Truck-stop pastor counters highway blues

13-year ministry centers on road hub in Carlisle, Pa.

August 18, 2002|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CARLISLE, Pa. - From his cramped, somewhat scruffy second-floor office, the Rev. Donald L. Mason oversees a vast, ever-changing flock of souls who stop here seeking not The Word, but The Bathroom, The Laundromat or The Special, which recently was BBQ ribs, french fries, and a side of slaw for $6.99.

For 13 years, Mr. Mason's Carlisle/West Shore Area Trucker and Traveler Ministry has been centered on U.S. 11, near the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81. He is posted in the All American Texaco Travel Plaza, with additional sites for ministering at the lunch counters at the Flying J Travel Plaza and the Petro Shopping Center, both a couple of miles down the road.

Tall, affable, with a crew cut and slight limp - though only 45, he had a hip replacement eight years ago - Mason advertises his job on his shirt: "Truck Stop Chaplain." But he's no proselytizer. He sees himself simply as one who can lend an ear or comforting voice to the thousands of drivers who pull in, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for an overnight.

One of hundreds

He is one of hundreds of truck-stop ministers across the country, many of whom have opened offices - if only trailers in parking lots - in the last decade. But unlike lay volunteers or retired preachers who occupy travel plazas a few hours a week, Mason is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ who is usually at the truck stops from 9 to 5 and on call round the clock.

"The faces change every day," he said, "but there are basic themes," such as "job stress, loneliness, family life.

"There are a lot of divorces, a lot of failed relationships in trucking, and that can lead to questions about faith. The drivers are in a job where they don't have family to rely on, so anything they'd ask their family to do is what I'm available for."

He is appreciated by people such as Dale Wright, who was filling up his rig in Carlisle.

`It can calm you'

"If you're having problems at home, and you're sitting by yourself in your truck for a long time, it eats and eats and eats you," said Wright, of Amarillo, Texas. "When you stop and talk to a pastor, it can calm you."

Natso, a national organization representing the truck stop and travel plaza industry, found in a survey two years ago that at least 100 travel centers offered religious services by such groups as Truck Stop Ministries Inc., Transport for Christ, and God's Trucking Ministry. The number, Natso says, is growing - at the truckers' request.

Those groups tend to be more evangelical than the ministry begun in 1985 by the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, with which Mason is affiliated, as well as two other chaplains at Breezewood and Brookville in Western Pennsylvania.

Raised in Ohio, Mason came to Pennsylvania to attend the Lancaster Theological Seminary and stayed after his ordination. From 1982 to 1989, he was spiritual leader of two congregations in Carlisle. He also was on the board overseeing truck-stop ministries, and when a position opened in Carlisle, he took it.

Initially, the lack of structure frustrated him and there were bouts of boredom. His Tuesday night Bible study drew a trucker or two every other week.

"For the first couple of years, it really bothered me," he said.

"I'd be at the coffee counter and there wouldn't be anyone around. But I grew into cherishing those down times because it allowed me to have the energy and strength and ability to respond immediately when something came up."

His office and phone lines are donated by the truck stop's owner. The $60,000 that Mason budgets for salary and expenses comes from fund-raising.

He spends many Sundays preaching in area churches, seeking donations - and always looking for other sources of money. Right now, he is turning cashews into cash; a nearby candy company had a 7,500- pound surplus of mixed nuts and struck a deal with Mr. Mason, who is offering the nuts in 1-pound bags for $4.

Married with three children ages 5, 6 and 12 at home, he acknowledges that finances are a struggle. He is $7,000 behind, he says, and has to go hat in hand to congregations and regional church bodies. He also applies to charitable groups for aid. If their policies prevent giving for religious purposes, he points out that he is often more social worker than chaplain.

After all, most of his work is done at coffee counters, where he just plunks himself down and strikes up a conversation.

A gift arrives

The other day at the Petro center, a waitress brought Mason's coffee before he settled onto his stool. Another delivered a letter addressed to him. Inside was a $50 bill and a message, "Please use this where it is needed the most."

"That's enough for two bus tickets," he said, thinking aloud about the day's mission: getting a couple, who had spent two days in their broken-down van, back to Wilkes-Barre.

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