Answering the Call: When a Fire Truck Becomes a ‘Friar Truck’
Unique Scripture-sharing vehicle makes the rounds in St. Martinville, Louisiana.
Sound the alarm, and make way for the “Friar Truck” and its first official call: January’s “Bible Marathon” in St. Martinville, Louisiana. After this debut, it will continue carrying on its official duty — proclaiming the word of God from its eye-catching, antique mobile pulpit.
No one will be able to miss the message as the Friar Truck makes its rounds. It is the brainchild-innovation of Father Michael Champagne, superior of the Community of Jesus Crucified in St. Martinville. On the driver’s side of the truck are emblazoned Jesus’ words from Luke, “I have come to cast a fire upon the earth.”
When Bishop Douglas Deshotel of the Diocese of Lafayette blessed the Friar Truck on Jan. 7, he prayed, “May the Word of God be always heard from this pulpit, as it unfolds the mystery of Christ before you, and achieves your salvation within the Church,” and “We pray that from this pulpit we may listen to the voice of your Son, so that responding to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we may not be hearers only, but doers of your word.”
With that, “The Bible on Fire Truck,” with its letters also counseling “Dial God,” got its official commission and was raring to make its calls.
On either side of the Friar Truck’s hood are words inscribed from St. John and the Angelus: Et Verbum caro factum est (“and the Word was made flesh”) and its response, Et habitavit in nobis (“and dwelt amongst us”). To underline the theme, Father Champagne said, “We have the eagle as a hood ornament.” (St. John who wrote about Jesus, “the Word of God,” is often depicted as an eagle). “The word of the Lord throughout the Bible is so dominant, the living word of God revealing himself throughout the Scriptures,” explained Father Champagne.
Of course, because of the honor due to our Blessed Mother, there is a statue of her prominently displayed on the dashboard, too.
There will be no missing the preachers who will be proclaiming the word of God from the antique pulpit mounted in the bed of the Friar Truck. The top of this pulpit stands 17 feet above ground level.
When he got the idea, Father Champagne, who has organized the annual Fête-Dieu du Teche (Feast of God on the Teche), a 40-mile Eucharistic boat procession along south-central Louisiana’s Bayou Teche, began looking for a pumper truck with the flat bed for the pulpit. His search led to what he was looking for in a rural county in Illinois. A local fire department was selling its 1977 Ford fire truck that was kept in a shed. For a 44-year-old vehicle, it had only 10,000 miles on the odometer. Father Champagne said when the man “found out that I was going to use it for evangelization,” they got the truck for “a sweet deal.”
The Friar Truck will now be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who not only preached in synagogues but to the crowds. “Jesus preaching was itinerant,” Father Champagne said. For instance, at the Lake of Gennesaret, he got into Simon's boat and preached to the crowd, using the surface tension of the water as a barrier. Overall, Jesus was “mainly in the street preaching.”
The Friar Truck will be on the street, too. The attention-getter is well stocked — with free Bibles.
“The fire of the Holy Spirit to put hearts on fire with the word of God,” proclaimed Father Champagne, noting the new conversion for the hose fittings allows them to dispense holy water.
“But the emphasis is really on the Scriptures,” he accentuated. “We have some great preachers in this area, and we will invite them.”
They will be proclaiming and preaching the word of God from atop the 19th-century red-oak pulpit that came from France and was designed to mount on the wall of a cathedral-like church. It can date to as early as 1820. Father Champagne believes it came from a church in Paris. It was later used in New Orleans and then eventually stored for years in a warehouse before he learned of it. “I’m sure lots of people preached in it,” he said.
“The Bible on Fire Truck” — the logo emblazoned on a circle of flames on each door — will continue for itinerant street preaching on the Scriptures at different public locations.
“We can drive up at football games, at Catholic revivals,” the priest said, sharing different venues where the Friar Truck will appear. “We can do a lot of good preaching and getting people back to church. Most of Jesus’ preaching was at outdoor events.”
Father Champagne sees the prime necessity of bringing the Scriptures to the people. “There are so few people going to church, and when they do, I have 12 minutes to give a homily,” he said. That’s why we’re “trying to get the Gospel to people through other media, showing up where they are and gathering. We can do that with the fire truck.”
He explained that to devout Catholics, the Eucharist is everything. “But we don’t put enough emphasis on Scripture. There is a famine of the word of God. “We really have to focus on the word of God, sacramental life. People are not getting baptized. We end up succumbing to the five-minute homily.
“If we get our young people to pray well, and pray with the Scriptures, Jesus continues to call them.”
A related idea has already proven valuable and successful: The congregation’s old ambulances are mobile confessionals. After studying in Rome, Father Champagne’s first local assignment was hospital work, including time in ICUs and with the ambulance CCU, Critical Care Unit. He thought, “It would be nice to have an SCU — a Spiritual Care Unit” for going out into the community. For the Year of Mercy, he found an affordable used ambulance for sale, repurposed it as mobile confessional, with a picture of Jesus the Divine Mercy, proclamations of “Whose Sins You Forgive Are Forgiven Them, John 20:23” on driver and passenger doors and on the back inscriptions proclaiming “Sacred Heart Field Hospital” and Misericordiam volo non sacrificium (“It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice”).
“It has been very effective,” Father Champagne said about the mobile confessionals, which normally have been going out weekly. “We have heard over 12,000 confessions on the road already.”
“It’s very effective as we go to different spots. Some people have been away from confession 30, 40 to 60 years. We want them to go to church to confess before Mass regularly. We get them through the initial [return to the sacrament] and then they are able to go back again to church.” He added that the priests are not saying Mass in a mobile manner.
To preach the Word of God, the Friar Truck will go to places that already welcome the ambulance-turned-Spiritual Field Hospital — such as outdoors at a bowling alley, a shopping center, Catholic schools and diocesan events. Private property owners have been “benevolent to us,” Father Champagne adding, citing a health club where 3,000 people enter its doors every day. The owner allows the congregation’s spiritual work, which is well-received. “We always get 40 confessions in two hours,” the priest reported.
The community’s nuns help by giving penitents a holy card on their way into the health club. “They get off the treadmill and come outside and go to confession,” said Father Champagne.
When Father Champagne posted on Facebook they were going to be at the shopping mall for Christmas, people came in droves. “On Dec. 23 in the parking lot, we heard for hours,” he said. “People do want to go to confession. … With perseverance and praying, people will come back.”
Father Champagne underscored, “Once you get their attention, they're curious. They open up and ask questions.”
The Friar Truck is making its debut this week at the Jubilee of the Word marathon at the Square of St. Martinville, where more than 300 participants will read from a Bible nonstop through Jan. 23. The congregation has loaned the Bible blessed by Pope Francis out for similar four-day marathon readings elsewhere, such as at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
The bottom line of evangelistic efforts: “Find a way to show up in people's lives,” Father Champagne said. Reach people in the pews and then “evangelize those who are never in the pews … groups of people who used to be in the pews and no longer are in the pews. They are not going to church at all. We have to show up in their lives.”
This story was updated after posting.