TRUCKER CHURCH TIMELINE
Late 1800s: The trucking industry began to emerge in the United States.
Mid-1900s: There was a surge in the size of the trucking industry.
1950s: Construction of the interstate highway system began.
1950s: The first trucker churches were founded.
1951: Transport for Christ was founded by trucker Jim Keyes.
1975: Bunny and Blonnie Gregory began traveling throughout the United States, holding church services in their mobile chapel.
1981 (March): Former trucker Joe Hunter began holding Bible study groups in an Atlanta truck stop; these study groups later organized and became Truckstop Ministries, Inc.
1986: Transport for Christ began establishing stationary chapels.
2001 (July): West-Plex Community Church began holding services at a Missouri truck stop.
2010: Transport for Christ began partnering with Truckers Against Trafficking.
The trucking industry emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century (“Making the Long Haul” 2008). During this time, trains dominated commercial transportation, and early trucks, despite their flexibility struggled to compete with the established system. While several trucking companies were established in the early twentieth century, including the Mack Brothers Company in 1900 that later became Mack Trucks, Inc., the early trucking industry consisted largely of independent truckers with a single vehicle. However, with advances in truck design, the development of the internal combustion engine, evolution of braking and steering features, the invention of hollow rubber tires, and the prosperous post-World War I industrial era, trucks began to emerge as one of the leading methods of commercial transportation. Later, the construction of the national interstate highway system, which began in the mid-1950s, further fueled growth of the trucking industry and long-distance trucking routes (“Trucking Industry” 2006). For example, between 1975 and 2000 the number of truck drivers increased from about 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 (Belman, Lafontaine, and Monaco 2005).
Trucking has been an almost exclusively male occupation through its history. Further, cultural imagery has normalized the male trucker role and correspondingly problematized the female trucker as an anomaly, although recent years have witnessed an increase in women drivers (Eastman, Danaher, and Schrock 2013). Like cowboys, sailors aboard ships, lumberjacks, railroaders, and miners, truckers have developed their own distinctive subculture and simultaneously have been culturally depicted in a variety of different ways during different historical periods. At various times truckers have imagined themselves as renegade cowboys, company men, voyeur, and kings of the road (Ouelett 1994). Popular culture depictions of truckers have ranged from “highway heros,” burly, hard-working men protecting the nation’s roads, to “cowboy truckers,” free-spirited and exuberant nonconformists with a blatant disregard for the law (MacMillan, n.d.; Hendricks, 2013). The imagery has changed over time. During the 1980s and 1990s truckers began to be portrayed less as highway heroes and more as dangerous, uneducated men who engaged in deviant behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, solicitation of prostitutes, and gambling (O’Neill 2010; MacMillan n.d.). With the emergence of reality television, the media-portrayed image of the truck driver rebounded as truckers again began to be depicted as hard-working and honest.
Trucker and public imagery aside, the life of long-distance truck drivers is difficult. Truckers have been described as working in modern-day “sweatshops” as work conditions are unpleasant, incomes often are at a minimum wage level, work hours are long, physical risks are high, and life expectancies are shortened (Belzer 2000; Veronese 2012; Viscelli 2016). Psychologically, truckers experience negative affective states stemming from the demand of the job, including loneliness, exhaustion, depression, and anger. Not surprisingly, turnover rates are extremely high (Smith 2012).
Rapid growth in the trucking industry, and long-distance trucking in particular, created a large pool of males who were on the road for long periods of time during which they were physically isolated from families, communities, and churches (King 2012). For truckers on the move, truck stops constitute a natural gathering place along the highway. A range of services clustered (rest accommodations, food, fuel) in and around these truck stops. It is not surprising that some Christian churches, predominantly Evangelical groups, were attracted to these locations and that some creative individuals found innovative ways to bring religious services to truck stops. Many truckers are nominally Christian, but males have always been significantly underrepresented in church-going populations, and transient males even more so. Even truckers who desired to attend religious services faced unusual challenges given grueling schedules, the timing of normal religious services, the location of established churches, and the inability of church parking lots to accommodate “big rigs” (King 2009; “Trucker’s Chapel” 2009).
It was during the 1950s that the first Trucker Churches began to appear. Transport for Christ, one of the largest
trucker ministries today, was established in 1951 by trucker Jim Keyes. The church was exclusively mobile for the first three decades after its founding, transporting small chapels to truck stops along the highways of the United States and Canada. However, in 1986 Transport for Christ established its first permanent chapel at a truck stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reportedly at the urging of the owner of the stop (“History of Transport for Christ,” n.d.; “Lopez 2009). The success of the chapel allowed Transport for Christ to begin establishing churches at truck stops throughout the United States and Canada, as well as abroad from Russia to Zambia. Transport for Christ subsequently founded over twenty churches.
Truckstop Ministries, Inc. was founded by former trucker Reverend Joe Hunter in 1981. Hunter, who was born in Georgia, dropped out of high school at the age of fourteen and was drafted into the Vietnam War five years later. Upon his return, having had limited formal education, he took a job as a trucker. Hunter quickly fell into a lifestyle of alcohol and drug abuse, which, he reports continued until he attended a church service near his home town. During the sermon, he remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of remorse for his self-destructive behaviors and a sense that “the preacher seemed to know all of his sins” (Blake 2009). Hunter and his wife both became Christians shortly thereafter. Hunter quickly became discouraged and disturbed by the lack of church services available to truck drivers. He started holding a Bible study group at a truck stop in Atlanta in 1981. The popularity of the group eventually allowed it to grow into Truck Stop Ministries, Inc., which grew to 74 chapels located at truck stops in 29 states.
There are numerous Trucker Church organizations similar to Transport for Christ and Truckstop Ministries. These churches and ministries often begin with the commitment of a single person, often a trucker, to evangelize the trucker population. Sometimes these evangelizing initiatives develop into large outreach organizations. Successful trucker churches may spawn spin-off ministries. Orville “Bunny” Gregory Sr. and his wife Blonnie. The Gregorys have been traveling the country and preaching to truckers in their mobile chapel since 1975. Like the founders of Transport for Christ and Truck Stop Ministries, Inc., Bunny Gregory spent years on the road as a trucker and, after meeting his wife, became involved with church groups that ministered to the trucking population. The two eventually took to the road themselves after converting the trailer of a 45 foot-long, eighteen-wheeler into a mobile chapel. The couple has estimated having “saved 4,403 souls” (Cramer n.d.).
In other cases already established churches have reached out to the trucker community. West-Plex Community Church was founded in Foristell, Missouri in January of 2001 and only established links with the trucker population when a church member, Paul Kruse, began establishing contacts with truckers at a nearby truck stop and invited them to join the Sunday evening church services. When truckers began attending Sunday services regularly, the church began holding additional meetings at the truck stop itself in July of 2001. (Kruse n.d.). Many churches in cities with high commercial trucking traffic also began to take this approach, establishing a stationary church either at or near truck stops to evangelize the trucker community.
Trucker Churches typically profess conservative Christian doctrine. They often aim to teach the “basics” and have their own statements of faith (“Trans-denominational Defined,” n.d.). Among the common elements of Trucker Church doctrine are trinitarianism; the virgin birth; the death, resurrection, and return of Christ; the Holy Spirit as an active influence in the lives of Christians; the Bible as infallible divine revelation and the source of ultimate spiritual authority and the church as the body of Christ; humankind’s fall from grace into a state of sin, which was reversed by the death and rebirth of Christ; salvation only through repentance, baptism, and the acknowledgment of Christ as the savior of mankind. Not surprisingly, Trucker Churches emphasize evangelization, based on the Bible verse Luke 14:23: “And the Lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (“Our Mission Statement,” n.d.; “About our Organization,” n.d.; Kruse, n.d.; “Trucking,” n.d.). Indeed, God calls upon churches and individuals to cater to the needs of truckers in order to carry out their own ordinances (“Churches Sending Missionary Truckers,” n.d.). Some churches also teach a belief in a divine governance which dictates numerous aspects of the lives of human beings, including their occupations, asserting that to work as a trucker is to fulfill one’s heavenly-prescribed vocation. Charitable activity, avoidance of coveting the “non-essential,” and the sinfulness of adultery and homosexuality may also be stressed (“Our Mission Statement,” n.d.; “What We Believe,” n.d.; “The TMI Statement of Faith,” n.d.; “Faith Statement,” n.d.).
Services are often held either in a room within a truck stop, in a trailer in the parking lot, or at a nearby church building. Before services begin, church evangelizers will often approach truckers and truck stop employees, inviting them to attend an upcoming service. Stationary churches or those which hold regular meetings on location will often post flyers and schedules displaying the dates and times of church services (King 2009). Ministers will also commonly communicate with drivers via the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio system to inform them of nearby church services available to them (Brust 2012). Trucker Church tend to take a non-aggressive approach to evangelizing. Preacher Bunny Gregory notes that he and his wife “don’t cram it down their throats… We let them come to us” (Cramer n.d.).
Because Trucker Churches operate independently of one another, services vary considerably. Nonetheless, there are commonelements. Services often begin with music, praise songs and hymns. Music is both performed live and transmitted electronically. There is a sermon that is often short and oriented toward the trucker culture. Prayer requests are taken and filled. Congregants will often remain behind after the service, socializing with fellow truckers as well as members of the ministry (Kruse n.d.; Blake 2009). Church services are informal and casual in dress and atmosphere. While some church services may be scheduled, mobile church services are more opportunistic. Preachers such as Bunny and Blonnie Gregory, who travel nearly year-round, only stopping to spread the gospel at truck stops, are often unable to set specific dates and times for services (Cramer n.d.). Trucker Churches do not seek offerings, and in fact often assist drivers by covering food, transportation, laundry, and overnight expenses.
Beyond religious services, Trucker Churches often offer baptisms, individual prayer sessions, Bible studies, and materials such as audio recorded sermons and literature. Some ministers communicate with drivers through the CB radio system, sharing prayers, reading Bible passages, and directing drivers to radio stations that broadcast full sermons (Brust 2012).
Trucker Churches are essentially divided between mobile and stationary church types. Mobile churches are typically created and maintained by individuals or families. For example, Bunny and Blonnie Gregory’s “Trucking for Jesus” church resides in the trailerof the truck that has been converted into chapel. It features handmade pews, a pulpit, and religious images on the walls. Tom and Eileen Sumwalt, a Florida couple, operate a similar church and travel throughout the United States, offering prayer sessions, songs of praise, and Bible readings to truckers (Brust 2012; Jones 2009). Stationary churches are likely to hold regular or semi-regular services either at a truck stop or at a chapel located close by. These churches, such as the West-Plex Church Trucker Ministry, are often affiliated with an established church, and therefore tend to operate organizationally like an established Christian church. While many individual churches, both mobile and stationary, within the Trucker movement are affiliated with denominational-oriented churches and religious organizations, the movement itself is essentially non-denominational. Individuals, such as the Sumwalts, who attend an Anglican church while off the road, adopt a non-denominational stance when evangelizing to truckers.
The popularity of the movement has allowed some churches to expand into nonprofit Trucker Church organizations that consistof both mobile and stationary churches. The day-to-day operations of these churches are typically administered separately, usually by a usually volunteer preacher, but are connected under the umbrella organization. One such ministry is Transport for Christ (TFC), one of the oldest Trucker Churches in the United States. Founded in 1951 by Jim Keyes with a single mobile church, TFC added five churches to the ministry over the next three decades. TFC switched to primarily stationary churches in the mid-1980s and has since established over twenty TFC churches, primarily in the United States and Canada. TFC earned tax-exempt status in the U.S. and operates entirely on tax-deductible donations. It has become one of the largest Trucker Church organizations in the world. TFC has partnered with Truckers Against Trafficking, a nonprofit organization designed to help truckers become involved in the anti-human trafficking movement (“History of Transport for Christ” n.d.).
Another important organization is Truckstop Ministries, Inc., which was founded in 1981 by former trucker Joe Hunter and his
wife, Jan. Unlike TFC, Truckstop Ministries began as a stationary church when Hunter began holding Bible studies at a Georgia truck stop. Truckstop Ministries has expanded to over seventy-five truck stops nationwide. The organization operates under a Board of Directors and is funded entirely on donations from truck drivers, trucking companies, and churches and individuals who support the Trucker Church movement. Truckstop Ministries employs a small staff at its Georgia headquarters, but it operates largely with the help of over 500 volunteers nationwide (“Our Mission Statement” n.d.; “From Our President” n.d.).
Most Trucker Churches, both mobile and stationary, report an average of ten to fifteen congregants per service; however, not surprisingly there is considerable variation in attendance. On some occasions there are no attendees and on others as many as forty (Kruse n.d.; “Trucker’s Chapel” n.d.). Many Trucker Churches increase attendance by encouraging people outside the trucker population to attend services, and attendees also often include travelers in mobile homes as well as truck drivers (“Trucker’s Chapel,” n.d.). As they continue to gain footing, many trucker churches have included in their mission statements the goal of providing a “ministry to truck drivers throughout the world wherever there is a significant trucking industry” (“Home” n.d.).
While they are sometimes criticized by established churches for the narrow focus of their ministry and by some truckers if pastors do not themselves have a trucker history, Trucker Churches are typically welcomed by truckers and truck stop managers alike. The primary challenge facing Trucker Churches is sustaining their ministries since they experience some of the same problems as the population they serve, particularly the physical and emotional cost of running the ministries. Like truckers, Trucker Churches have limited financial resources as virtually all the associated churches are funded entirely by donations, and mobile churches face the ongoing cost of traveling expenses. There is also the heavy emotional toll of constant travel and life on the road. Blonnie Gregory offered insight into the daily hardships encountered on the road, explaining to a reporter that life was “an endless trail of concrete, the shouting-level conversation needed in the rumbling cab, the greasy truck-stop food….” (Cramer, n.d.). A level of commitment is required for Trucker Church leadership that is not usually needed for more conventional churches. Blonnie Gregory has alluded to the commitment needed, stating for both she and her husband, “Our hearts are on the road, and we have so many friends along the way. This life of ours, it’s in my heart” (Cramer n.d.).
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Viscelli, Steve. 2016. The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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