Keeping the faith


Truck stops are more than truck stops to Frank Owen. Many of them represent an opportunity to attend a religious service, and he’s been to more than he can count.”I like to hear the different viewpoints,” says Owen, a Baptist. “They’re all talking about the same thing – God.”

Owen, who drives for a one-truck operation based in Henderson, Tenn., schedules his trips so that he can park at a truck stop with a chapel, allowing time for bathing and dressing up. “It’s good to feel like you’ve been to church even though it’s not your hometown church.”

Most truckers don’t share Owen’s enthusiasm for the humble truck stop chapel services, conducted in a trailer or a driver’s lounge. Yet religion, especially Christianity, remains a strong influence in the lives of truckers in many ways.

The outward signs are easy to find. Hundreds of truck stops offer chapels. The National Day of Prayer for Truckers, hosted by radio star Bill Mack at the most recent Mid-America Trucking Show, has been held for seven consecutive years. And the audio-visual capabilities of many cabs give drivers more opportunity than ever to hear gospel music or spiritual teaching through recordings or broadcast offerings that have greatly expanded via satellite radio and television.

The ever-present frustrations and temptations of the over-the-road life play a large role in holding so many truckers steadfast to religion. Steve Arterburn began hearing about many of those issues years ago when his New Life Live! show launched on XM Satellite Radio.

“For truckers, the biggest issue is loneliness and sexual integrity,” Arterburn says. “There’s something very seductive and enticing for a man just to be on his own, to head out from the house and have no one to answer to.”

While the long-haul lifestyle works against the opportunities other people have for the support of religious counselors or like-minded friends, being alone on the road opens up other doors.

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“A lot of guys who would never admit they had a problem, or go see a counselor, they’ll listen to the radio because it’s private,” Arterburn says. “We hear stories of guys out on the road, they come back home on a Friday night or a Saturday, and they try to live a little bit differently because of something they heard in the privacy of the cab.”

Another non-traditional source of religious support stems from carriers that provide chaplains or counselors for drivers and their families. Sitton Motor Lines and R&R Trucking, both in Joplin, Mo., contract with Business/Industrial Chaplaincy, says Keith Jackson, one of two counselors for the Christian firm.

“We do counseling, such as spiritual, emotional, family, personal issues,” he says. The counselors also do pastoral-type duties, such as hospital visits, consoling family members after a death or writing notes of encouragement.

“Drivers sometimes will tell a dispatcher, ‘When I get to the yard, will you have a chaplain available to talk to?’ So we try our best to be available.”

Marital problems top the list of personal concerns, say those involved in trucker counseling.

“The wife gets tired of waiting for her husband to get off the road, she wants to be entertained, so she’s finding company elsewhere,” says Louise Brinnon, sister of Glenn Cope, who launched Truckers Christian Chapel Ministries in 1987.

Drivers, of course, have no shortage of their own temptations, including substance abuse, lot lizards and pornography – the last now much more accessible via the Internet and satellite television.

“In the last few years I see there are more strip clubs and more adult bookstores along major interstates,” says Tom Scott, a company driver for Decker Transport Co. of Riverdale, N.J. “I know they cater to truck drivers because they have big parking lots.”

Scott says he isn’t tempted, thanks to convictions about his marriage. “You always have somebody else in your heart. We decided a long time ago our marriage was like three persons – me, my wife and Jesus. I cannot do things like that, to sin against God and hurt the feelings of my wife.”

Male drivers most likely to seek counseling for marital problems are men who wound up behind the wheel as a last-ditch resort, rather than as a dream job, says Joe Hunter, president of Truckstop Ministries. “All of a sudden he’s gone for three months, and that wears hard on marriages,” Hunter says. “A lot of them don’t make it.”

The driver shortage, too, pressures fleets to push drivers to fudge their hours or stay on the road too long, Hunter says. “In some cases, it results in a fatigued driver, angry and frustrated, who hasn’t been home. I had a guy call on the prayer line, hadn’t been home in three months and couldn’t figure out why his marriage was failing.”

Another frequent concern is road rage. Scott, for example, says he struggles not with sexual temptations, but with anger. Hunter suspects this also is partially because of the driver shortage.

“You’re constantly in traffic situations where you want to yell and scream, and you think, ‘Just be patient, you don’t know what’s going on over there, leave it in God’s hand,'” says Michael Renner, an owner-operator leased to a Mayflower Transit agency in Ontario, Calif.

When truckers have trouble coping, they occasionally seek help at truck stop chapels. The established chapels try to maintain long hours to serve walk-ins, though some truck stops have only a weekly service, provided by a local church or minister. “So many times you go in there on a Sunday morning, and you’re the only one in there other than the pastor,” Renner says. “That’s kind of sad.”

A “macho thing” among truckers makes some men afraid to be seen visiting a chapel, say Owen and Scott. Evenings, the prime counseling time, can be problematic, too. When chaplains are busy, they sometimes have to close the chapel to focus on a single driver, says Tom Kemp, a chaplain trainer with Transport For Christ.

“The primary thing is to have somebody to listen to them,” Kemp says. “We use the medical term, triage, when a driver comes in, to try to get a sense of where he is fairly quickly. I’ve had drivers come in emotionally bleeding all over everything, and I’ve had to ask other drivers to leave us alone for a while.”

In such situations, Kemp says, the rule of thumb is to let the driver talk for the first hour. “He’s carrying a load of steam that needs to vent,” he says. “Only after we hear what’s on his mind can we begin to speak to some of the issues in his life.”

Female truckers also seek counseling, but not usually to overcome the temptations of strip joints or pornography, Arterburn says. “A lot of times they’re just feeling lonely and depressed, just more mood issues,” he says.

Women are not immune from substance abuse problems, though. A female trucker called Arterburn’s show to recount how her nightly glass of wine eventually increased to four glasses. “She wanted to know, does that mean she’s an alcoholic?” he recalls. “I suggested doing without it, seeing if you can get a little bit of your life back.” She e-mailed him later to say she took his advice, which led her to join Alcoholics Anonymous.

Financial problems, too, occasionally surface in counseling, especially among owner-operators. Truckers Christian Chapel chaplains often hear complaints about rising operating costs, Brinnon says.

Fleet counselor Jackson says, “I’ve seen some have real problems because they don’t know how to manage their money.” He responds with practical steps, such as closely monitoring credit card transactions and keeping spending records. “Some people get their necessities and wants mixed up,” he says.

That sort of non-religious advice is standard for Jackson, as well as other counselors who don’t want to force their spiritual perspective. Truckers who visit the chapels have diverse spiritual backgrounds, Hunter says, ranging from “the person born and raised in the church to a 50- or 60-year-old person who’s never been in church, never read the Bible.” In many cases, he says, “They are not atheistic, not agnostic. They’re what we’d call in Georgia ‘good old boys.'”

Those with spiritual interests do not always fit into traditional molds of mainstream religions. Renner and his wife, Debbie, recently met a man who left full-time ministry to become a trucker. “He felt like the Lord was directing him to spread the word on the road,” Renner says. “He gets up in the morning, gets on the CB radio, and says a prayer whether anybody wants to hear it or not.”

Pentecostal Jon Haggie and his Catholic girlfriend, both divorced, drive together. They don’t participate in a church, though Haggie says he has closely studied the Bible. “There’s no sense in fighting over religion,” he says. “We’re all looking up to the same God.”

Some truck stop chapels try to meet the needs of those like Haggie, who want to deepen their faith while on the road. Truckers Chapel Outreach Ministries at the TravelCenters of America on I-20 in Cottondale, Ala., offers a Bible overview course. Students receive 40 hours of recorded instruction and a 30-chapter manual, including assignments. A counselor reviews the assignments and is available for personal needs, too.

Like most chapel visitors, Scott opts for a less rigorous approach to Bible study. When he has to work on a weekend, his flexible schedule allows him to fill Sunday morning with prayer, Bible reading, breakfast and a truck stop chapel service.

“Even as I get down the road, I still can think and meditate on what I heard,” Scott says. “It’s kind of like changing my focus. If anything can happen – which it can – I know there is something else on the other side, that is, eternal life that was promised to me by God himself. That really gives me peace of mind.”

Trucker Bob Riley grew up in a Massachusetts neighborhood populated with a wide variety of ethnicities and religions. Riley, a Methodist, says he “never knew there was anything different” about Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths. He saw them as equals.

Of those truckers who claim some religious or spiritual affiliation or belief, only two-thirds are Christian, according to a recent poll. The other third represents diverse spiritual and ethnic interests, and trucking is not a particularly friendly environment for them. There exists little, if any, religious support for them on the road, as most truck stop chapels are Christian. And Muslims and Sikhs – who are often mistaken for Muslims – continue to be targets of discrimination among those who wrongly suspect all Muslims of terrorism.

A Bethlehem, Pa., carrier, however, has made diversity a focus in its recruiting efforts. RoadLink Services drivers include Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims and Sikhs, among other faiths.

Some drivers coordinate their schedules to suit religious preferences. Muslim drivers might not work Friday, the holy day in Islam, but will gladly make a Sunday delivery. Christian drivers likewise may defer a Sunday delivery but gladly take the Friday route. “We made it work for us,” says Berta Moreno, RoadLink’s director of recruitment.

RoadLink’s drivers “all acknowledge they have different practices and move on,” she says. “I don’t see any animosity.”

A customer once panicked after seeing a Muslim driver lying prostrate on a mat in the parking lot, not realizing he was praying, but similar problems have not surfaced since, Moreno says.

Far worse incidents occurred in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. Many involved Muslims or Sikhs.

A Muslim trucker in Michigan said he was fired by a boss who cited “safety” as the cause. One newspaper columnist said “every Middle Eastern-looking truck driver” should be pulled over and questioned. In May 2003, a 14-year veteran Sikh truck driver was shot in a Phoenix parking lot. The man survived.

Naseer Ahmad, an owner-operator from Pacific, Mo., has a Muslim father and a Christian mother but describes himself as an agnostic: a person unsure but open to the existence of God. Agnostics, atheists and non-religious/secular people make up more than 14 percent of Americans, according to a 2004 City University of New York study.

Now a regional driver, Ahmad once hauled potatoes from Salt Lake City to Boston. During those hauls, he witnessed discrimination against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews, but nothing overtly violent, Ahmad says.

Manjit Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund in Washington, D.C., says Sikh truckers are often profiled and harassed by police and fellow drivers.
Linda Longton contributed to this story.

A truck with a religious message can be more than just show – and many show trucks bear faith-based inscriptions. Take Thomas and Maryann Quick’s 2000 Kenworth W900, which tied for First in Conventional Bobtail 1998-2000 at the 2005 Great American Trucking Show. Quick recalls being parked in a Wal-Mart lot in California: “This man walked back and forth in front of my truck three times, and I thought something was wrong. Then he came up and said, ‘This truck just makes me think so much of God. I’ve been an atheist all my life. What do I have to do to be saved?’ I gave him a Bible and prayed with him. That was a wonderful day.” “America Bless God” is painted on the cab’s rear.

Along with patriotic images, two Bible citations adorn the rig: Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” and Psalms 23:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” The themes are to commemorate Sept. 11, Quick says, but also to remind people to turn to God at all times, not just in tragedy.

TRUCKERS CHRISTIAN CHAPEL MINISTRIES has more than 100 ministries in 33 states. (937) 864-9051

TRUCKSTOP MINISTRIES has 67 ministries in 27 states and is the designated chaplaincy program for Petro Stopping Centers. (770) 775-2100

TRANSPORT FOR CHRIST has 30 ministries in North America. (717) 859-4870

TRUCKERS CHAPEL OUTREACH offers a 30-chapter manual through its School of Biblical Study. (205) 554-0758

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