The road to salvation Loneliness and worry are part of the cargo carried by long-distance truckers. But, at God's Trucking Ministry in Jessup, chaplain Charles 'Hoppy' Hopkins is trying to lighten the load.

April 12, 1998|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Chaplain Hoppy Hopkins glances up at the clock showing Jesus tenderly herding his sheep, then turns to face his congregation. He'd like to wait a minute or so for any late arrivals, he tells them. In the meantime, he offers up a few reflections on hamburgers, of all things.

In his 40-plus years on the road, it seems, the chaplain has found nothing to compare with the silver-dollar-sized burgers at White Castle.

"Those little bitty hamburgers are the best," he says, straight from the heart.

"You're the first I've ever heard that likes 'em," says a man from Columbus, Ohio.

There are a few chuckles but no more guests to the Sunday-morning service at God's Trucking Ministry for truck drivers in Jessup. It's time to deliver the spiritual food these drivers have been waiting for.

God's Trucking Ministry is a chapel fashioned from an old refrigerated trailer, a front-line mission serving those who fall between the cracks. Outside, the winter sun smiles weakly on the chrome and asphalt expanse of T.A. Baltimore South, one of the largest truck stops on the East Coast. Hundreds of truck engines, idling while drivers sleep or do paperwork, hum the mantra of transport.

Inside, young men in snakeskin boots and earrings bow their heads in prayer along with older men in overalls and pocket protectors. These truckers are strangers who share the intimate bond of life on the road: its deadlines and pressures, its dangers, its moments of fellowship, its isolation and temptations.

Together they sing "Victory in Jesus" and "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus" from photocopied hymns collected in school binders. They murmur "amen" as Chaplain Hoppy urges them to gird their loins with truth, don the breastplate of righteousness, take the helmet of salvation and grasp God's word.

And they pray silently for what-ever it is they need to climb back into their cabs with a lighter spirit.

Often away from home for weeks at a time, under constant pressure to get their cargo delivered faster and cheaper, truck drivers can fall prey to alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, the chaplain says.

"Loneliness is a big problem for drivers. A big, big, big problem," says Shaun Williams, who introduces himself as a Christian trucker from the Bronx. "You go to a bar just to be around people, just to talk to people."

But here, in Jessup, Williams has found Chaplain Hoppy and God's Trucking Ministry.

"You know about when two or more are gathered together? It's even just with one person," Hoppy reminds him.

Over the past decade, Jesus has gained a higher profile at many of the nation's truck stops. Thanks to efforts of trucker missionary groups such as God's Trucking Ministry in Maryland and Transport for Christ International, more than a hundred truck stops now offer regular non-denominational religious services, according to the National Association of Truck Stop Owners.

But few have their own full-time chaplain, especially one devoted enough to live in his chapel.

Charles "Hoppy" Hopkins is a solid mountain of faith. Dressed in his uniform - a God's Trucking Ministry jacket and a Christian baseball cap - the 62-year-old minister is on hand day and night, doing whatever he can to shorten the distance between his fellow truckers and salvation.

He organizes three nondenominational services and a Bible study each week. He writes letters to truckers who stop in the chapel and often drops a line to their wives. He researches and writes spiritual messages, replenishes the chapel's stock of Christian pamphlets and tapes, puts together food packages for the homeless from surplus loads left on the chapel porch.

And he listens: To men and women trying to deal with problems at home from 1,200 miles away. To truckers desperate to find their next load of cargo. To drivers who are battling addictions or depressions.

Last year, God's Trucking Ministry of Jessup served drivers from 48 states, seven Canadian provinces and Mexico.

"There's a lot of drivers eager for the Word," Hoppy says. "We've had 15 salvations in the chapel so far this year, 25 last year."

The minister comes to his mission from a life that plays like classic country. A foster-home runaway, he hooked up with truckers in the moving business when he was 12 and spent the next 40 years transporting households back and forth across the country. There were a lot of friendships but no marriages, a few broken bones - "moving them pianos and refrigerators" - and some times he's not so proud of.

And, finally, there was the life of God.

When a herniated disc took him off the road 10 years ago, Hoppy settled outside of Philadelphia with a job as a security guard. He joined a church he was eager to serve. But one day in 1994, when he was sunk in a depression he didn't understand, God led him to a truck stop in Paulsboro, N.J.

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