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A friend at the crossroads: North Bend's truck stop pastor, Tom Kemp, looks out for strangers

Tom Kemp played Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, but he used the front door, not the chimney, when he came to call.

Sporting a Santa hat with a green ball-cap brim, Kemp strode through the lines of tractor-trailers parked at North Bend’s Travel Centers of America stop, a.k.a Truck Town. These trucks are the drivers’ homes when they’re on the road, and he hoped to brighten each one with a delivery of home-made cookies.

“We figure, if you’re here on the lot today (Christmas Eve), you won’t be home to get fresh-baked cookies on Christmas,” Kemp tells the drivers.

Most drivers look confused for a few seconds, then smile widely as Kemp holds up a big sack full of individually-packaged and decorated bags of holiday cookies.

The smiles stay firmly in place as they reach in to pick a bag for themselves, and for a while after Kemp wishes them happy holidays and moves on to the next driver.

It’s a three-year holiday tradition for Kemp, the lead pastor (along with two volunteers) at the Transport for Christ Victory Chapel, and for Church on the Ridge congregation members who provided hundreds of home-baked cookies. Since Kemp’s congregation, “about 4.8 million truck drivers” can’t really bake cookies on the road, Kemp asks for help with this and other outreach projects from local churches.

“There’s a youth group that bakes, and a couple of adult Sunday school classes bake, too,” said Kemp, who guesses that the baking groups, with supplementation from his wife, provide him with between 100 and 200 dozen cookies each year.

Few of his baking helpers will fully understand how important their gifts are. Kemp says he’s seen drivers respond with “everything from ‘no thanks’ to breaking down and crying… one of them said to me ‘Pastor, this is the only gift I’ll get this Christmas.’”

Some, he said, especially like the bags decorated by children, “because it reminds them of their kids and their grandkids.”

One man, parked for two days at the truck stop, chose his bag of cookies — a brown paper sack with bows and crayon drawings — carefully, saying “Someone took a lot of time with this one, to make it look nice.”

About four trucks down, Lynda Roberts laughed when Kemp told her to take extra cookies for her mom, Teri Dempster, who was traveling with her for the holidays.

“About twice a year, Mom comes with me,” said the east-coast-based driver.

“So we’re together for the holiday,” added Dempster.

Both women planned to be together for Kemp’s impromptu Christmas Day service, which he’d only just planned that morning. Los Angeles driver Mauro Silva had stopped at the chapel to ask about services, and Kemp said he’d do it, even if it was just for one.

Kemp, who’s been on the job here for four years, is used to small turnouts at the chapel, a converted trailer that seats about 20 in rows of three. The ministry here, he said, had been decades without a staff pastor, although volunteers like Jerry and Julie Johnson of Snoqualmie did their best to keep the chapel open and available for drivers. He’s rebuilding the ministry, as much for people like Silva, who seek him out, as for those who he has to seek out.

Silva has been driving for a year, ever since federal budget cuts eliminated his position as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. He said his faith, “and a nudge from the judge,” he chuckles, helped him win his own battle with addictions, years ago, and is grateful whenever he finds a chapel like Kemp’s on the road.

“I wanted something in my life that I saw other people having, and that was,” he paused, “just a little bit of joy.”

Transport for Christ has about 30 chapels in the U.S. (plus six in Canada, two in Russia and one in Zambia), so Silva doesn’t find a chapel often when he’s on the road. “There’s very few of them out there,” he said, but he maintains his own religious practice, reading one of his Bibles in his truck, when chapels aren’t available.

Drivers aren’t always looking for a chapel, but they might be looking for something — a listening post, a little guidance — without realizing it, Kemp said. So he is frequently on the lot, inviting drivers into the chapel just to talk, or for a Bible study or service. Because Transport for Christ has also taken a stance against human trafficking, he also tries to educate drivers on the issue.

Human trafficking in the trucking world is essentially the abduction of women or girls, who are then forced into prostitution. Traffickers bring their “stables” of women to truck stops and send them out to knock on drivers’ doors. Drivers are often unaware that these women are actually prisoners and slaves.

“We seek to reduce the demand end of the market, by showing drivers that these girls are somebody’s daughter,” Kemp said. He shows drivers a video on human trafficking, and said many of them had previously just ignored women who knocked on their doors. Now, they knew to call 911, he said.

Trafficking is not a common issue at the North Bend truck stop, Kemp says emphatically. All the same, he is ready to arrange for safe places to stay for any women rescued from trafficking in the area. It’s part of the larger mission of Transport for Christ.

“Our mission is leading truck drivers as well as the trucking community to Jesus Christ, and helping them grow in their faith,” Kemp said, quoting the mission statement verbatim. The trucking community, he points out, is not just the drivers and their companies, but also their families, and the communities that they pass through.

For North Bend, that means Kemp takes on some of the challenges that a truck stop manager might otherwise have to deal with, such as helping transient homeless people get to a safe place. People may think they’re helping transients by bringing them to the truck stop, but actually, “it maroons them,” Kemp said. Most drivers can’t legally take on passengers, he explained, and there aren’t services for the homeless at Trucktown. Typically, he puts people on buses to Seattle, where agencies can help them, he said.

Now, he can also direct them to the Snoqualmie Valley Winter Shelter, being hosted by the North Bend Community Church, for the winter. Kemp sits on the advisory board of the shelter group.

It’s all part of being a good neighbor, says Kemp, and a good partner. His chapel does not pay rent, and the truck stop provides the electricity for the place.

In return Kemp helps out where he can. Among his other cookie stops this year were the restaurant and convenience store, so staffers there could share in the holiday cheer.

• Learn more about Transport for Christ at the organization's web page.

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