When Jay LeRette preaches the Word, he transforms from a mild Midwesterner—one who loves country gospel, rides a horse he has trained to roll over and grin, and has, himself, a whinnying laugh—into a human incandescence. Sixty-four, 5′ 5″, and dressed like a cowboy, he increases in stature; his voice crescendos to cracking. “The devil’s learned to use us and abuse us, to beat the snot out of us,” he says, then uppercuts the air. “Amen, Chuck?” A man in the second row with a great, ZZ Top–like beard croaks amen. “The devil mopped the floor with me,” LeRette continues, and mimes a janitorial sweep. “But God—but God!—” he shrieks, pounding the lectern and leaping, “—had compassion on you and I.”
It’s a weeknight in December 2021, getting toward Christmas, and I’m sitting in the trailer of an 18-wheeler that’s been repurposed into LeRette’s chapel. It’s parked, permanently, at the Petro Travel Center, a truck stop off Interstate 39 in northern Illinois. All around it are acres of commercial trucks, stopped for the night and carrying every kind of cargo: cows, weed, pro-wrestling rings, grain, petroleum. One side of LeRette’s trailer reads “Transport for Christ”; beside it, a neon cross gleams in the dark. John 3:16 adorns the back end: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Next to the scripture are two godly hands cradling a truck.
All across Illinois there are tornado warnings. Menacing gales rip through the parking lot, making the trailer shift and groan; we are beyond the reach of any siren. Yet every minute, the door opens and a new trucker walks in. Each takes his place in one of about 20 chairs arranged in rows toward the middle of the chapel, which is pretty minimalist: framed Bible verses along wood-paneled walls, a lectern at the front, an office and bed in back.
The drivers—all men tonight—have come straight from the road, and their bodies suggest the slow entropy wrought by bad food and decades of sitting. All but one appear over 50. Some know each other: When LeRette kicked off the service by belting out hymns and strumming his guitar, a straggler entered, and several men called out, “Rip!” Rip hustled in and high-fived or hugged them.
LeRette hands out copies of the King James Bible and asks us to open to Luke 10:25. Chuck seems to be back in Exodus, and when LeRette repeats “the Gospel of Luke,” Chuck responds, “Oh, I thought you said Mötley Crüe.” They are irrepressibly funny like this, suddenly schoolboys.
LeRette asks John, a small, older man in a hoodie, to read the verse. “A certain lawyer stood up and tempted him, saying, ‘Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” He struggles to sound out “eternal,” but the men nod along, supportive, patient.
Then LeRette interprets: A skeptic is trying to trick Jesus into contradicting Judaic law, into uttering a heresy. “Now how many know he ain’t gonna do that? Jesus is the living word of God, amen? There ain’t no trapping our savior.” Chuck calls out, “They tried to trap him for three years,” and LeRette answers, “C’mon, that’s right!” The quickness with which he beckons these road-weary men into call-and-response is extraordinary. He stamps and claps, sidesteps and kicks till his lungs falter. “Jesus carries our load, amen?”