Losing road religion

Once a refuge for troubled drivers, a Sacramento truck-stop ministry faces demons of its own

High gas prices, and possibly Satan, have forced this truck-stop chapel in West Sacramento to close its door.

High gas prices, and possibly Satan, have forced this truck-stop chapel in West Sacramento to close its door.

Photo By S. Howard Bransford

Larry Petty used to push his Kenworth well over the speed limit, beelining frozen meat through a dirty blur of cities, deserts and cold-storage warehouses. His CB handle was Little Devil, and California was his favorite place to live up to his name.

Petty, a Texas man, was always prospecting for a good hit of meth, and out West he knew plenty of spots to mine that precious crystal. He especially liked the truck stops in towns like Ontario and Bakersfield, places where dealers would sell dope over the radio to guys who knew the code words.

“The best stuff was always here,” said Petty, a 47-year-old whose mailing address is in Duncanville, Texas. “I’d head out here and fill my dope bottles and go back out East.”

But sometime around 2001, after demon voices started telling Little Devil to take himself all the way to hell, Petty decided it was time to get right with God. It wasn’t some instant makeover like the false preachers talk about on TV.

“A lot of people seem to get saved in one day,” Petty said. “It didn’t work that way for me. I invited Jesus into my heart, but I was still killing him with my drugs.”

In the years that Petty wrestled with addiction, he often looked forward to trips to Sacramento’s 49er Travel Plaza. Where other truck stops guaranteed an easy score of speed, the signs shining over the junction of Interstate 5 and West El Camino Avenue offered a more righteous kind of promise.

It was out behind the 49er’s Silver Skillet diner, right next to the CB shop, that Petty found a converted semitrailer whose side read “Mobile Chapel,” and whose glass door was painted with the words “Bondage Breaker.”

The carpet and wood paneling inside blocked out the growl of diesel engines on the lot, and Dave Quignon, the pastor who slept in the chapel’s small living quarters, welcomed him inside without question. It wasn’t his house, after all, but rather the house of the Lord.

“I may be a pastor,” Quignon used to say, “but I’m still a sinner. I need Jesus just as much as anyone else.” That same welcome came from the Christian brothers and sisters gathered inside. There were other drivers and waitresses from the diner, homeless people living in their cars, travelers just passing through. In chapels like the 49er’s, Petty got strong enough to cover his Viking tattoo with the face of Jesus, kick the crank habit and drop the Little Devil moniker for good.

“That chapel was very important,” Petty told SN&R by phone recently. “I know that the times I was there, I was spirit-filled when I left. It was better than medicine; that’s the way I look at it.”

The 49er chapel is one of 33 in North America operated by Transport for Christ, a nondenominational truck-stop ministry based in Pennsylvania.

It’s a small part of a network of more than 100 truck-stop churches scattered across the continent. For drivers like Petty, such places of worship are vital refuge from the vices of a lonely and transient life.

But now, after helping so many lost souls of the road, Sacramento’s chapel is facing troubles of its own.

According to TFC officials, Quignon left the ministry roughly two years ago, and the organization hasn’t been able to find a replacement since.

Interim chaplains have come and gone, but their stays haven’t been long enough to revive the church. In July, TFC decided to shut the trailer’s doors indefinitely.

Visiting truckers are now greeted by a sign saying the chapel is closed until further notice. Ministry director Bunny O’Hare told SN&R that it’s not likely to open for at least two months, and the ministry is calling on local churches to help.

“It breaks the driver’s heart, and it breaks our heart,” said O’Hare, 66, a former truck driver who now lives in Mount Joy, Pa. “They may get off the highway knowing there’s a chapel, but they drive in and it’s locked.”

Folks who work at the 49er will tell you the chapel isn’t dying for lack of interest. Gabriella Lopez, a 24-year-old who waits tables in the Silver Skillet, often gets questions from lonely drivers who used to be chapel regulars.

“People want to know when it’s going to open again,” Lopez said while smoking and texting on a recent graveyard shift. “I think a lot of drivers need somebody to talk to, and it’s sad.

“Sometimes drivers get stressed out, but I don’t have any time to talk because I’m a waitress. I think people need a chapel,” Lopez added.

As Transport for Christ officials explained, the primary culprit for the closure is something that’s wreaking havoc on everyone in the trucking population, believers and nonbelievers alike. Rising fuel costs are putting a pinch on the ministry’s base of chaplains, who do their work with little financial support from the organization.

Nationwide, TFC has a base of about 500 volunteer chaplains and 53 pastors, said Howard Moses, the ministry’s director of chaplain care. While pastors fund their work by seeking sponsorships from family, churches and businesses, the volunteer chaplains usually reach out to truckers on their own dime.

Many of the chaplains are retired people living on a fixed income, O’Hare said, and they often drive long distances to “reach the unreachable” population of truck drivers. In the case of Sacramento, chaplains were driving as long as two to three hours to get to the 49er, and when gas prices reached their current levels, many stopped coming.

“A lot of people are saying it was a real burden,” O’Hare said.

Moses said finding a full-time replacement has been equally difficult. Recruiting such a person is tricky in a time of economic uncertainty, and when wealthier churches can offer young pastors steady pay and other benefits.

“Younger guys don’t want to raise their own funds if they’re looking for jobs with a salary,” Moses said.

TFC isn’t the only driver-focused ministry losing ground due to high gas prices. Truckstop Ministries, a Georgia-based network that runs 73 chapels in 29 states, is also facing a shortage of volunteer chaplains, said founder Joe Hunter.

“The fuel prices definitely affect volunteers because it’s taking money right out of their pockets,” Hunter told SN&R by phone.

O’Hare also sees Satan at work in the chapel’s predicament, gladly reclaiming places that the ministry has tried to wipe clean of drugs and prostitution. A chapel in Buffalo, N.Y., also lost its chaplain, and O’Hare said a task force is trying to get somebody reinstated. “The enemy likes to cause problems out there, and if we’re not doing ministry, he’s happy,” O’Hare said.

Satan would have preferred the 49er in the 1970s and early ’80s, when veterans say poor lighting and lax supervision made it a Sodom and Gomorrah in the tomato fields, a magnet for whores and dealers. “It’s not like that anymore,” said Jim Miller, who has owned the 49er since 1989 and worked hard to make it safe for drivers and families. “It’s a very clean and professional part of the economy.”

But Miller and other 49er denizens say the chapel’s closure is working in ways that are invisible to the uninitiated. According to Miller, having chaplains on the lot helped assure that troubles plaguing the truck stop would be resolved in a positive way, whether they involved small-time criminals, runaways or distraught drivers dealing with problems with marriages or money.

“It helped keeping an air of peace,” Miller said. “It was not just good for the customers, it was good for the employees. It was good for everyone.”

Mama Shirley, a 72-year-old who’s waited tables at the 49er since 1978, thinks the chapel was a good haven for a lot of road people: drivers, waitresses, mechanics and everything in between.

“A lot of people probably need it,” Shirley said. “A lot of them are out on the road a lot. Some of them have their families busted up because of that.”

Petty says it would be hard to calculate how many people have been helped by the chapel in subtle ways, or even saved from irrecoverable mistakes.

Highway life is full of split-second choices, he said, and truck-stop chaplains do the thankless work of counseling people they’ll never talk to again.

It’s a bit like the work of the ancient farmers, Petty said, planting seeds one handful at a time. The sadness of it, he said, is that you never get to watch them flourish.

“I believe most of us won’t see the seed we’ve sown,” Petty said. “It’s a harvest we never see.”