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Friday, June 18, 2021

Finding religion at the truck stop

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Carlisle, Pa.

There are no church bells ringing at Truckstop Ministries near Carlisle, Pa. The call to worship is chaplain Dave Hershey walking through the parking lot of a Pilot truck stop on a Sunday morning, inviting any trucker he sees to join the group for the 11 a.m. service.

“As an evangelist, that is what I do,” says Mr. Hershey, whose enthusiasm, bordering on frenetic energy, is at least piquing the interest of some who otherwise might have slept in on the traditional day of rest. “A trucker in the window to me is an open door. Everyone’s welcome, but I don’t want to force anything. I want to show I can help them.”

The Carlisle outpost of Truckstop Ministries is one of 74 chapels in 29 states. From Barstow, Calif., to Bordentown, N.J., truckers are gathering in meeting rooms, modular trailers and old movie theaters. There are other ministries and groups catering to truckers nationwide, too. Just down the road, at the Petro truck stop near Interstate 81, the Carlisle Truck Stop Chaplain Ministry meets in a trailer. However, Truckstop Ministries is the largest and most organized Christian outreach network on the highway.

Mr. Hershey and chaplain Leon Wells run their Sunday meeting in Mr. Hershey’s 28-foot Coachman motor home. Half a dozen drivers huddle in on this sunny Sunday, 24-ounce cups of truck-stop coffee in hand, to listen to Mr. Hershey’s sermon and talk about God, the road and life.

“I feel kind of like, for believers, this is a watering hole,” says Mr. Wells, a retired truck-driver-turned-pastor. “This is a place to come to replenish your faith and to hear the word without being preached at.”

Mr. Wells says that kind of support is crucial for many drivers, most of whom are men. Long days and nights on the road, away from family and community, can lead easily to bad decisions.

“When I speak to [truckers] I want them to know that I know,” Mr. Wells says. “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. I know what goes on. I’m on the CB [radio]. I can share the Gospel with you and the truth of what the Bible says.”

Bruce Wilkins, a 54-year-old driver from Maine, carries a Bible with a red leather cover in his rig.

Mr. Wilkins, who has a tattoo that says “RIP Jesus” on his forearm, calls himself a born-again Christian who tries to go to church every Sunday, “even though I live on the road.”

“If I am not near a ministry, I put my Sirius radio on to Familynet,” says Mr. Wilkins, who made a return visit to the Carlisle ministry on a recent Sunday. “They have wonderful services. Then I will listen to contemporary Christian music. But I try to get to a Truckstop Ministry or to a church.”

Mr. Wilkins says he has collected Bible CDs from various ministers he has met on the road. He listens to them while driving.

“It helps put things into perspective,” he says.

Albert Salvatore of Daytona Beach, Fla., is on the road for six-week stretches. He also tries to get to a ministry on Sundays.

“It seems like the right thing to do,” he says, adding that the ministry in Fountain, Colo., has a nice facility.

Truckstop Ministries was the vision of Joe Hunter, known as “Chaplain Joe” on the circuit. Mr. Hunter tells his story in the literature handed out at the ministry: Longtime truck driver and Vietnam veteran, had a problem with drugs and alcohol, demolished his rig in 1971 and decided to turn his life over to God. Ordained as a minister in 1980, founded Truckstop Ministries in 1981 and retired from driving in 1987 to build the ministry.

Mr. Hunter, who runs the ministry from its headquarters near Atlanta, was still a driver when he got the idea for a ministry just for truckers.

“It would be Sunday, and I would be on the road, and I wanted to worship,” he says. “I would call churches from a truck stop, and they said, ‘Come on over.’ But you can’t get a big truck into a lot of church parking lots. The asphalt won’t hold it. I started conducting Bible study to see what would happen, and the drivers came. I was amazed at the turnout, even with no advertising and signage.”

Little by little, the word spread, and Mr. Hunter led services on Sundays in between trucking hauls.

Today’s operation includes 500 workers, mostly volunteers, Mr. Hunter says. The ministry is sponsored by donations from people and local churches and is nondenominational. Some of the best-attended services have about 30 people on a Sunday. At many locations, though, there might be a single worshiper.

“Trucking is a lonely job,” Mr. Hunter says. “One question a lot of people ask is, ‘Why do it?’ Someone’s got to do it. It gets in your blood. But there are problems that come from being on the road. Family problems. Problems at home from a husband being on the road. You think you know what you are getting into, but you don’t.”

Truckstop Ministries maintains an active prayer line, with truckers calling in with requests to pray for the health and safety of truckers and their families. A lot of requests these days are for Jan Hunter, Chaplain Joe’s wife and an integral part of the organization, who has been battling cancer. Heading into winter, there are a lot of prayers for road safety, Mr. Hunter says.

“A lot of calls are from truckers’ wives, who call us and say, ‘He is headed toward Denver behind a snowstorm; please pray for him,’ ” Mr. Hunter says.

Many of the requests also are for remembering family and resisting temptation.

“There are always temptations on the road,” Mr. Hunter says. “It is like in any other profession where there are traveling people. All that stuff is out there.”

Sometimes it doesn’t even take an organized meeting to reach out, Mr. Hunter says. He tells of a driver-chaplain who knew another driver was having some struggles. They ran into each other at a truck-stop parking lot. The chaplain climbed down from his truck and waved the guy over. They stood between the trucks, talking about strength and God.

“It was just driver to driver,” Mr. Hunter says.

The Washington Times, LLC

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