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They brake for redemption

Truck-stop chapel refuels drivers in battle against sin

Retired driver Warren Harthan, 77, now a volunteer chaplain, takes part in a service in the mobile chapel at Flynn's Truck Plaza in Shrewsbury. Retired driver Warren Harthan, 77, now a volunteer chaplain, takes part in a service in the mobile chapel at Flynn's Truck Plaza in Shrewsbury. (photos by ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2008
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America's highways are paved with temptations. But a truck stop in Shrewsbury is offering redemption.

Tucked behind Dianna's restaurant across from Flynn's Truck Plaza on Route 20, a mobile chapel - a tiny church in a semitrailer - hosts Sunday services and provides daily counseling to truckers passing through the area.

About 8 feet wide and 50 feet long, the chapel gives drivers a respite from the lonely traveling that can acquaint men and women with the devil's work if they aren't careful, truckers said.

"A truck stop is a breeding ground for sin," said Ed Morrow, a resident of Manitowoc, Wis., who drives his big rig with his wife, Peggy. "You've got pornography. You've got prostitution. You've got drugs. In some of them, you've got gambling."

On a recent Sunday, Morrow and about 15 other Christian drivers and friends gathered in the trailer. They sang songs of salvation, such as "Grace Greater than Our Sin." They shared their troubles about on-the-job injuries and uncooperative insurance companies. They traded stories about dealing with police.

Chaplain George Freeman delivered the sermon, a mix of Southern Baptist evangelism and New England Puritanism that was cen tered in the Christian faith, though officially the chapel is nondenominational.

"When a person fails to repent, they do not take care of their sin," said Freeman, 68, who spent 14 years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea.

Freeman discussed his experience in 1971, when he felt God single him out while he was attending church on an otherwise ordinary day. "I felt like he was speaking to me, only me," he said. "I didn't notice anyone else there, including my wife. I became accountable, and repented for my sins and received forgiveness."

He implored listeners to set right their souls before it was too late.

"It's the last days of this age, I'm convinced of it," he said. "If I failed to share that with you, this may be our only encounter, woe is me because your blood is on my hands."

The Pennsylvania-based organization that owns the trailer, Transport for Christ International, has set up about 30 mobile chapels around the United States and Canada, as well as trailers in Russia and Zambia, according to its newsletter. Its Shrewsbury trailer is the only one in Massachusetts and has a Pennsylvania license plate.

The mobile chapels form a network for Christian truckers seeking fellow believers on their long trips. It's a community where members may see one another only once every six months. "Last week we were sitting in Minot, North Dakota," said Morrow. "Week before that, I think we were in Dallas, Texas. Every time we're in this area, we stop."

Before services, Freeman and others extend invitations to worship to the drivers sleeping in the scores of trucks parked around Flynn's, which has showers and bathrooms as well as diesel fuel, coffee, and doughnuts. On this Sunday, Ismael Tirado of Ocala, Fla., answered the call.

Tirado had dropped off a load of sheet metal in Boston on the Thursday before the service, he said. He had been sleeping in his truck in Shrewsbury, waiting for a call that would tell him where to pick up his next load and where to take it.

A few years ago, he might have passed the time drinking, he said. But recently his children have started families, and he felt that he missed out on much of his own children's youth and if he wasn't careful, he could miss out on his grandchildren growing up, too.

After that realization, Tirado said, he started reading the Bible.

"I've learned a lot of things in life that weren't very good," he said. "It was time for me to change, change in a different way, be more responsible. I'm trying to commit to be more with God."

Tirado said it was his first visit to the Shrewsbury trailer, but he had been in other mobile chapels around the United States.

"These chapels are great," he said. "This is what the truckers need. They need to be able to turn to something instead of drinking or sin."

Flynn's doesn't suffer from the blight and crime that afflicts many truck stops, truckers said. A chapel has been at the site for 13 years, said Freeman.

Asked why sin was such a focus of the mobile chapel's mission, when Jesus preached love and acceptance as his primary message, Freeman said it is tackling social ills that have spread throughout the trucking community and the world at large.

Truckers and other people who abuse drugs or engage in risky sexual behavior aren't bad people, the chaplain said, but they need to change if they want to be saved.

"Christ loves them," Freeman said. "But how are they going to know they are doing something wrong if no one shows them the contrast between sin and what is right?"

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