HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) On a frigid Sunday morning when dozens of rigs were clustered at an ice-crusted I-81 truck stop, drivers who had traveled thousands of miles came to Jerry Weaver to share their most personal cargo.
Hopes and worries.
Weaver’s tiny chapel, crafted from a truck trailer, was welcoming. There were folding chairs, hot coffee and homemade muffins. And Weaver, a soft-spoken native of Virginia dressed in gray slacks and a red shirt who, after leading hymns in a baritone voice, asked the truckers if they wished to offer anything personal for prayer.
Tim Varner did. He was hauling a load from Arkansas to Connecticut. His thoughts were on a daughter preparing for marriage and another loved one facing legal troubles.
Arthur Stacey, who had hauled a load from Miami, also spoke up.
“I have a son in the military,’’ he said. “I would like to send out a prayer for him and all the troops.’’
Thus Weaver provided a Sunday morning dose of comfort to truckers, as he has been doing for six years at the Travel Centers of America truck stop in West Hanover Twp., near the Route 39 exit of Interstate 81.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation statistics state that more than 9,000 tractor-trailers pass by on I-81 each day. Drivers who seek fuel, food and rest at the truck stop can also spend 45 minutes in Weaver’s trailer and partake in Christian worship.
“He is just always out there, wanting to pray, wanting to serve, wanting to minister,’’ said the Rev. Brian Harrison, a senior pastor of East Shore Baptist Church, which supports Weaver’s efforts. “He is a treasure.’’
Weaver is 67 and has six grandchildren. He retired last year from a 28-year career at the Hershey Creamery in Harrisburg.
The seed that led to his ministry was planted when he was a teenager growing up in Martinsville, Va., south of Roanoke. That was when he found faith.
He attended Bob Jones University, a Christian college and seminary in South Carolina. He worked as a chaplain and counselor at a rescue mission in Wisconsin for eight years before his family moved to Pennsylvania.
Many of the nation’s approximately 6,000 truck stops have mobile chapels. Weaver’s trailer-chapel, once parked near Pittsburgh, is one of more than 100 at truck stops across the nation that are associated with Truckers Christian Chapel Ministries.
“We are not there to give advice on trucking,’’ said Glenn Cope, an Ohio resident who drove rigs for 32 years and founded the ministries in 1987. “We are there for strictly spiritual reasons.’’
Some truckers spend weeks on the road. Marital problems can develop. Pornography, gambling and other addictions can ensnare them.
“Who else is going to listen to them?’’ Cope asked. “We can’t look down and judge them. We are there to be a friend.’’
Several national chain truck stops welcome the ministries, according to Cope.
“They feel like we have a positive influence on some things, like the prostitution or drug-peddling,’’ he said.
Richard Desmond, 37, a driver who lives in New Jersey and volunteers for the truckers ministries, said the chain of chapels is a nonprofit, all-volunteer effort.
“We travel the country, and as we see a need, we’ll stop in,’’ Desmond said. “Generally, it is the corporate HQ I am put in touch with.’’
Years ago, the West Hanover Twp. truck stop had a different chaplain. When he died, no one informed the truckers ministries, Desmond said. For a time, there were no services.
Desmond sought a local church to sponsor a new mobile chapel. He said he visited East Shore Baptist Church, on Old Jonestown Road, looking for chaplain.
“He asked if I knew anybody,’’ said Harrison, the senior pastor. “Jerry was the one who came to mind.’’
At first, Weaver held his services inside a truck stop building. Then the chapel-trailer was delivered from a truck stop in western Pennsylvania, where new owners did not want the ministry.
Weaver is a deacon at East Shore Baptist, which sponsors the truck stop ministry. Members paid for the generator that heats the chapel, built the wooden steps that lead up to its door, and bake thousands of cookies to hand out to truckers during the holiday season.
“It’s a tough job, being out there on the road,’’ Weaver said.
His worship services might draw 10 to 12 truckers. Barbara Weaver, his wife of 39 years, is deeply involved. The pair spend a lot of time talking to drivers who are a long way from home.
“We are kind of like a sounding board. I call us the oasis,’’ she said.
Jerry Weaver said, “A lot of it is just listening. Listen, and let them talk. Let them know that you care and are interested in their problems.’’
Weaver rarely sees the same face twice in his chapel. But he tells them the door is always open.
“You all are welcome to come back,’’ Weaver tells the truckers. “Anytime you can.’’