Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?
Well, neither had I, at least not until I coverwas lurking in the basement of the Abilene Public Library recently, browsing through their railroad section, and I came across a book entitled, This Train is Bound for Glory. The book tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In most towns, saloons, gambling dens and “dance halls” (brothels) outnumbered all other establishments put together. Many towns did not have a church of any denomination, and schools were a far-off dream. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a chance to make a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. Some came from “back east,” looking to start over. Some came from overseas, from Ireland and Italy, from Bohemia and Norway and Poland.  All of them knew that having a church in their community was essential.

ChapelCar1922And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.   They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

interior2Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea.  Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style Estey pump organ.  The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down beds that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/living space, a water closet/toilet, and a tiny office/study area.

rev._e.j._mcguinness._chapel_car._st._paul._a_church_on_wheels._come_in_and_see_it._1923_march_20The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance.  Some of the railroads helped the chapel cars because the rail owners were believers, and wanted to see the gospel advance.  Others supported them because they wanted to reduce alcoholism and violence among the rail workers, and saw the church as a great “civilizing influence.”  Whatever.

The usual pattern was for the railroad to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding.  Sometimes it was parked in or near the railroad’s shops and offices, for the convenience of the people working there to attend services.  Often, it would be parked in proximity to the town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women that could be found there.

Railroad_workers_inside_the_railroad_chapel_car_Glad_TidingsThe missionaries who served on board these rolling churches had to have a special calling.  The men had to be willing to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work.  They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there.  They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone.  And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

History_chapelcarTheir wives had to have a calling of their own.  It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town in the morning, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car.  They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter.  And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment.

Most of the couples who served were young and newly married, and had not yet started having children.  Sometimes older couples whose children were already grown served.  There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

book2-1In her book Gospel Tracks Through Texas, author Wilma Rugh Taylor tells the story of Chapel Car #4, named “Good Will,” which served many years all across Texas.  It was owned by the American Baptist Publication Society, based in Philadelphia.  But there was a problem.  Most Texas Baptists were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and were very suspicious of the “northerners” building these cars.  In spite of initial misgivings, though, most of the towns where the chapel cars served eventually welcomed them with open arms, and were won over by the dedication and hard work of those who served on board.

The author, Mrs. Taylor, has shown some dedication herself.  She and her husband, the late Norman Taylor, also wrote the previously mentioned This Train is Bound for Glory, based on literally years of painstaking research and traveling across the country to document the nearly-forgotten story of the chapel cars.  Tragically, he died from a fall in 2007, when he was working to help restore one of the cars.  If you would like more information about the chapel cars, Mrs. Taylor has a website, chapelcars.com, that has all the details and floor plans.

My wife says it would have been my dream job, just a hundred years too late.  And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.  On the other hand, I like the concept of using whatever tools are available to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten.  Mrs. Taylor tells several stories of the missionaries intentionally working among the newly-arrived immigrants who didn’t speak the language, as well as the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society.

At the front of the partition of the chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” carefully written across it in gold leaf.  It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board.  They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.

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