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Truck stop chapel still rolling after 20 years

Chaplain Tim Sackett leads a Sunday evening service at the Transport for Christ Chapel at the TravelCenters of America truck stop east of Hudson. The service was attended by three drivers, two volunteer chaplains and a reporter.

Nobody was in a hurry to leave when the Sunday night service at the Hudson Transport for Christ chapel ended.

The service had run for more than an hour and a half before closing with communion and prayer. But the three truckers and three chaplains remained in their chairs after the benediction was given, and launched into a discussion about the vastness of the universe as evidence of God's existence.

Before a visiting reporter left, Brenda, a driver from Loop City, Neb., wanted him to know what the 35 or 36 Transport for Christ chapels at truck stops around North America mean to her.

She was a daughter of a Lutheran minister, but had strayed from the Lord and was living in sin until a Transport for Christ chaplain in Omaha, Neb., prayed with her to recommit her life to God.

Now, "I'm his vessel," Brenda said. Transport for Christ does life-changing work.

Volunteer Chaplain Paul "Woody" Emahiser of Hudson agreed.

"We could tell good stories for a long time about people getting saved in these chapels," said Emahiser, a truck driver for 45 years.

Also at last Sunday evening's service was Ron Gaylord, a driver from Lebanon, Ore., whom Lead Chaplain Tim Sackett had baptized four years earlier at the Comfort Inn (now Quality Inn) swimming pool in Hudson.

Sackett had some trouble placing Gaylord, but the driver had evidence that he was the chaplain who did the baptizing. Using his laptop computer, Gaylord pulled up a photo of Sackett that he had taken as the two sat in a restaurant following the baptism.

Gaylord reported being recently divorced from a woman who was making poor choices.

"I'm free for the Lord to use," he said, adding that he was thinking about starting a sober house for people in recovery.

20 years of ministry

Transport for Christ's "Powerhouse Chapel" at the TravelCenters of America truck stop at Exit 4 on Interstate 94 is marking its 20th year of ministry.

An open house at the chapel, located on the east side of the truck stop restaurant, will be held from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday, June 1-3. Worship services will be conducted at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday.

Food and refreshments will be served. Photographs of the people involved in the ministry over the years will be displayed. And stories of what has happened will be told.

It was May 2, 1992, when Chaplain Sackett pulled the chapel, a converted semi-trailer, to the truck stop four miles east of Hudson.

Tom Fulton owned the truck stop then and it was named Fulton's Landing.

Countless drivers have passed through the truck stop since then, but it remains Sackett's mission field. He's assisted by a team of volunteer chaplains.

The weekly Sunday morning and evening services in the chapel are just a fraction of Sackett's and the other chaplains' ministry there.

The doors of the chapel are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and a chaplain is normally on duty from at least 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

When volunteer Chaplain Ron Wilson of Hillsboro is on duty, as he was for a recent weeklong stretch, he sleeps in the combination bunk and office inside the trailer.

Sackett starts his day at around 10:30 a.m. and is often at the truck stop until midnight or later.

He used a recent Wednesday as an example of how his days can go.

On his routine pass through the restaurant to greet the waitresses and cooks there, he ran into Johnny from Moline, Ill., a driver he worked with 25 years ago.

Sackett sat with Johnny for 45 minutes and listened as "he kind of poured his heart out about his struggles." Johnny has some family and financial issues.

After praying with Johnny, Sackett returned to the chapel to provide some training for volunteer Chaplain Woody.

At 1 p.m., driver Troy from Madison walked in the door. Troy was planning to get back on the road shortly, but ended up staying until 6:15 p.m.

"It's a common thing that happens. Drivers who would probably only spend about an hour at this truck stop will spend about four hours here," Sackett said. "The reason why is because they get so loaded up with all the negativity. Nothing's ever good enough. They don't drive fast enough. Where were you? You're late. Why is this load tipped? Why is this box damaged? It's your fault. You're paying for freight damage. Logbook fines. Scales. The pressure."

The chapel provides a haven of rest and understanding.

Sackett, who grew up in a trucking family and was a driver for six years, can talk trucking with them. Sometimes they talk politics or sports.

"But we never let them go without scripture reference and prayer," he said. "We try to relate what they're going through to what everybody else is going through, and how God is the solution to all of their problems."

Gerard from Toronto stopped in for about 20 minutes while Troy was there. And just before Troy left, James from North Carolina walked in.

Sackett could tell from his conversation with James that he was short of money, so he treated him to supper at the truck stop restaurant.

James came back to the chapel and stayed until 11 p.m.

"So I had 12 hours straight of where the chapel was not empty," Sackett related. "We just ran up and down about struggles and marriage and finances, the job and that."

Sackett has great empathy with the drivers. The job is hard on marriages and family life.

Over-the-road truckers typically work a week to get a day off. They'll run for three straight weeks and get three days off.

Some of the bigger firms have a graduated time-off system that rewards them with six days off after three straight weeks on the road.

"America thinks that these guys are just hardcore, lonely and they want it that way," Sackett said, noting that CB handles like Lone Wolf, Bulldog and Bulldozer add to the stereotype.

"There's so many family men," he said. "There's so many people just dog tired, burned out, worn out trying to make a living. And it's gotten so much tougher."

He said sharp increases in fuel prices and insurance premiums starting in 2003 and 2004 drove many of the independent operators and small firms out of business.

"The freight rates didn't increase like the fuel prices did, and it just knocked the little guys out," Sackett said. "All that means, sometimes, is that bigger companies bought up the little companies. Truckers kept trucking."

Transport for Christ

Transport for Christ started in 1951 when Jim Keys, a new Bible college graduate from Toronto, Ont., took his station wagon to a truck scale and began handing out Christian literature to the drivers waiting to have their loads weighed.

Sackett raises his own support for the ministry. Seven area churches contribute on a monthly basis, along with many individual donors.

TravelCenters of America allows the chapel to be parked at the truck stop rent-free and also provides it with electricity at no charge. Sackett gets his meals in the restaurant for half-price.

For more information about Transport for Christ, attend the June 1-3 open house. Sackett can be contacted at (715) 386-7207 or Donations are welcomed.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

(715) 426-1066