern end of the airport’s parking structure. The location is convenient for transient travelers, but also for people with occupations related to the airport and spend time there daily, such as cab drivers and airport employees.
One of the first major fundraisers for the project was held at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee (ISM). Because people of the Muslim faith must offer prayers five times a day at pre-dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night, the idea of a meditation room at the airport generated lots of excitement within the Islamic community. For practicing Muslims, finding a secluded area to pray at airports can be a bigger headache than going through security or a flight delay.
“We never thought we would see a day where we would have a place to pray. Before, we always had to worry when we prayed. Sometimes we would be in a corner or stairwell, and if someone saw us they would think we were sick or think we were doing something strange,” said Mohammad. “But this meditation room is a really nice place for us to come together. We deeply appreciate the people who offered us this place so we could offer our prayers.”
Mohammad’s experience is a typical example of the Muslims who frequently utilize the meditation room. He came to Milwaukee from Tunisia, and has been working in the city since 1981. He became a taxi driver after the economy was hit hard in 2008 and he was laid off from a skilled manufacturing job as a CNC operator.
Taxi drivers often find themselves waiting at the airport for hours until someone needs a ride home or to the office. During the cold winter months, they wait inside where it is warmer and the group passes the time by socializing. Because the room is already carpeted, the group of regulars does not bring individual prayer rugs.
Before the meditation room was built, Mohammad and other Muslims would draw attention during their few minutes of prayer and Milwaukee County Sheriff would be called in. But they were never hassled at the airport about prayer, or felt victimized because of their faith.
“Some of the Sheriff Deputies knew us, and one even used to work airport security. So they would go back and tell everyone not to worry, these are the guys who pray here all the time,” added Mohammad. “But most people did not know, and they just wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
At his pervious manufacturing job, Mohammad asked the management about doing his 7 minutes of prayer during work breaks and they supported it. Driving a cab is easier now, because he works for himself and can just park and go pray when it is time.
Part of the lease for MKE Meditation Room stipulates that no proselytizing can be conducted in the area by anyone from any faith group. Jehovah’s Witnesses have left literature and camped out to answer questions if asked.
Milwaukee Airport, owned by Milwaukee County with a history that goes back to 1919, offers nonstop flights to 50 destinations coast-to-coast. Just over 160 international destinations are also available from Milwaukee with just one connection.
Wisconsin Muslim Journal