With reports of a supply chain crisis causing delivery delays this holiday season, many Americans were praying for truck drivers to get their Christmas goods delivered on time. Meanwhile, a fleet of ministers stationed at truck stops across the country were praying for the drivers themselves.
Despite the headlines, news of a trucker shortage this year has largely been misconstrued and overblown, experts say. Local drivers are actually in a surplus, according to labor statistics, and long-haul trucking has been a grueling job with lots of turnover for decades.
Truckers “keep America going,” said Chaplain Jay LeRette, an Illinois pastor who has prayed for drivers over CB radio, counseled them about their faith and relationships, and held services in an 18-wheeler-turned-mobile chapel since 1992. “They’re all over America, yet they’re separated from people. It’s a very lonely job, especially on the holidays, because in the trucking industry, there’s a lot of broken relationships.”
This Christmas is mostly like any other on the road. Chaplain Rick Youngdahl in Pennsylvania said that he hasn’t seen a change in the number of interactions “to any great extent” as he might if the labor shortage were as severe as some have claimed.
Chaplains had fewer opportunities to connect with drivers due to the pandemic, but things are getting closer to normal in the past few months, according to TFC Global (once named “Truckers for Christ”).
“God is bigger than the pandemic, so even though our visitors have been down, we still have great interactions and great things have had have been happening. Now I’m seeing more drivers come in,” said Chad Roedema, director of US operations for the international ministry.
Both local and nationwide ministries serve truck drivers all year long, including the busy holiday season. The difficult conditions and pressure of the job highlight the need for peace and hope, making ministry to the drivers deeply needed.
The primary way TFC Global reaches truck drivers is through chaplains serving at truck stops. Sometimes the chaplains have an office inside the stop itself, and sometimes they have a trailer next to the building where they can hold worship services and meet with drivers.
While Christmas is a great time to start faith conversations, LeRette—who serves as a chaplain at a truck stop in Rochelle, Illinois—has found that the busyness of the season means fewer drivers want to take the time to talk or attend the services he holds in his trailer. Drivers still stop regularly during the holidays—they can only be on the road a certain number of hours before they must take a break—but they seem less likely to take time out of their schedule to reach out for support.
Even during normal weeks, drivers can be reluctant to approach a chaplain. LeRette finds ways to start conversations. Many days he rides his horse—yes, a horse—around the truck stop. LeRette sports a cowboy hat, and the horse wears a saddle with Bible verses hanging on either side.
“A lot of the truck drivers are cowboys at heart, so when I come to the parking lot with that horse, it really gets their attention. They jump out of the truck and come running out and shouting, ‘Hey, get back here with that horse,’” LeRette said. “That gives me a platform to share with the drivers. I’ve got saddlebags with tracts and Bibles and things of that nature to try to minister to them and point them to Jesus.”
Sometimes these encounters are more than conversation starters. Once, LeRette gave a truck driver’s wife advice and prayer for her sick horse over the phone after the truck driver saw LeRette riding around. The next day, the driver returned to tell LeRette the horse was better. Over the course of their conversation, the man accepted Christ.
Many truck drivers live with the strain of working apart from their wives and families. And even those who bring their spouses along experience the marital stress of close quarters, constant traveling, and instability, LeRette said.
Those stressors and other issues within the trucking industry have been part of the job long before trucker shortages were blamed for supply chain issues and delays in fall of 2021. Yes, companies are looking for tens of thousands of more people to sign up to drive. But the industry has always had issues, with a reported turnover rate of around 90 percent, an aging population of drivers nearing retirement, and an exhausting, lonely task. When there are holdups at ports or other warehouses, they often feel their time is not valued, adding to the stress, the LA Times recently reported.
In addition to nationwide ministries like TFC Global, local ministries serve truck drivers as well. Youngdahl lives in Brookville, Pennsylvania, off Interstate 80. After the interstate was completed in the 1970s, local churches recognized trucker drivers might need assistance when in the area. They developed a board of directors and found a chaplain, and the ministry continues to this day, several chaplains later.
Youngdahl doesn’t have a physical space at a truck stop. Instead, the local stops and hospitals have his phone number and give him a call if a driver needs assistance. Oftentimes Youngdahl gives drivers rides to the hospital, to buy truck parts, or to the airport if their truck breaks down. This practical service opens doors for conversation.
“Whenever I go and pick somebody up, a lot of times one of the first questions is, ‘Who are you, and why are you doing this?’” Youngdahl said.
Youngdahl keeps Bibles with him to give out if they’re interested. As a retired truck mechanic, he does everything he can to be a resource for truck drivers passing through, and he responds to calls at any time of the day or night. Even during pandemic lockdowns, Youngdahl continued to help any way he could.
LeRette experienced firsthand how God could work even during the lockdowns. One driver asked to talk to LeRette from a distance because he was sick.
“I asked the driver, ‘Where are you at with Jesus?’” LeRette said. “He said, ‘That’s why I came in here. I feel like I could die, and I am not right with God.’ I was able to share the gospel with this man. I said, ‘You need to ask for forgiveness and ask Jesus to come into your life to save you,’ so he did that.”
LeRette asked the driver to call him after he saw a doctor. When LeRette didn’t hear anything from the driver, he called the company the driver worked for and asked how he was doing. The driver had passed away in the hospital just a couple of days after talking with LeRette and accepting Jesus.
The loneliness and brokenness in many truck drivers’ lives make this ministry both crucial and fruitful, and Roedema believes it’s a ministry that needs to grow and expand to help even more men and women.
“We are one of the biggest ministries that no one knows about,” he said. “We are a dynamic ministry to a dynamic group of people, but we need to have help.”