Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 26, 2013

SALISBURY — About halfway up the southbound off-ramp at Exit 71, Chaplain Patrick Powell pulls his 2006 Dodge Stratus off the road.

Truck and car traffic on Interstate 85 rumbles by, like a murmuring congregation settling into the seats for a Sunday service.

Powell’s Bible rests on the dashboard, and he’s wearing a red ballcap that says “Jesus Is My Lifesaver.”

Boyd, his wife, waits quietly in the passenger seat holding her purse. A blue sweater is in the back in case she gets a chill.

Powell never calls Boyd by her given name, preferring “Momma” instead. Momma’s visor is pulled down against the low sun.

Powell soon opens the door and reaches into the back for his antenna, part of which he has wrapped in aluminum foil. He says the foil helps with his transmission. With its magnetic base, the antenna rests nicely on the roof, and Powell returns to the driver’s seat.

At 6:24 on this Tuesday evening, Powell guns the Stratus to life again — otherwise, his battery would go dead — and turns on the shiny CB radio near the floor in the middle. On Channel 19, he wastes no time.

“Good evening, drivers, local people, travelers parked over at Wilco, going up and down 85,” Powell begins. “I’m going to bring a message over Channel 12 in just a few minutes. Feel free to listen in, Jesus loves you, and so do we.

“… Are you ready, are you ready, are you ready to meet the Lord?”

In a short while, Powell switches to Channel 12 as promised, and for a nonstop hour, he delivers a message filled with fire and brimstone. Then it’s back to Channel 19 for a short wrapup and his offer to listeners to be saved.

During her husband’s front-seat sermon, Momma keeps tally with pen and paper of all the trucks she sees on the interstate below and on Peeler Road in the distance. Her head is on a swivel.

The car windows are rolled down. With his free hand not holding the microphone, Powell punches the air sometimes for emphasis as he makes his spiritual points.

“It’s whupping time, and you ain’t had a whupping until the Lord gives you one,” Powell shouts, calling out sinners, back-sliders, God-haters and devil worshippers. “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Over the hour, the sun steadily sinks to their right, and Momma counts more than 350 trucks.

“Drivers,” Powell says, “I’m giving you a chance — to accept Him or reject Him. Come to Jesus. Time is running out.”

The Powells drive onto this “get-off ramp” at Exit 71 every Tuesday and Thursday evening, and Patrick’s sermons feed off scripture and his repeated pleadings to get right with the Lord.

Powell’s strong connection to truck drivers started with his employment for nine years at the former Derrick’s Truck Stop, where he also served as a chaplain for its chapel.

The country CB sermons have their roots there.

Derrick’s closed late last year, and that Peeler Road site is under construction for a new Love’s truck stop, which will not have a church.

Thanks to the pastor and deacons at Gospel Light Baptist, where the Powells are members, the couple received a new Cobra CB radio this summer for their roadside ministry.

The car radio is supposed to have a range of about 50 miles, Powell says. He previously relied on a desktop model whose hand-held microphone would become so hot after 30 minutes he could hardly hold it.

So why does he conduct these exit-ramp services?

Powell, 66, says the Lord led him, and he considers it important outreach.

“I’ll obey the Lord, buddy,” he says. “I’m reaching out. Some come back to me, some don’t. I’m not ashamed of the truth. I’ll go to jail for preaching the Lord.”

The Powells say some of the truck drivers on I-85 have not liked their intrusion over Channel 19.

“Boy, some of those drivers can get nasty,” Momma says.

In August, a driver directed profanity at Powell, who said he preached to that sinner alone for about 30 minutes.

“I went after him,” Powell says. “I said, ‘I’m going to pray for you, driver, taking God’s name in vain.”

Although numerous cars and trucks roar past them on the exit ramp, only one vehicle — a Division of Motor Vehicles emergency truck — has ever stopped to investigate whether Powell needed assistance.

“I said, ‘No, I’m preaching the word,’ ” Powell says.

And why doesn’t he park and deliver his message from a safer spot, such as the nearby Wilco/Hess Travel Plaza? “I love to hear them trucks,” he answers.

Over the years, Powell worked at other Rowan County places such as Cartex Mill and Apple Baking, where fellow employees dubbed him “Happy Jack” for his consistently good humor.

But rather than use “Happy Jack” as his CB handle, Powell identifies himself on the CB as “the old chaplain from Derrick’s Truck Stop.”

Years ago, Powell says he also was homeless in Salisbury for more than two years, before he accepted the Lord in April 1976. “I was lost as a goose,” he says.

Even over the airwaves, Powell describes a time when he lived under bridges and slept on benches. He speaks of retrieving discarded cardboard behind grocery stores and making a box house for shelter.

“I was rotten, but not anymore,” he says.

After a car wreck in 1975, Powell also had two blood clots in his right leg, putting him in the hospital for 18 days, of which eight were spent in intensive care.

He met Boyd while she was at Delta Thread and he was working the third shift at Cartex. They’ve been married almost 37 years and, of course, he credits the Lord “for putting me and Momma together.”

He took to preaching in September 2004.

During an hour of delivering his message, Powell tends to touch on many subjects, some even local. He lambasts, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union’s role in challenging Rowan County commissioners’ prayer practices at public meetings.

He rails against television as an “idiot box.” On television soap operas, he adds, networks should take out the soap and use it to clean up the programs.

Otherwise, he speaks to the truck drivers of the need to be born again, to accept Christ and make sure they don’t spend eternity in hell, where there’s no air-conditioning or ice water.

“Me and Momma are praying for you drivers,” Powell says. “We are concerned about your souls.”

It’s impossible for Powell to determine how many listeners he has on Channel 12, if any. The only feedback he gets comes on Channel 19, and as he concludes his service Tuesday, he says, “Come back to me, if you got anything to say, or if you want to be saved.”

A truck driver answers back that he’s at the Wilco/Hess Travel Plaza. He’s on his way to Greensboro. Powell explains that he used to be the chaplain at Derrick’s Truck Stop and how he now offers his message on the get-off ramp every Tuesday and Thursday evening.

“Are you ready to meet the Lord, driver?

“Yes, sir,” the trucker answers.

“I like to talk to drivers,” Powell continues, “as long as they talk clean and don’t use dirty words.”

Powell goes on to thank the trucker for spreading the word and adds, “You have a wonderful trip and a wonderful night.”

It’s 7:35 p.m. by now, and Momma has put away her paper and pen. The CB antenna comes down, the headlights are on, and the Stratus pulls away, heading toward Peeler Road.

Now the preacher becomes the driver.

“I’m heaven bound with the hammer down,” he says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or