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Rev. Don Harrison wanders lonesome highways, tending to a wandering flock
Even with Jesus as your co-pilot, it’s sometimes hard to get in the right lane.
Rev. Don Harrison threads his one-ton diesel Ford through late rush-hour gridlock heading east out of Toronto. Behind him, he’s pulling a 12- metre mobile chapel, complete with speaking pulpit and chairs for a small congregation.
You would think the large crosses — which catch and reflect the headlights around — would allow the man of God some divine traffic control. But unmoved drivers still won’t easily let him in, as he heads toward a truck-stop in Bowmanville, an hour’s drive outside the city.
It’s the big-rig drivers who always seem to make room for his mobile church, as Harris on — who once hauled more mundane cargo, just like them — thanks each with a blink of his lights and a call out over the CB radio.
Even if most of the people in cars don’t appreciate tonight’s pilgrimage, the men and women in the monster rigs seem to. This evening, the head of Open Road Chapels will park his mobile sanctuary on a sloppy and cold parking lot outside a popular Fifth Wheel diner and truckers’ fill up station. It’ll sit next to a trailer-turned-church, which is permanently grounded there.
Most of the drivers who pull in will head — tired and hungry — straight for the $3.99 all-day breakfast special. Others will sit in their cabs — dome lights on — to fill out their log books. But a few will seek out some direction, which has nothing to do with where their cargo is headed.
There are millions of truck drivers in the U.S., and an estimated 276,200 here in Canada. Constantly on the move, like caravans of another era, their home churches are often several provinces away. Since the early 1950s, truck-stop missionaries — which seem to have originated in this country — have taken to the roads, figuring if drivers can’t come to the church, then maybe the church should get a map and find those wandering sheep instead.
From Halifax to Winnipeg to Calgary to Vancouver, preachers set up shop at a truck-stop diner table — sometimes, if lucky, in an office or a trailer church — hoping to make their own special delivery.
They compete for the limited time the drivers are allowed to sit idle, they fight to enter large gas stops that have policies against their property being used by any church group, and they try to reach a changing spiritual demographic who —despite diverse backgrounds — are often united in the weight carried on their shoulders.
“I don’t know how many guys I just pray with, out by their truck,” the mobile preacher says, as he pulls into the Fifth Wheel. “When you offload freight with these guys, you soon learn the industry is all they have. If we can help get them on track, that’s a good thing.”
In the 1950s, truck drivers — especially long-haul operators — were seen as an untapped and wandering congregation. Truck-stop ministries were, at first, strictly mobile, but then planted permanent roots along major routes.
Transport for Christ, a non- denominational Christian organization, runs chapels across Canada — including Calgary, Edmonton, Chilliwack, B.C., and sites in New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. They also have 26 spots in the U.S. and three more in Russia.
A number of years ago, a driver from Winnipeg pulled up to Mike Foisy’s chapel, at the TransCanada Truckstop in Chilliwack. The trucker had just found out his teenaged daughter had drowned. He had just come off the ferry from Vancouver Island, and still had to make the drive to identify her body.
“He said he couldn’t go on anymore,” recalls Foisy, a Transport For Christ lead past or. For three hours, he sat and prayed and talked with the man. “At the end, he said, ‘I’m going to make it.’ He’s been a friend, ever since,” Foisy adds. He says he’s humbled by the difficult and undervalued job the drivers do. “I know they’re needed, but they need someone too,” he says.
At the Bowmanville truck stop, Open Road Chapel head Harrison finishes up a quick meal, checks in with a volunteer manning a permanent trailer chapel — a complete church, the size of your living- room — and heads out into the dark yard.
A parade line of idling trucks rings the gas stop, like animals at a watering hole. Tired, largely aging men trudge — mostly alone — through the muck, as they catch a quick break from kilometres without end.
Despite stories of women driving more and more trucks, this is still largely a toilet-seat-up world, It’s also lonely and hard on families.
Wade Slade, 52, is a long way from home in Concept ion Bay, N.L., and has been away for the past three or four weeks — long enough that’s he’s not entirely certain how long. He’s carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of pipe. And, sometimes, baggage of his own, as his job only allows him to go to his home church three or four times a year.
Pastor Harrison stands with him in the mud, lays a hand over the trucker’s shoulder, and says a few words of inspiration. Sometimes, Slade will pull over at a truck-stop chapel outside Montreal.
“I’m not looking for any thing in particular — just the odd prayer,” he explains. Harrison walks from truck to truck, mostly talking to drivers about the weather or how far away from home they are.
It used to be most drivers in Canada were Christians, or at least had it as a background. Today, their religious views are as diverse as the cargo they’re hauling. So often, Harrison will spend his time just holding a flashlight or a door open, and never talk about God.
On this night, he rarely will mention his calling to the men he greets. “They’re people who deserve respect. and that’s enough for me” he says. His night at the stop runs late. He phones his wife in Orillia to tell her he won’t be making it home as planned. He’ll see her after supper, tomorrow.
Her voice on the other end of the phone sounds as if she’s used to this happening. He turns on the heat in the chilly cab of the mobile chapel, and draws up the back door, like a drawbridge. He’ll sleep alongside his flock — lulled by the drone of the nearby highway and the sounds of gears switching in the lot around him.
At 56 years old, he can’t see himself stopping any time soon. He says he has a ways to travel yet, and many more deliveries to make.