Even in this modern age of high-speed rail and air transportation… trucking continues to be the primary way to ship goods throughout the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are nearly seven million commercial truck drivers in this country. And in 1999 alone… these truckers drove a combined total of more than 330 billion kilometers. That's a lot of time away from home and family. And for those truckers who are religious, it can also be a lot of time away from church. But as part of VOA's series on religion in America, Maura Farrelly reports that one man has made it his mission to help truckers go to church, while they're on the road.
To the millions of people who transport food and manufactured goods across the United States… a truckstop is a home away from home. Scattered along the nation's extensive interstate highway system, these complexes offer truckers much more than just an opportunity to park their 24-meter-long vehicles and fill their 2,000 liter gas tanks. Here, truckers can find a warm meal… a hot shower… the chance to relax in front of a television, and… at 59 truckstops across the country… a place to pray.
"Good morning, drivers. Welcome to Bordentown Petro. I'd like to remind you that at 11 a.m. in our TV room, we'll be having our truckers' fellowship meeting. This is a non-denominational Bible study, and everyone is welcome."
The Bordentown Petro Station, just off Exit Seven on the New Jersey Turnpike, is part of a national network of truckstops, where drivers can go on Sunday mornings to worship. The network was started by Joe Hunter, a minister and former truck driver, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. "I was an over-the-road trucker for over 20 years, all over the northeast, midwest, everywhere. Lots of times I'd find myself in a major city on the weekends, Sundays. As a 'born again' Christian, I wanted to go to church. I wanted to worship with fellow believers. And I couldn't find a place to park my rig. Nothing big enough to park my rig and go," he says.
And so, in 1981, after he had changed jobs and was no longer spending so much time away from home, Joe Hunter began conducting informal bible study sessions at a truckstop off Interstate 75 in Georgia. He says these sessions were appreciated by many of the drivers who came through.
But it wasn't long before they started telling Mr. Hunter that the sessions in Georgia weren't enough. "A driver might say, 'I've gotta be in California by Monday, so I can't be in Atlanta on Sunday," he says. "We need something out that way.' And honestly, my kind of a cop-out answer about it was 'Just pray about it.' And so I started going speaking at churches about what we were doing, and they would kind of catch the vision. I would go to a local truckstop, and they would say, 'Come on and start a bible service here.' Well, you know, next thing I know, we're in Texas, and Arizona, California, Oregon, New York, Florida, et cetera."
Today, Joe Hunter's Truckstop Ministries oversees chapel services in 25 states… a number that's been growing every year since the late 1980s.
Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns!"
The services are conducted by people who've been recruited from nearby churches. All the services are Christian, since that's the religion Joe Hunter practices, and it's also the faith of nearly all American truckers who are religious. But the services aren't geared toward any particular Christian denomination. Here in New Jersey, the church volunteers begin with the singing of a non-denominational spiritual… and then the truckers introduce themselves to one another.
"My name is Will Hargrove. I drive for Keystone Freight Corporation, and I run the Northeast. And actually, I'm barely ever home on the weekends, so we're just kind of looking for a place to go on a Sunday, to be able to go and fellowship, and just meet other people that are Christians, you know, and give faith."
After the truckers have introduced themselves, a volunteer from a local, Baptist church directs them to several passages in the Bible and asks them to consider what it means to be a Christian. The 17 drivers… a few of whom are here with their wives… discuss the responsibilities of Christianity.
Afterwards, Will Hargrove says he hasn't always embraced a Christian lifestyle… and that's why the truckstop chapel services are important to him. "If you've truly been touched by God, or by Jesus, you're truly trying to make a change in your life. And I think that's the proof that you have had a relationship with God, is that you're changing," he says. "And you're trying to change, and you're seeking people that's doing the same thing. And if you're driving all the time… this is one of the better truckstops I've seen. I've seen something like Atlanta, where prostitutes are running around, and drugs are running around. And it's real easy, and me coming from a drug background, I need a place like this to go, where I can hook up with positive people, and stay out of trouble."
The worship services organized by Joe Hunter's volunteers aren't designed to convert anyone… and in fact, Mr. Hunter says evangelism isn't a part of his agenda at all. He says he just wants to provide an opportunity for truckers who are already Christians to get together while they're on the road… and pray. To that end, Joe Hunter has devoted himself full-time to raising money for the organization he founded, Truckstop Ministries, Incorporated. The group publishes Bibles that are given out to truckers for free. And Mr. Hunter says his goal is to one day have fully-staffed chapels that are open twenty-four hours a day… at as many truckstops as possible.