When Jay Lerrette preaching the Word, he transforms from a mild-mannered Midwesterner—someone who loves the country gospel, rides a horse he taught to roll over and grin, and neighs himself—into a red-hot man. Sixty-four years old, 5ft 5in, dressed like a cowboy, growing in stature; his voice crescendos to a rasp. “The devil has learned to use us and mock us to beat the snot out of us,” he says, then appercutes the air. Amen, Chuck? A man in the second row with a large ZZ Top-like beard croaks. Amen. “The devil washed the floor with me,” LeRetta continues, mimicking the sweeping of a janitor. “But God… but God!” he yells, pounding on the lectern and jumping up and down, “he took pity on you and me.
It’s a weeknight in December 2021, Christmas is approaching, and I’m sitting in the trailer of an 18-wheeler that’s been repurposed as LeRette’s Chapel. It is permanently parked at the Petro Travel Center, a truck stop off Interstate 39 in northern Illinois. All around it are acres of commercial trucks stopped overnight and carrying all sorts of cargo: cows, grass, wrestling rings, grain, oil. LeRette’s trailer says “Carriage for Christ” on one side, with a neon cross glowing in the dark next to it. The back is adorned with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Next to the scripture, two pious hands are holding a truck.
There are tornado warnings throughout Illinois. Menacing gusts of wind sweep through the parking lot, causing the trailer to shake and moan; we are beyond the reach of any siren. Yet every minute the door opens and a new trucker enters. Each takes their place on one of about 20 chairs arranged in rows towards the middle of the chapel, which is fairly minimalistic: Bible verses framed along the wood-paneled walls, lectern. in front, office and bed in the back.
The drivers—today all men—arrived straight from the road, their bodies like slow entropy brought on by bad food and decades of sitting. All but one appear to be in their 50s. Some know each other: as LeRette began the service, singing hymns and playing guitar, a straggler came in and several men shouted “Rip!” Rip would rush in and high-five them or hug them.
LeRette distributes copies of the King James Bible and asks us to turn to Luke 10:25. Chuck appears to have returned to Exodus, and when LeRette repeats “The Gospel of Luke”, Chuck replies, “Oh, I thought you said Mötley Crüe.” They are so uncontrollably funny, suddenly schoolchildren.
LeRette asks John, a small older man in a hoodie, to read a verse. “A certain lawyer stood up and tempted Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'” He struggles to say the word “eternal”, but the men nod, supportive and patient.
Leret then interprets: The skeptic is trying to trick Jesus into contradicting Jewish law, into speaking heresy. “Now who knows he’s not going to do it? Jesus is the living word of God, amen? The Savior can’t be caught. Chuck yells, “They’ve been trying to trap him for three years,” and LeRette replies, “C’mon, right!” The speed with which he calls these road-weary men to call and answer is incredible. He stomps and claps his hands, steps aside and kicks until his lungs give out. “Jesus brings our cargo, amen?