Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Harbor Light Chapel, Wilco Travel Plaza, Pennsylvania

A woman who lived in North Carolina was desperate to see her children. She was divorced, and her husband had custody of their children. He was living in Philadelphia, and a truck driver offered to take her to visit her children. It isn't legal for a commercial trucker working for a company to take a rider, but it soon became clear that this driver wasn't concerned with legalities. Instead of taking her to Philly, he took her to the Wilco Travel Plaza near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and kept her against her will with the aim of taking advantage of her.

After three days, he left the woman alone in his cab while he went into the restaurant. The woman spotted the Transport for Christ mobile chapel on the site and made a dash for it. The chaplain greeted her, and when the driver tried to follow but was turned away at the door. The chaplain called the police, but the woman refused to press charges. She did need a way back home. It just so happened that a Christian woman trucker stopped by the chapel then. It just so happened that her route went through North Carolina, where the other woman needed to go. The driver called her company and was given permission to take the woman home. (Considering that only 5% of truck drivers are women, the odds of a woman trucker with a route through North Carolina being in the chapel at that particular time are rather... low.)

I used the phrase "It just so happened" a couple of times in the previous paragraph, but really I don't think coincidence was involved. I believe that God has placed the Transport for Christ mobile chapel at this truck stop quite intentionally, and the chapel has been serving truckers and others in need at this truck stop since 1986. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Chaplain Chris, who told us the story, has even more reason to believe that God has His purposes at work in this place.

The chapel at the Wilco Travel Plaza is one of 39 Transport for Christ "mobile" chapels located at truck stops throughout the United States; there are 50 throughout the world. The ministry began in Canada, but the organization now has its headquarters in Marietta, Pennsylvania. The organization's stated mission is "To lead truck drivers as well as the trucking community to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith."

When the ministry began in 1951, the chapels were truly mobile. A chaplain would drive his chapel trailer from one truck stop to the next and relied on word of mouth -- and eventually CB radios -- to convey the information. Eventually, Transport for Christ decided that permanent sites for the chapels would be more effective.

An incident like the one mentioned above is, of course, not the norm; but it certainly isn't the only time a chaplain in a Transport for Christ chapel has been called on in an emergency. Last week Mindy and I had the opportunity to talk to a number of chaplains, and we heard about a number of times they'd served in times of need. There were a number of stories of drivers who'd reached the end of the line and were without hope. Chaplains were able to dissuade them from taking their lives and then directed them to proper counseling. (Chaplain Chris is completing his Master's in Counseling though most of the volunteer chaplains have only had the basic training provided by Transport for Christ. Most of them do have years of experience in the trucking industry.) Truckers in crisis make up a small portion of visits to the chapel, but they are a major reason why many truck stops are happy to have a chapel on site.

Chaplains are in a unique position to observe a truck stop. They have been instructed to look for signs of trafficking of minors and to report such things to the proper authorities. Many truck stops have noticed that prostitution decreases when a chapel is present.

But the greatest problem faced by most drivers is loneliness. Spending weeks on the road can be quite stressful for many drivers. All that time on the road can also be difficult for marriages and family life. Truckers often come into the trailer to chat with a chaplain, but they rarely begin a conversation with the things that truly bother them. Chaplain Chris said a driver will often come in and chat for a half an hour or more before mentioning their real problems, but then they often will pour out their souls.

Truckers often come in to get reading materials for the road. At the Wilco site, the Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay provides Bibles to give to drivers. (Chris said that in a recent Bible drive, they were given a number of pink Bibles. Chris was not pleased, and wondered how he could ever give away those Bibles, given the low percentage of women drivers. The very next driver who came in was thrilled by the pink Bibles and asked if he could have one for his daughter.) They also have daily devotionals such as Our Daily Bread as well as  Bible studies  and sermon CDs available in the chapel and at kiosks in the truck stop.

Transport for Christ has been looking for ways to care for other needs of truckers. In 2007 the organization launched a website called Driver's Wellness to help with health needs. The organization is looking into the possibility of providing basic health care at truck stops as well.

Another central ministry of Transport for Christ is the weekly worship services. Mindy and I decided we wanted to worship at the chapel at Wilco Travel Plaza (we had chatted with chaplains at another location, the Flying J Travel Plaza near Frystown, as well). We arrived for the 11:00 am worship service. Chaplain Chris met us, and we began to chat. And waited for drivers to come to worship. We chatted. And waited. Chatted some more. Waited some more. But no one came, so Mindy and I decided to come back for the 7:00 pm service.

I walked around the lot with Chaplain Chris before the evening service. He shook hands with truckers walking around the lot or sitting in their driver's seats (he says he wouldn't want to risk knocking on a cab and waking a trucker). "Hi! I'm Chaplain Chris, and I just wanted to let you know we're having a worship service at the chapel by the McDonalds at 7:00 pm."

Unfortunately, weather has a big impact on service attendance.  And it was a very rainy day. No drivers showed up for the evening service. Chris told us this was unusual. They often have seven or eight truckers at the Sunday service, and if attendance at the morning service was good, Chaplain Chris will sometimes show a Christian movie he thinks the drivers will like that will also help them.

Jesus said, "When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20), so we sang choruses and hymns with their downloaded accompaniments. Chaplain Chris asked, as he would in any other worship service, for prayer requests. (Not only do they pray for the requests during the service, but chaplains pray for written requests throughout the week.)

After we prayed together, Chris gave a message about testifying for Christ. When he finished preaching, as he says he often does, he told us his testimony. He'd spent years in the trucking industry, first as a trucker and eventually as a Vice President for a trucking company. About nine years ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery saved his life, but seizures that were the result ended his career. But he considers that tumor a blessing from God because it led him from trucking into ministry.

Through his chapel ministry, Chris met a trucker who wanted to grow in his relationship with Christ. They began daily Bible studies on the phone. The driver follows up those phone calls by sharing what he's learned with his wife as they discuss the same passage of Scripture. The driver calls Chris back with his wife's questions about that same Bible passage. Their conversations cover the country, just as, by God's grace, Transport for Christ has been. As the motto on the side of the trucks says, Transport for Christ is "Sharing a dynamic gospel with a dynamic industry."

Service Length: 1 hour 19 minutes
Sermon Length: 1 hour (but we interrupted it a few times)
Visitor Treatment: Every time we entered a mobile chapel, the chaplain acknowledged us and engaged us in conversation.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none We got a text from Chaplain Chris on Thursday morning making sure we'd arrived safely at our next destination and that we'd gotten the information we needed for this post.
Our Exact Count: 3
Snacks: coffee maker (and we had dinner with Chris at the Perkins restaurant before the evening service)
Musicians: all the internet has to offer (we sang along with downloaded videos)
Songs: "How Deep the Father's Love"
"Let me See Thy Face and Die"
"The Old Rugged Cross"
Miles to church: 15 feet
Miles from start: 14,620
Total 2016 Miles: 14,323