Jackson, Georgia. Just off I-75. A tiny chapel sits in the middle of a truck stop parking lot. The house of worship is actually just an semi-trailer parked outside the filling-station-slash-IHOP, welcoming all sinners, seekers, and pancake aficionados.
Just look for the bright neon cross perched atop the trailer, lit up in the darkness. You can’t miss it.
Tacked to the chapel door was a sign which read: “Open.” So I stepped inside.
Sixteen chairs faced a pinewood pulpit. The walls were the same cheap wood paneling everyone’s family used to have in 1970s. The place was, more or less, your run-of-the-mill church.
As soon as I entered I was immediately greeted by a welcome table bearing the accoutrements associated with twentieth-century evangelism—donation envelopes, newsletters, brochures, donation envelopes, gospel tracts, prayer hotline numbers, donation envelopes, free crucifixes, and of course, in case you missed them, donation envelopes.
I visited this small trailer today because I am a columnist, and columnists must visit places like this. Otherwise, columnists end up writing multiple boring columns about their dogs.
Which I would never do.
In the chapel, sitting up front, were two men. Heads bowed. Eyes closed. I’m guessing they were truck drivers.
One man was large, wearing a sleeveless shirt. The other had heavily muscled arms that were painted in multi-colored tattoos, and he wore a beard that looked like it belonged on an Oakridge Boys album cover.
I quietly made my way to the back row and had a seat.
One of the men opened his eyes when he heard my footsteps and made eye contact with me. Then he closed his eyes and resumed whatever he was doing. Praying, I guess.
Truthfully, I’ve never known exactly what prayer is. Oh, I’ve heard all the definitions. But for some reason, I’ve always felt that prayer is one of those things that I gravely misunderstand.
I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition that treasured prayer. But, honestly, I never got onboard with all the shouting and endless repeating of five-word clichés until your face turned crimson.
My people basically believed prayer was asking for stuff. Although nobody came right out and said it, the idea was: you knelt, you cried, you moaned, yearned, and you begged for things you wanted.
That was prayer.
And the catch was, if you were a good little boy or girl, if you behaved, and paid your income taxes on time, maybe God would give you some candy. In other words, the Man Upstairs was a proverbial Santa Claus.
Yes, I realize I’m generalizing here, but you get the picture.
But when I got a little older, I came to feel differently about prayer. This happened when I met an elderly woman named Miss Myra.
Myra was originally from Sweden and she lived in the apartment next door. When Myra was forty, she lost her only child to cancer. Two weeks later, she lost a husband to a heart attack. Then her own body began to fail her with lupus.
Still—if you can believe it—Myra was among the happiest women I ever met. I wish I had one tenth of the glee Miss Myra had.
She always sang wonderful songs while doing her laundry, using languages I did not understand. And she was always baking, or planting wildflowers along the highway.
Myra once told me that prayer wasn’t asking God for stuff. Her philosophy was, hey, God already knew what you needed before you opened your mouth, so you didn’t need to remind him. God had your back whether you checked all the right boxes or not.
Once, the old woman explained prayer by touching my sternum, closing her eyes, and saying, “Prayer is this.”
Sadly, her gesture made no sense to me. I have never been the sharpest spoon in the drawer.
“Prayer is my chest?” I asked.
She smiled. “Think of it like this…”
Miss Myra placed her birdlike arms around me and hugged me. She held me against herself and I could smell her old-lady perfume. We hugged for several minutes.
“Do you see how our hearts are now touching?” she said, mid-hug.
She was right. Our two chests were smashed together, our hearts were separated by mere inches of rib and muscle.
“This is prayer,” she said.
In my life I have undergone some very difficult times, just like you. Times when I didn’t think I wanted to keep going. Looking back, I realize that these were not the moments when I needed to kneel and offer some clichéd Amazon wishlist to heaven. These were dark periods when, frankly, I just needed a hug.
Which is why I always come back to Myra’s words.
Before I left the Truckers Chapel, the two men rose from their chairs. They threw their arms around each other, and slapped each other’s backs. If I wasn’t mistaken, the younger man was about to cry.
No words were exchanged between them. No cheesy spiritual catchphrases. Instead, these two men simply embraced.
And within this nondescript trailer, somewhere off I-75 in Jackson, Georgia, I believe I accidentally witnessed what old Myra was talking about.