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They found religion, decent burgers, and lasting friendships at a North Jersey truck stop

Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

COLUMBIA, N.J. — Somewhere in this random, run-of-the-mill truck stop full of things truckers need, like CB radios and corned beef hash, and stuff no one needs, like dragon sculptures or New Jersey-themed shot glasses, a local tanker driver found something he wasn’t looking for: God.

Mike Eurich was so sure that a higher power touched him at the TA Travel Center, just east of the Delaware River in rural, mountainous Warren County, that he asked to be baptized there, with a bowl, behind the kitchen.

“When it happened, I felt it instantly, and I knew,” Eurich, 63, said at the counter of the truck stop’s Country Pride restaurant.

Rev. Sherry Blackman, the official chaplain of the TA Travel Center, officiated a wedding at the truck stop — the restaurant gave the couple surf and turf on the house — and presided over a funeral too. She wasn’t about to fill a salad or mixing bowl with divine waters for Eurich’s baptism, though, so she grabbed something official from the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain, across the river in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. It’s a church known for feeding and housing hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail but Blackman, who’s been pastor there since 2014, has also turned this Jersey truck stop into a holy ground of sorts with her weekly Bible study classes.

“Every Wednesday night since 2006,” Blackman said at the counter.

‘We break down walls here’

In a restaurant where truckers often eat alone, still wearing their headsets and staring into their phones and mashed potatoes, Blackman’s Bible group takes up a loud corner that can’t be ignored. They fill the space with laughter, some gentle ribbing, and a steady stream of tears. They analyze the menu before they get to the New Testament.

Strangers pull into the truck stop with doubt and disbelief, Blackman said. Some carry grief over the loss of loved ones and find their way to her, and others haul around a heavy sense of loneliness from life on the open road.

“When somebody’s feeling vulnerable or down or that their life is falling apart, we’re here,” Blackman said. “Sometimes these truckers go days without interacting with anyone. One guy, I asked him to give me a hug, which is a terrible thing for me to do, but I did it, and all of a sudden he broke out in tears. We break down walls here.”

Blackman, a 69-year-old mother of three, traveled the world as a freelance journalist before she enrolled in Drew University’s Theological School. She graduated in 2006 and was ordained by the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America in 2007, but she’s never stopped writing. Her 2022 book “REV-IT-UP: Tales of a Truck Stop Chaplain,” chronicles the stories of the TA Travel Center, “the holy and the unholy, the humorous and the tragic.” She authored another book about the hiker hostel at Church of the Mountain, which is the oldest on the 2,197-mile-long trail.

Religion on the open road isn’t unusual in America. The Buckhorn truck stop in Columbia County, Pennsylvania has a tiny, trailer-like chapel — High Way Ministries — in the parking lot. Truck Stop Ministries, a Georgia-based nonprofit founded by a trucker-turned-reverend, operates about 65 chapels across the country. According to truckstopministries.org, one chapel meets in a Denny’s off of Route 81 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and another at a restaurant in Bordentown, New Jersey.

Blackman’s group is the Northwest Jersey Truckstop Outreach, which offers “Christian fellowship and aid.” She thinks her mission is a bit different than some other spiritual stops along the highway.

“I’m not an evangelist,” she said. “I don’t sit here and try to preach.”

It’s the same at Church of the Mountain, she said, which hosts a potluck dinner for AT hikers every Thursday night.

Go find Sherry

Blackman usually comes to the truck stop early on Wednesdays, before the Bible study begins, and she leaves an empty seat beside her for truckers. On this night, the counter was packed with the regulars she’d met over the last decade, including Eurich. Another Bible study regular, Bill Olivier, said he thought he had life figured out for the first 64 years, that he controlled his destiny. He didn’t grow up with a church in the Bronx, and never went as an adult raising a family in nearby Blairstown.

“Everything was perfect and I lost my wife,” he said.

 

Olivier, now 70, found himself in the back pew of a local church after Theresa died in 2015, but said it felt like learning another language and wasn’t sticking. The pastor there thought Olivier might need something different.

“Do you know about the truck stop?” he asked.

“Yeah, they have trucks. What else do I need to know about the truck stop?” Olivier said.

Go find Sherry, he told Olivier, and he’s been coming ever since.

“So the thing is, it’s not only a Bible study, but also a welcoming therapy,” Olivier said. “And it’s kind of contagious.”

“It’s free too,” Blackman added.

Even Betty Jennings, a longtime waitress at Country Pride, has felt the spiritual side effects of serving a Bible study group. On this Wednesday night, she scribbled down “cheeseburger and fries” a few times and dropped some sad news on Blackman and the crew: she was leaving the restaurant.

“I eavesdrop on the conversations and I’m going to miss them,” she said. “It’s a special group.”

Tears welled up in Jennings’s eyes, then she went silent and walked back to the kitchen.

“It’s OK,” Blackman said to her.

After an hour at the counter, the conversation moved to a larger table in the restaurant and Jennings followed them with a tray of coffee and hot tea. Most members of the group laid dog-eared Bibles, stuffed with colored post-it notes, on the table, even Olivier. He was eager to discuss predestination.

“He has to pick the most difficult doctrine in the entire New Testament,” Blackman joked.

Glasses and silverware clinked in the kitchen. Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” played on the overhead speakers. Truckers carried in laundry. Some browsed the air fresheners and energy drinks and others waited in line for takeout, raising their eyes now and then to glance at the dozen or so people laughing and debating the good word in the side room of a truck stop restaurant.

“It is my belief that God knows everything. He knew before. He knows how it’s going to end. He knows everything,” said Tom Mazur, a retired educator with a booming voice. “As far as free will and choice, he’s given us that and that’s the beauty of life.”

Eurich, who delivers gasoline throughout the Poconos, said the truck stop baptism doesn’t guarantee safe passage on the highways, but it can’t hurt.

“I know God is looking out for no matter what,” he said, “but I’m a good driver.”


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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