Like leviathan locusts, the idling engines of a hundred 18-wheelers jittered in the truck stop parking lot as Jay LeRette embarked on his crusade.
A red feather in his black derby, a black leather biker's jacket drawn against the cold, Brother Jay, as he likes to be called, strode up to each gargantuan rig and asked the drivers to come to an evangelical Christian prayer service. He made the same pitch on the public address system in the Iron Skillet diner to truckers digging into their chicken-fried steak breakfasts.LeRette has been cursed at on occasion, even spit upon. Many truckers simply say no. But this day, as often happens, he drummed up about 15 people, almost as many as can comfortably sit in his chapel, since the chapel itself is an 18-wheeler - although one with a red neon cross on top, the Bible verse John 3:16 on the back and the words "Transport for Christ" on the side.
Inside, the road-hardened truckers thumbed the New Testament, murmured along as a blind guitarist sang, "What would Jesus do if he were in my shoes," and, at the end, prayed for a trucker named Wayne Cavalier to "get a load" so he could make his way home.
"We want a palletized load," one of the chaplains prayed, aiming for the easiest kind. "Tonight after the service or in the morning, Lord."
LeRette's chapel, it turns out, is in the vanguard of a mushrooming trucker missionary movement. Though the rugged trucking lifestyle may seem inhospitable to full-throttle religion, from an evangelical standpoint it is a golden opportunity.
"There's close to 6 million drivers in the United States and Canada," said Howard Jones, a former trucker and president of Transport for Christ International, which sponsors LeRette's 8-foot wide, 24-hour-a day chapel. "They're the largest unreached group, un-reached by Jesus."
Unreached, perhaps, and hardly immune from hardship.
"There are all kinds of temptations for truckers - sex and drugs and pornography," Jones said. "They're away from the home four to six weeks at a time. He gets a call while he's on the road - his kid was hit by a car, his daughter's run away with some motorcyclist. This fellow's 2,000 miles from home. He's distraught. He's really not in a position to drive an 18,000-pound rig."
"What we are is missionaries," Jones said.
Transport for Christ has 21 other truck chapels in the United States and Canada, from Bloomsbury, N.J., off the Garden State Parkway, to Seattle off Interstate 90. It is retrofitting more 18-wheelers with pulpits and plush carpet at the rate of three a year.
And with the emergence of other groups, like Truckers for Christ, Truckstop Ministries and the Association of Christian Truckers, some 150 of the 2,000 truck stops on the interstate highways now hold similar services.