Quiet Refuge On Lonely Road

June 17, 1995|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,Sun Staff Writer

The road to redemption runs through Elkton.

At Truck Stop 76, weary travelers seeking spiritual guidance can find it in a converted 18-wheeler.

"The chapel is the closest thing we have to a home when we're on the road," said Dennis Baker, 47, a truck driver who often attends services at the trailer-turned-chapel. "It provides a spiritual uplift."

Named the Lifesaver, the white mobile chapel is parked behind the fuel station and convenience store at Truck Stop 76, off Interstate 95 at Route 279. It is one of 15 in the United States run by Transport for Christ, a nonprofit Christian organization founded by a Canadian truck driver in 1951. The group has also parked two converted rigs in Canada and one in the former Soviet Union.

"A lot of truckers come to the chapel for comfort and guidance," said Steve Pearson, the Lifesaver's lead chaplain. "They're lonely and need someone to talk to.

"Our purpose is twofold: winning truckers to Jesus Christ and establishing them in their faith," he said. "There aren't many church parking lots that can accommodate an 18-wheeler."

More than 50,000 truckers nationwide visit the mobile chapels each year, according to Clifford Norton Jr., an assistant U.S. staff director for Transport for Christ.

One of them is Mr. Baker, a soft-spoken man who was sorely in need of solace when he first entered the Lifesaver three years ago.

After being on the road several days, he had just pulled into the truck stop to call home and check on his family. But instead of describing their children's latest tirades, his wife of 12 years told him she wanted a divorce.

"My world collapsed," said Mr. Baker, who was headed to Fairlawn, N.J., last week. "I needed someone to talk to. Luckily, the chapel was here for me."

About 60,000 people pull in to Truck Stop 76 each month to eat, rest or get fuel. Most are truckers, who haul everything from poultry to paper products. The Lifesaver, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, receives six to 13 visitors daily.

God's Trucking Ministry, a separate nonprofit Christian group, operates another truck chapel in Maryland. Parked in Jessup behind Trucker's Inn on U.S. 1, it gets about 10 visitors a day.

Few locals know about the Elkton chapel, which has been open since 1989. That may be because a row of evergreens hides the trailer from the road.

But if the trees contribute to the Lifesaver's obscurity, they are also a sound barrier, Mr. Pearson said.

As traffic roars past on I-95, quiet prayer and friendly chatter fill the chapel. Nine dark oak pews extend a welcome, and a small piano waits for nimble fingers to play upon its keys.

"The chapel has helped our image," said Marshall Moore, manager of the truck stop.

"Years ago, we had problems with some bad elements -- drug dealers and prostitution -- but we don't anymore, in part because of the chapel. Its presence seems to give people a sense of conscience-ness."

Alex Ferguson visits the Lifesaver regularly. A trucker from New York City, he pulled in to the truck stop last week on his way back from Compton, Calif.

"My job gives me a chance to see many places and meet different people, so I like it," said Mr. Ferguson, his eyes lined with fatigue. "But it can get lonely, even frustrating.

"The chapel gives me strength. It's like a comforting hand -- it eases my loneliness."

It costs about $100,000 to convert an 18-wheeler to a chapel and keep it open for the first year, Mr. Norton said. Private donors provide the funds for renovation and support the chaplains, who work 20 to 50 hours a week.

Mr. Pearson has not raised enough money yet to collect a salary. His wife, Patty, works at a glass-cleaning company in Altoona, Pa., where the couple live, to cover their expenses.

"God has provided us with a lot," said Mr. Pearson, 51, a former truck driver and poultry salesman in Altoona. "We've learned to get by with less."

Mr. Pearson and 14 volunteers take turns sleeping in the trailer. The overnight shift is often the busiest, with four to eight truckers stopping by each night.

The lead chaplain attributes the high attendance to the Lifesaver's welcoming atmosphere.

"We don't promote any one religion or practice any rituals," he said. "Chaplains for the Transport focus on the Scripture.

"We simply want to teach people that they don't have to be in church to have a relationship with God."

Bible studies are held Mondays at 7 p.m. Weekly services are twice on Sundays, at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Chaplains read Scripture, lead prayers and sing gospel songs.

The hymns comforted Mr. Baker when his wife abruptly ended their marriage.

"The first time I came into the chapel, the chaplain gave me some gospel tapes," said Mr. Baker. "They got me through a difficult time. To this day, I still listen to them."

As he spoke, Mr. Baker was visiting the chapel to give thanks. Last year, while on the road, he met a woman named Amelia at a square dance in Shallotte, N.C. They were married there last week and were traveling through Elkton on their honeymoon.

"God led me to her," Mr. Baker said. "No one can convince me otherwise."

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