By Brett Hetherington*
While Ohioans have been living under the shelter-at-home order over the past two months, we have still been able to travel to the grocery store or have food delivered. But how often have you stopped to think about the men and women who keep the store shelves stocked and the restaurant kitchens supplied with food?
The congregation at Amboy United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) has been doing more than just thinking about truck drivers and their long-distance routes across the country. Every week volunteers from the church have set up at a truck stop just off of Interstate 90 where they share tangible expressions of gratitude with these often-unsung heroes during this pandemic.
“This is very much a lay-led ministry,” said the Rev. Betsy Schenk, senior pastor of Amboy UMC. She shared that Amboy is a smaller membership church, averaging about 59 people in attendance each Sunday morning. “But this is something that the people have really caught on to.”
Nancy McBride thought of the idea and coordinates this new outreach ministry of the church. Her family has had more than a few cancer scares and often would need to travel for medical treatment. “We went to Erie for a doctor’s appointment and saw that the rest areas were all closed. We wondered, ‘Where are all the truck drivers going to stop to eat, to use the bathroom, to rest?’”
Federal laws require that truck drivers can only operate their rigs for a certain amount of time before being required to pull off the road for mandated rest periods. Often there is not a convenient parking lot where a driver can do so, and hefty fines can be incurred if drivers do not comply with these restrictions.
McBride continued her story. “Why not go to one of the rest stops and give away goodie bags? We talked to one driver who told us he was charged $26 for a bowl of soup and a sandwich! I believe the drivers should be given free food because they are bringing us the things that we need to survive.”
McBride and one other volunteer began with 20 bags, each containing crackers, chips, fruit, fresh baked cookies, assorted candies. Truck drivers received a bag and a bottle of water. The 20 bags were gone in 19 minutes! Currently volunteers are giving away up to 50 bags and it typically takes between 90 minutes to two hours to give them all away.
Nancy’s husband Mike is part of the rest stop ministry team, that sometimes has opportunities to talk longer with drivers on their down time.
“A couple weeks ago some drivers we gave bags to came back through and told us they appreciated it so much that they gave us a cash donation,” he said. “They told us that a lot of drivers out there are having a hard time, and a lot of them don’t have extra money. But they told us, ‘We have extra this week and we want you to keep doing this.’”
The military veteran showed his love for people in the ways that he darted around the parking lot connecting with drivers, always with a smile, letting them know they are cared for.
“We’ve got a good bunch of people here,” he shared.
The group sets up by the weigh scales with a brightly-colored sign expressing its gratitude for the drivers. As drivers pass by, volunteers hand out as many bags as they can. Each bag is prayed over while being assembled and contains a prayer for truckers stapled to the outside. With each distributed bag, they get a chance to thank a driver in person.
Word of the rest stop ministry has spread beyond the walls of the church. On the day I spent at the rest area Schenk shared that a member of the community came out to help.
“She simply read about the outreach and wanted to be involved,” Schenk said.
Even the employees from the neighboring gas station were quick to get involved.
“The first week we were here the girls from Circle K next door asked us to stop over when we were done,” Nancy McBride explained. “I was worried they would be telling us to leave! But they gave us two cases of bottled water and three boxes of prepackaged donuts to give away that they had purchased themselves.”
Not every driver accepts a bag. Some, who are local drivers that don’t travel long distances, tell the group to keep the bags for the next driver who will need it more. One driver that McBride remembered well refused out of concern for the group.
“He said he had been too many places, and he didn’t want us to get sick,” she said.
One driver was so touched by the group’s generosity this day that he left his truck and came over to capture video of the group on his phone to share. “I am very thankful and grateful that people are thinking about us,” he said, visibly moved by such a simple gesture.
McBride and her crew thought this would be just a simple little thing that they would do for a few weeks, but different churches heard about it and it has grown. “We have enough goods to give away next week without needing to buy anything,” she said.
The spirit of generosity has been so infectious that even amidst the financial strains of this pandemic McBride continues to be surprised by how willing people are to give. “One woman came up to me and wanted to give us her bank card to go to the store and buy $100 worth of supplies to use for the bags. I said, ‘honey you need that for you!’ She told me ‘I think this is good and you need to do it.’”
McBride agreed to go to the store with the woman to help her buy goods to be used.
As of this writing, the group from Amboy UMC has been giving away bags for six weeks. As restrictions slowly lift and rest stops begin to open again, the future remains uncertain as to how this outreach will be affected. But for now, it has left an immense impact on all involved: the truck drivers who are receiving a small showing of gratitude and care that they normally do not see; and those who are sharing their thanks.
McBride summed it up best when she said, “It’s a lot of fun, and you go home with a really good feeling.”
If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.