Man offers prayer, Scripture in roadside field

  • Follow Your Faith

LOMA LINDA, Calif. --- Joyce Kim needed a sign to remind her to pray.

Gary Carerra (left) hugs David Vetsch as they pray together with Calvin Hart in a vacant lot in Loma Linda, Calif. The sign that says "Need Prayer?" often gets drivers to pull over for prayer and Christian conversation.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Gary Carerra (left) hugs David Vetsch as they pray together with Calvin Hart in a vacant lot in Loma Linda, Calif. The sign that says "Need Prayer?" often gets drivers to pull over for prayer and Christian conversation.

She found it a few months ago along a stretch of rural road where she and hundreds of other Southern California commuters drive home every day.

A 4-foot placard said, "Need Prayer?" Shawn Heggi, a self-appointed Christian spiritual counselor, sat in a blue tent in the field nearby.

Now Kim tries to stop every Friday to pray with Heggi, 35, and two of his friends. They pray for a solution to Kim's financial troubles, the domestic violence victims she works with and the medical career she put on hold during her mother's 11-year battle with ovarian cancer.

"I go to church when I can, but that's on a set time," Kim said. "There may be times when I don't have time to go to church. This is just open; it's free' it's available for anybody; so I stop as often I can, when I can."

Heggi's unconventional ministry caters to worshippers on the go, strategically placed near a traffic-heavy intersection and two hospitals.

It offers a more convenient venue to pray than an institutionalized church setting, especially in an era when church attendance is shrinking, said Richard Flory, the senior research associate at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion & Civic Culture.

"People can stop by and unload what they have, and it keeps them from having to go to church," he said. "It's 20 minutes and you go away. There's no long-term commitment."

And they do, by the dozens. Motorists frequently pull over to make a prayer request, read Scripture or chat about God -- and they'll change the occasional flat tire, too.

"It's just a dirt field, but to us it's church," said Heggi, a stout Redlands garbage truck driver who has been manning the drive-through stand for about nine months.

Heggi's prayer station isn't the first car-driven ministry to veer into the Golden State. The Rev. Robert H. Schuller's megachurch started at a drive-in theater in the 1950s and over the decades grew into Orange County's soaring Crystal Cathedral, home of the televangelist program Hour of Power .

"We can drive-through anywhere, why not drive-through prayer?" said Heggi, a nondenominational Christian who teaches Sunday school at the Packinghouse Church in Redlands.

Heggi began the ministry, but his friends Gary Carrera and Calvin Hart do a lot of the talking and praying, too. Their goal isn't to convert people, they say, but to comfort them in what may be the worst times of their lives.

"The problems people have out here are worse than my problems. I'm a fool saved by grace," said Carrera, a 39-year-old grocery-truck driver who survived a bitter divorce.

"We pray daily; we read daily; we're not better than anyone out there," he said. "I'm just one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is."

Heggi saw a similar stand in Murrieta before test-driving the ministry near his hometown. He has no formal training and came to embrace Christianity in his mid-20s after reading Scripture. He wasn't in any religious denomination growing up.

His wife and two daughters, one named Nevaeh -- heaven spelled backward -- join him at the stand occasionally.

Heggi said the most common prayer requests are about homes. Loma Linda is in the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles, where the rate of foreclosures is the fifth-highest in the U.S. Others pray for solace after losing a loved one, addiction, marriages, families or pets.

Heggi, Carrera and Hart will respond with encouraging words, Bible verses and holding hands in a prayer circle. Sometimes they'll offer a hug to those who need extra comforting.

On good days, up to a dozen cars stop, two to three at a time, and the men are inundated with honking horns. Other days, nobody stops and the trio read their sticky-note studded Bibles to pass the time.

They open the stand at 3:30 p.m; at sundown, they pack up.

Though the majority of devotees are Christian, the men have also talked with Sikhs and Muslims -- some poised to argue and some who just want to know what they're about.

Heggi is stymied by some of the peculiar requests people make.

Saman Yousef Saman, 38, of San Bernardino, drives an ice cream truck and plans to run for city council. He refueled across the street before pulling into Heggi's field.

Saman requested that God allow him to earn $1 million every day.

Heggi advised him to pray for wisdom.


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