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On the Road to Salvation
Several Canadian truck stops offer spiritual sustenance as well as strong coffee to long-haul drivers. Prayer and a sympathetic ear can help truckers resist temptation away from home.

Next time you're praying for more than just a change of scenery along Highway 401, hit those air brakes and pull your rig off at exit 230 in Woodstock, about 90 minutes west of Toronto.

Mobile Chapel

Even as multi-service truck stops go, the sprawling Travel Center of America impresses: There's a hair salon, walk-in clinic (with on-call chiropractor), showers and laundry facilities, arcade (with, strangely, driving games), a TV room, and, naturally, a diner that serves hang-off-your-plate meals and bottomless cups of high-octane joe.

But it's out back, behind the diesel pumps, where the weary truck driver can find spiritual sustenance. Inside a 48-foot renovated trailer fitted with a small office and a makeshift pulpit, Len Reimer pastors long-haul drivers for Transport for Christ, a ministry that shows truckers the road to Jesus.

The group's motto — "Winning truck drivers to Jesus Christ and teaching them to grow in their faith" — make its proselytizing aims clear. But much of the work involves listening, not evangelizing, and divesting oneself of the stereotype of the maverick, tough-as-nails trucker.

"Deep down in every driver's heart, there's a desire to speak to someone who listens and doesn't condemn," says the straight-talking Reimer, who drove truck himself for 15 years and ran a trucking company for another four.

One of several Christian ministries targeting truckers, Transport for Christ provides non-denominational services (though the emphasis on Evangelical Christianity is unmistakable) in 28 permanent chapels in travel plazas and rest stops along major highways in the United States, four in Canada and three outside Moscow, Russia.

Regardless of location, the issues drivers face "are no respecters of time, place or person," Scott Weidner, president and chief executive officer of TFC, said at the organization's recent annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Imagine a driver thousands of miles from home learns of a situation concerning his or her family. The chapel gives the driver a place to go for comfort or guidance."

The words emblazoned on the trailer in Woodstock — "Mobile Chapel" — are a bit misleading, admits Reimer, 68, one of two staff chaplains at the location. "We used to be mobile, but now we're stationary," though there is a real cab attached up front.

Open 12 hours a day, seven days a week since late 2001, the trailer provides services to an industry Reimer says is misunderstood.

"Driving the truck isn't the hard part. It's living the life that's hard." Canada's 263,000 long-haul drivers (of whom 8,000 are women) are permitted to spend a maximum of 13 hours a day on the road — and most do.

Those long, lonely stretches away from home and family often pave the way to temptations, Reimer notes.

Asked what lurks out there to lead vulnerable drivers astray, Ben Klassen, a long-haul driver who's popped in to chat with Reimer, sighs. "What's not out there?"

Apart from the ever-available drugs and booze, there's gambling, smugglers, pornography, and prostitutes who openly solicit on Citizens' Band (CB) radio. At some stops, drivers simply have to flash their headlights and — presto — instant company, for a price.

"Yeah, there's lots to tempt," nods Klassen, who's been driving for 25 years. He's the exception in the business: He shares duties with his wife of 38 years, Mary Ann. Today, the parents of eight and grandparents of 15 are hauling a load of steel racks to Nashville, Illinois, a 20-hour trek. They dropped in to see Reimer, an old friend, but also because they miss their Christian Fellowship Church back home in Steinbach, Manitoba.

While there's plenty to tantalize, it's mainly loneliness and pining for a haven that lead an average 100 drivers a month to the chapel. Often, truckers just like to know someone is there.

"I'll give you an example," offers Reimer, who stresses he's not ordained but "commissioned" by the ministry. "A driver came in here the other day and he had just lost his wife. He was grieving. He said, `I just came in to find someone who cared.' That's the key. We care and listen, one-on-one."

And spread the Gospel. There are Sunday services in the chapel, which seats 13. Tuesday nights are devoted to Bible study. There's no shortage of Christian tracts, including "The Road Map of Life," a New Testament geared especially to truckers. Prayers and sermons are offered over cellphones and CB radio.

Reimer proudly notes that last year, a dozen drivers were born again at his chapel, among an estimated 450 who got "saved" at a TFC venue.

Truck stop evangelists say that with skyrocketing fuel and insurance rates and nearly impossibly hectic schedules, the job's a pressure-cooker, despite changes designed to ease burdens.

"The industry is one of the most regulated in North America. We have more rules and regulations for truck drivers than I think we do for airline pilots," says Dennis Finnamore, Canadian director of TFC from the head office in Lower Brighton, New Brunswick.

Indeed, the federal government's Motor Vehicle Transport Act, which runs 14,000 words, is expected to become law in January. It will regulate every aspect of trucking, including capping the number of driving hours at 70 a week.

Even so, "there's constant pressure to deliver the load and comply with rules (while) trying to keep customers and dispatchers happy, and having some kind of family life," Finnamore says.

He cites a recent study that found long-distance drivers get home just four to eight weekends a year.

"So this is a way to live our faith in a realistic way."

Founded in Canada 55 years ago by Torontonian Jim Keyes, TFC's other locations include Chilliwack, British Columbia, Sherwood Park, Alberta, and Salisbury, New Brunswick. The whole ministry is funded by donations, and has plans to expand outreach beyond truck stops to terminals, where loads are picked up and dropped off.

Meantime, it's a seller's market.

The Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council estimates that Ontario is expected to need about 90,000 new drivers over the next five years. Trucking is a $50 billion a year industry in Canada, and the single largest employer of Canadian males. Trucks move 90 percent of all consumer products and goods in this country.

But moving spirits isn't always easy. That's why Open Road Chapels, with five locations in Ontario, has its own approach.

"We look at it a little differently," says Rev. Don Harrison, a former driver who founded the ministry 18 years ago. "In the past year, we touched probably more than 20,000 people (but) 60 percent of our ministry (involves) walking around parking lots, talking to drivers in restaurants, television rooms and areas where people gather.

"We have a little saying: `People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,'" "Harrison says. "The trucking industry is such that guys are very open to talking. We're there to encourage them and pray with them. We tend to be a little more hands-on.

"The only thing I haven't done is taken a guy's truck and delivered his load."

Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer with an interest in religion. He may be reached at csillag@rogers.com.

Originally published in the Toronto Star , June 24, 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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