April 27, 2006

Evangelists Reach Out to Weary Truckers

By James B. Kelleher

ROCHELLE, Illinois -- Will Slober, a long-haul truck driver from Livermore, California, got the call on a Sunday morning as he was sitting in a truckstop on the edge of this windy prairie town.

His wife Rose was hospitalized with chest pains. Not for the first time in a 40-year career, Slober wanted nothing more than to be home. But home was 2,000 miles away.

And he had work to do. The paint he was hauling couldn't be dropped off before midnight. The load of frozen food he was hauling back to California couldn't be picked up until 4 a.m. All he could do, he said, was "calm down and pray."

So he walked over to the 24-hour chapel that Transport for Christ, a U.S. faith-based group, operates out of a converted truck trailer at the truckstop and introduced himself to Chaplain Jay LeRette. Together, the men talked and prayed.

Afterward, Slober reflected on the profession that once again had him so far from home at a critical hour. "It's a different life," he said. "But it's all I know."

Transport for Christ, a trucker-focused ministry, knows how different -- and how hard -- a life it is. For more than half a century it has reached out to truckers looking to worship in a strange town or wrestling with more serious crises.

But officials with the group, and with others it has inspired, say fewer drivers are visiting the 150 chapels they collectively operate in the United States and Canada.

The drop-off in part reflects recent changes by an industry desperate to keep its drivers, including for example routing drivers so they get home more often. But the missionaries say their groups still address a need and are scrambling to adapt.


Founded in 1951 by a Canadian trucker who knew first-hand the loneliness, long hours and pressures, Transport for Christ operates 30 truckstops on both sides of the border.

The group's motto -- "Preaching a dynamic gospel to a dynamic industry" -- makes its proselytizing mission clear. But much of the work involves listening, not evangelizing. Still, the group felt it was making progress, bringing some fraternity and faith to a milieu where predators -- drug dealers, prostitutes, bookies, smugglers and worse -- often lurked.

"Driving the truck isn't the hard part," said driver Randy Spence of Van Buren, Arkansas. "It's living the life that's hard."

But in recent years, Transport for Christ and the other ministries have seen their ranks of truckers thinned out.

When the groups hosted a National Day of Prayer for Truckers in March at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky -- an event that drew over 80,000 attendees -- fewer than two dozen people showed up.

"We're just not getting the drivers in like we used to," said Charles Hopkins, chaplain at God's Trucking Ministry Inc., which runs a chapel at a truckstop near Jessup, Maryland.

Truckstop evangelists say changes sweeping the industry aimed at easing drivers' burdens are behind the drop.

The biggest has been in the way trucking companies manage their drivers. In the past, it wasn't unusual for long-haul drivers to be on the road for a month or more.

Weary of turnover and burned-out employees, companies have been rethinking routes and schedules.

Jevic Transportation Inc., a Delanco, New Jersey-based unit of SCS Transportation, now tries to get drivers home more often and even maps out trips with drivers' wishes.

Another big change has been technology. Few drivers now leave home without a mobile phone. Some bring laptops with them or use the computer lounges now featured in most truckstops.

All that has eased the loneliness and isolation that often plagues long-haul drivers.


But not all changes have been helpful, and the pressure-cooker remains.

As a linchpin of the corporate world's conversion to just-in-time management of merchandise, trucking companies are under enormous pressure and this inevitably hits the driver.

Changes in federal regulations have increased the time drivers can stay behind the wheel without a break to 11 hours from 10.

As a result, "There are fewer guys coming to the truck stop and actually spending time there," Weidner said.

Also, even though many companies have introduced less brutal schedules, drivers still spend weeks away from home.

"Husbands worry about the faithfulness of their wives," said Bill Secor, a former long-haul truck driver who became a mental health counselor and now lives in Champaign, Illinois. "Wives worry about the faithfulness of their husbands. And the feelings of guilt and disconnectedness and distrust ... can build when they're out there alone on the road."

That helps explain the trucking industry's still dismal retention statistics. In 2005, driver turnover averaged 130 percent, according to the American Trucking Association, breaking the record pace of 121 percent in 2004.

Such numbers fortify the sense among the outreach groups that they're needed now more than ever. But they're taking a hard look at their ministries to figure out how to evolve.

Last fall, Transport for Christ began to rethink its entire operation, Weidner said. Among the new initiatives: a plan to set up an e-mail help line that would be monitored by volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It's still a tough industry," said Weidner. "It still demands a lot. And all those demands end up on the shoulders and the backs of the drivers."