Driving `Hallelujah Bus'

Transit: Passengers are greeted by pastor-driver with sermon or song as she pursues her mission in her working life.

July 17, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

In an article July 17 about Brenda Davis, a Mass Transit Administration bus driver and church pastor who advises, prays for, and sings with her passengers, MTA spokesman Frank Fulton, was quoted: "We're real proud of her. She represents the standards of bus operators that we like to encourage." Fulton was speaking only of her driving record and not endorsing religious activities on the bus.

Brenda Davis pulls out of the Mass Transit Administration's Eastern Division yard at 3: 40 a.m. each weekday, hours before sunup or rush hour, embarking on what she sees as a personal mission.

At the wheel of what her regulars call the "Hallelujah Bus," Davis dispenses advice, encouragement and prayers to passengers, and leads them in song. For bleary-eyed morning travelers on the cross-town No. 5 line, she offers a powerful dose of positive energy and old-time religion.

"When people see me, I don't want them to see a bus driver," she said. "I want them to see Christ in me."

Davis is pastor of the New Joy Bell Ministry Free Will Baptist Church in West Baltimore and thinks nothing of carrying the "good news" to her MTA passengers. They seem to love it: They've given her cards, gifts and candy -- and commendations that fill a file folder.

"It's her spirit," said Monic Goins, describing what separates Davis from other bus drivers. "She doesn't even have to talk sometimes, because you can just see it."

Jeanette Johnson, 60, said Davis is just what she needs at 5 a.m. to start her day -- whether she's greeted with a song or a sermon.

"I'll be ready to tackle anything," said Johnson, a regular on the ride. "There's no sleeping on this bus."

On the surface, Davis' mixing of work and religion seems to blur the line separating church and state, but so far, no one's complaining.

"We're real proud of her," said Frank Fulton, an MTA spokesman. "She represents the standards of bus operators that we like to encourage."

A bus driver for 21 years, Davis has an excellent driving record, a file full of praise-filled letters -- and no objections, Fulton said.

In court, it would be an interesting issue, said Dwight Sullivan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore.

"You have two constitutional principles butting heads," Sullivan said. "The separation of church and state and free speech."

Davis said she respects that people have different religious beliefs, so she's careful to talk about the Bible only to those who will not be offended. And, she adds, she never gets too personal.

"I try to minister through conversation," Davis said. "I let them open the door. If they are angry or upset, I try to find a way to calm them down, help them."

Davis wakes up about 2 a.m., arrives at the station by 3: 30 a.m., wipes down the steering wheel, sets her seat cushion, starts the engine, and prays for a safe trip.

Her route begins in Cedonia, takes her on "innumerable stops" through East Baltimore, downtown and West Baltimore before ending at Mondawmin Mall. There, Davis takes a five-minute restroom break and rejuvenates with a calf-bursting run up several flights of stairs.

She then reboards the bus and prepares to backtrack.

Davis said she loves her driving job because it gives her the chance to talk to people. Often, as in Goins' case, she offers advice using her Bible knowledge.

"Most of my friends are my bus passengers," she said.

Several of her passengers have visited her church, in the 5100 block of Greenwich Ave.

Goins, who has become friends with Davis and joined her growing congregation, said she believes fate brought them together last month.

Forgiving welcome

Running minutes late, Goins rushed to the bus stop, expecting the bus to be long gone. It wasn't. She jumped on, expecting a glare from a driver frustrated by the delay.

Instead, she found just the opposite -- a forgiving welcome. Davis greeted Goins as she does each of her passengers -- with a dose of Christian compassion.

If Goins hadn't been late that day, she probably wouldn't have started an apologetic conversation with Davis, and their relationship might not have survived Davis' recent transfer to another MTA line.

"She's become like a big sister to me, more than anything," Goins said.

`Something missing'

Davis is one of seven children raised in North Carolina by a father who served as a church deacon and a mother who was a pastor. Davis said she only became a Christian after she moved to Baltimore in 1976.

"I was tired of living the life I was living," said Davis, who declined to give her age. "I felt like something was missing in my life."

Davis had a degree in sociology from North Carolina's Fayetteville State University, a new job with the MTA, and her husband, Linwood Davis, but she said she needed more. So, she turned to the church.

Over the years, she said, she's grown calmer in dealing with passengers, especially hostile ones.

Last year, she became a pastor and lives happily with her husband and their children, Linwood Jr., 17, and Philemon, 12, in Catonsville.

"I'm virtually stress-free," she said.

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