Warner Robins truck stop chapel ministers to those on open road

Sun News correspondentFebruary 5, 2014 

MICHAEL W. PANNELL/SPECIAL TO THE SUN NEWS Lonnie Thomas is chaplain of the St. John’s Chapel Truck Stop Ministry, which occupies a trailer on the north side of the back truck parking lot of Pilot Truck Stop at Exit 146 on Interstate 75.

MICHAEL W. PANNELL — Special to The Sun News

  • St. John’s Chapel Truck Stop Ministry

    Address: Pilot Truck Stop, I-75 at Exit 146
    Phone: 478-951-8618
    Leadership: Lonnie Thomas, chaplain
    Worship: 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 a.m. Saturday Bible study

WARNER ROBINS -- Truckers traveling Interstate 75 through Middle Georgia often find the Pilot Truck Stop at Exit 146 to be a place of solace -- a comforting stop for fuel, some coffee, food and maybe a welcomed place to park and get some sleep.

Lonnie Thomas hopes they might find a bit of rest and comfort for their souls as well.

Thomas is chaplain of the St. John’s Chapel Truck Stop Ministry, which occupies a trailer on the north side of Pilot’s back truck parking lot. The gathering spot has a large covered front area complete with barbecue grill, a table and a few chairs where truckers can have a seat. There’s a large sign announcing service times and special events, and there’s a rack full of Gospel tracts.

Thomas said the mission of the trucker’s chapel is to spread the Gospel and to offer friendship to truck drivers and anybody else who happens by.

“Anyone can come and feel welcome and be ministered to,” Thomas said. “We’re here for hurting people, for those who have a particular need or just need someone to talk to. There are a lot of hurting people going up and down these roads.”

Thomas said the idea that truck drivers’ lives are all about freedom and carefree traveling the open road is mistaken. He said drivers face heavy stresses and troubles daily. He said there’s the stress of making good time from pickup to delivery without breaking laws. There’s making sure loads aren’t overweight or face a fine. There’s keeping up log books without mistakes, or there are more fines. There’s the stress of blown tires and mechanical failures that can strand a driver, delay his load and maybe cause more fines. There’s the stress of wrong drop-off times and finding that expected loads aren’t there. Drivers are only paid when driving, so hanging around a dock costs them money and causes frustration.

Then, Thomas said, there are everyday stresses such as having time to stop and eat, getting a shower, or finding a decent place to stop and get needed sleep. And like everyone, there are the stresses of finances.

“Take all that and add that these drivers are alone,” Thomas said. “They travel alone and don’t have anyone to talk to about problems. Worst of all, they’re separated from their family. There’s a special strain on families because when problems arise between them, they’re apart and can’t work it out. When something needs fixing one spouse isn’t there, and the other has to take on dual roles. Maybe it’s disciplining the kids. That day-to-day partnership is broken, and the driver is out there all day thinking about it. It’s tough.”

Thomas said the Gospel can uniquely address those issues, including the loneliness, and knowing Jesus can make all the difference out on the road.

So can having someone who’s there alongside you in one of those 150 parking spots at Pilot who’s willing to listen and be a friend.

“My goal is not just to have the services and Bible studies but to have the chapel manned 24/7 with someone drivers can talk to, pray with, get ministry from,” he said. “They don’t need to be an ordained preacher, just someone who can share the Gospel and be a good listener, a friend. We’re a long way from that and don’t have nearly enough volunteers, but that’s my prayer.”

Thomas said he welcomes volunteers from across denominations who want to be a part of the life of the chapel. He said the chapel doesn’t replace truckers’ home churches, and it’s purposefully non-denominational, although it was started six years ago through the Rehoboth Baptist Association and Truck Stop Ministries Inc.

He said the chapel is an effective ministry where people are regularly saved, but it usually happens through friendship. Thomas is often out in the parking lot on his bicycle or golf cart taking coffee to drivers or offering truckers rides from their spot up to Pilot. There are random free chapel cookouts, and meals are fixed on major holidays.

“God shows us his love, and we have to show that love to others,” Thomas said. “We’re not here to be legalistic or over people’s heads. We accept folks for who they are, however dirty and greasy they may be. Everyone is welcome in God’s eyes and welcome to the chapel.”

Thomas credits Davis Adkison for his service to truckers and getting the trucker ministry off the ground. Thomas said he himself is retired from the military and civil service and is an ordained minister. But he said that’s not the important thing.

“I firmly believe in 1 Corinthians 13 -- the love chapter,” he said. “Jesus washed feet. If we can get down and wash feet, if we can have that same spirit of love and service to people, then we can have a real impact. The people here are all types. The fluidity out here makes for some real interesting ministry.”

Thomas said ministries out of the chapel are continually evolving and include not only the services, Bible studies and friendship ministry but also things like access to resources and a growing effort to educate drivers about human trafficking.

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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