Evangelicals offer friendship, a helping hand and prayer to alleviate the loneliness of the long-distance trucker.
By Leslie Scrivener
Driving east on Highway 401 at night, it’s easy to see the glare of the Fifth Wheel truck stop at Bowmanville, but if you look carefully you might also notice a little string of lights illuminating a wooden cross and beneath it, a small white trailer. This modest structure is the Open Road Chapel, fixed more or less permanently in the parking lot between the rattle of the railroad tracks and the roar of the freeway. The interior is as simple and clean as its exterior — an organ, a few Bibles, arrangements of artificial flowers, a jar of candies. Presiding over the sparse furnishings, wearing red jackets that say Open Road. are two men with walkie-talkies. But they are just as likely to be found in the parking lot, talking to men they say are among the loneliest in Canada — long-distance truckers.
The Illuminated cross is a signature of the non-denominational chapels — if it had been practical they would have added a steeple, too. And the object is evangelism. They begin with a friendly “how are you? how was your trip?” then make themselves useful, holding a flashlight or helping with a repair An invitation to welcome Christ into one’s life may follow.
As much as the emphasis is helping people, when you touch people’s hearts in time of need, they’ll share your soul with you,” says Rev. Don Harrison, a former trucker and truck mechanic who started the Open Road chapels in 1992.
He opened his first chapel at the Fifth Wheel truck stop in Milton, now he has eight; including a mobile chapel, with plans to open another two in Quebec and one in Alberta. And, although truck-stop chapels are becoming more and more common across North America, he’s heard there’s a need for truck- stop ministry in Europe.
‘When you get down and get depressed, talking with them takes a load off your shoulder’ Rag MacLeod trucker
Trucking in Canada employs one-third of a million people and is the largest single occupation for male Canadians. It’s a stressful job, so much so that a Canadian study showed an annual turnover rate of 35 percent, according to a 2003 report on trucking for Transport Canada. Truckers are on average older than people in other occupations, 80 percent are overweight and 60 percent do not get enough exercise.
Hardly any of them follow Canada’s Food Guide. And there’s that loneliness thing that keeps coming up. “I’m not buttonholing them,” says Harrison, “but being a friend”
Many trucker drivers are drawn more by the friendliness than an interest in religion. Donnie Christensen, 44, from Grand Falls, N.R, is one of those. Stopping at the Fifth Wheel at Bowmanville last week he explained that he goes home every week and attends his Lutheran Church. Truck stop ministers have spoken to him, he said, asked if he’s Christian and if he studies the Bible. He answered yes to the first question and no to the second and the minister told him he needed to study the Bible if he wanted to be a Christian, which more or less brought the conversation to an end. “We agreed to disagree.”
But Reg MacLeod, 53, also from New Brunswick, says he has found the Open Road chaplains helpful and sometimes necessary “When you get down and get depressed, talking with them takes a load off your shoulders. They’ll listen and you’ll get a good handshake when you leave.”
He’s turned to the ministers more often on long-distance routes in the southern U.S Even though, like most drivers, he has a laptop computer and a cell phone with a walkie-talkie function, he still can feel isolated.
“You can count on a friendly face there. It’s funny I don’t see more people taking advantage of it. I could never have anything but good to say about them.”
Elmer Martin, a driver for 25 years before joining Open Road, knows the stresses on truckers: scheduling problems, forced to wait all day to receive a load — anything from green beans to cars — then expected to drive all night to deliver it (“If you’ve got it, a trucker brought it,” he says.) There’s boredom. Truck stops, for all their services, including drivers’ TV rooms, are still truck stops. There’s fatigue.
“I can sense if a person doesn’t want to talk,” says Martin. “We want to help these guys, the single most thing I want is to encourage them. Relationships are what this is all about.”
There are several trucking ministries in Ontario, including Knights of the Road, based on Transport for Christ in the US., where Harrison worked for four years in Canada before starting Open Road. “We felt we needed to reach Canadian drivers,” he says. “Our administrative centre is in Orillia, on Highway U, and when people want to make an investment in an organization, they want to know where you are and if you are accountable.”
With a board of directors, staff and volunteers, Open Road has 75 names on its roster. Its opera ting budget is about $300,000, which is raised through donations. Like many evangelical organizations, staff members have to raise their own salary by finding donors — in this case, from churches, trucking companies, business and private foundations. Harrison estimates his ministry reaches 25,000 individuals every year
Open Road isn’t charged for its space on the parking lot. Mark AIlott, the franchise holder for the Fifth Wheel at Bowmanville, welcomes the little chapel on the highway and picks up the refrain about truckers’ loneliness, “They’ve got a following. I see them more as support — some of these drivers are a long way from home.”