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Finding Jesus at a Georgia truck stop

  • Story Highlights
  • Pastor's personal need inspires him to create ministry for truckers
  • Chaplain hears stories of loneliness and desperation
  • Truck stop owner: Truckers are "the last American cowboys"
  • Chaplain's downward spiral was halted by a late-night sermon
By John Blake
CNN
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JACKSON, Georgia (CNN) -- "I gave up smoking, women and drinkin' last night," the singer shouts, "and it was the worst 15 minutes of mah life!"

The Rev. Joe Hunter hears all types of stories from drivers at his truck stop chapel.

The Rev. Joe Hunter hears all types of stories from drivers at his truck stop chapel.

The music blaring from the radio tonight is country. The dessert special is peach cobbler. And the customers are wide-bodied truck drivers, lumbering into a Georgia truck stop at suppertime.

But another group of truckers nearby is singing a new song. They amble into a truck stop trailer adorned with pictures of Jesus and sing the hymn "O Happy Day" in wobbly bass voices.

"I've been back and forth between God and Satan over the years," trucker Harold "Jumper" McBride says as he stands to share his story. "It was a rough life, but I finally found that saving grace to make life a whole lot better."

It's the Wednesday night service at "Chaplain Joe's" truck stop chapel service. The chaplain himself, a lanky, bearded man with tan cowboy boots, sits in the back of his narrow chapel, saying the loudest amens.

For 28 years, the Rev. Joe Hunter has been a chaplain to the truckers. Though most ministers preach to people in the pews, he takes God to people on the go. He reaches out to truckers at fuel stops, in parking lots, on the CB and through a radio show called "Heaven's Road."

He hears all sorts of stories: tales of loneliness, thoughts of suicide, struggles with guilt. A Vietnam veteran, he's even lived a little of what he's heard.

Yet Hunter says most truckers reaffirm his faith in human nature.

"Every snowflake is different, and God created us that way to be unique," he says. "I've learned to appreciate the goodness of people. I believe there's some good in everybody, and I love to try to find it." Video Watch as Hunter explains truckers' need for a place of worship »

'Last American cowboys'

Trucking isn't simply Hunter's ministry. It was his first love. He started working at a truck stop at 16 years old and drove a truck for 20 years.

"America moves by trucks," he says. "Without trucks, America stops."

Hunter's Truckstop Ministries Inc. works like a spiritual gas station. He prays with truckers, coaxes them to make tough decisions and hands out taped sermons that fortify them on lengthy business trips.

"The greatest thing about being a truck driver is that you have a lot of time to think," Hunter says. "The horrible thing about being a truck driver is that you have a lot of time to think."

There's plenty of time to do ill as well. Drug dealers, prostitutes, runaways -- they all hover around some truck stops, Hunter and drivers say.

"People being away from home -- a lot of people think they're just free to do whatever they want," McBride says.

McBride can spend up to four weeks away from the Florida home he shares his wife, Kathy.

"Lonesome. I miss home a lot," he says when asked to describe life on the road.

Despite the trucker's grind, those at Hunter's chapel talk about their profession with pride.

"I call truckers the last American cowboys," says Robert Ryan, president of the Atlanta Travel Center truck stop in Jackson, Georgia, home of Hunter's main chapel.

"They're pretty much out there on their own," Ryan says. "They're doing their own thing. They're good people."

And, like cowboys, Hunter says, truckers have a "yearning to wander."

"You leave Florida in the winter, headed for Detroit," Hunter says. "When you leave, you're in short sleeves. When you get in Detroit, you're surrounded by ice. It's like life is on fast-forward."

Service inside the truckers' chapel

Truckers looking for relief from their wanderlust can spot Hunter's chapel from the highway at night. A neon red cross is perched above the chapel like a beacon. Photo See photos of the truckers' chapel »

The tiny chapel's walls are plastered with scenes of Jesus' crucifixion. Paperback Bibles and pamphlets urging conversion are scattered about the seats.

The service begins with prayer, then hymns and a short sermon. No collection plate is passed. The truckers linger afterward and talk about a painting hanging on the chapel's back wall.

The painting, entitled "In His Hands," depicts a truck about to slide off an icy ledge. The truck is yanked back to safety by God's hands. McBride, the Florida trucker, glances at it and smiles.

He says he was once hauling a load of 55-gallon drums of orange concentrate down an unfamiliar mountain road when he hit an s-shaped curve and lost control. Yet somehow, he didn't crash.

"Somebody told me I was on nine tires," McBride says.

He motions to the painting. "That hand is probably the only thing that kept me on the road," he says.

The conversation turns to preaching. Gene Smith, another trucker, talks about filling up on taped sermons while driving.

"As long as you tune in to God, you're a lot happier," Smith says. "I'm living heaven on Earth. Everything is going perfect. I've been connected to God since I was 5 years old."

Hunter's journey: from Vietnam to the road

Hunter's connection to God didn't come as easy, he says.

He was born in rural Georgia, and his father died when he was 3 years old. He dropped out of school at 14 and was drafted five years later to go to Vietnam.

Hunter became a trucker four days after returning from Vietnam. He slipped into drinking and drugs, and "Satan blessed me for a while." Then, one Sunday night, he stumbled into a tiny Baptist church service in rural Georgia.

The preacher seemed to know all of his secret sins, Hunter says.

"I thought somebody told him that I was coming," Hunter says. "He read my mail, boy."

Hunter became a Christian that night. He returned home and told his wife, Jan, that she was going to be saved.

They've been married now for 42 years and have two children and 10 grandchildren. Hunter calls Jan his partner in ministry.

God had more plans for him, though, Hunter says. While trucking, he grew frustrated because he could rarely find a church to attend when he was on the road.

"Most churches can't park 18-wheelers," he says.

Hunter decided to take church to the truckers. He established his first Bible study in 1981 at an Atlanta truck stop. He says he now has offices at 74 truck stops in 29 states, with at least 500 chaplains working with him. Many of his chaplains are volunteers recruited from local churches.

"God is good," he says. "I'm in awe every day of what he's allowed me to do."

Hunter now has a national reputation. Scott Weidner, president of Transport for Christ, a 58-year-old company that provides mobile chapels to truck stops in North America, knows Hunter. He and Hunter oversee arguably the two largest groups for trucker chaplains in the nation.

"He's a former trucker, so he relates very well to truckers, " Weidner says. "He's got a heart for the Lord, for the lost and for truckers."

Churches heard of Hunter's talents as well. Once, leaders from one church asked him to be their pastor. Hunter refused. He says he's no longer driven by that "yearning to wander."

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He's found his home.

"I wouldn't trade places with anybody," he says outside his chapel. "I love what I'm doing. I'm where I'm supposed to be."

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