Drive Thru Church

DoubleTake
Spring 1998
Edited by Rob Odom
© Bill Donahue

GRESHAM, ORE. On the worst days, when the gray Oregon drizzle doesn’t let up, the suburban sprawl just east of Portland reminds me of bad country music and all its heartaches and baleful crooning. There are instant check-cashing places out here and lawyers hawking quickie divorces and bankruptcies. That forlorn, disgraced ice skater, Tonya Harding, has slept here, in a succession of dingy apartments, and the window at Ron’s Barber Shop bears a picture of an army tank and, beside it, the words “Military Haircuts. $10.”

So I wasn’t surprised, really, when I read in the paper that an ex-con had opened what is probably the nation’s first drive-thru church, Pray Here Ministries, in the vacant lot beside Ron’s. Thirty-seven-year-old Rick Schneberger, the story said, sits in a plastic lawn chair on that lot and leads people in prayer as their autos sit idling. The guy sounded nutty, like a wonderful circus freak, so one dank afternoon I picked up my three-year-old daughter, Allie, at her mom’s, and we drove out to Gresham, toting a weekend’s worth of clothing and an illustrated children’s Bible we’d borrowed from the library.

When we crunched into the gravel lot, Mr. Schneberger was busy greeting rush-hour traffic with a wave and a beatific grin. A McDonald’s-esque sign at his side read, “Souls Saved:91”; nearby stood a looming cross wrapped in aluminum foil. I parked, and my daughter suddenly screamed: “I have a Jesus book!” The remark was, I admit, rehearsed, but it worked. Mr. Schneberger pulled his chair up to our car door, clasped my hand, and beseeched the Lord Jesus to grant “abundant life” to my child. His blue eyes were warm and his smile was gleaming and, well, my inner atheist failed me. Mr. Schneberger, I decided, isn’t a scary Bible Belter. He’s just a nice guy who happens not to mind the exhaust fumes.

He calls his church a “spiritual M.A.S.H. center,” and, for hours each afternoon, five days a week, he tends to the driving wounded. Alcoholics are often among the fifteen or so carloads that visit each day. People have come in with broken marriages, terrifying credit records, and bladder infections they want cast out like demons. Once, a street kid traipsed over with a grimy duffel bag and begged Mr. Schneberger for $133, money he said he’d use to take the Greyhound bus home to Abilene, Texas. Mr. Schneberger gave him the cash. You see, he knows what it’s like to be down.

Mr. Schneberger, who today gets by on disability checks from an old back injury, grew up in Portland with four siblings and no father. His mother, a cosmetologist, couldn’t manage the chaos, so Mr. Schneberger got away with reading Penthouse and drinking heavily before he turned thirteen. He spent five years in the air force after high school, and then, at twenty-two, while inebriated, he strolled into the Florida strip bar where his girlfriend worked and fired a .38 revolver, clipping a bystander’s arm. “I fled the scene,” he recalls. “I lay under a dock all night, hiding from dogs, and I heard a voice inside me saying, ‘If you don’t stop running, you will run your whole life, and that is no life.'” He turned himself in, phoning the cops from the bus station.

Eventually—after a three-year prison term—Mr. Schneberger discovered the Lord. He began doing His work last year, fielding phone calls for a Portland hotline that ministers to Christians in crisis. “I took the Saturday night suicide calls,” he says. “The same people would call me week in and week out, and I could hear them smoking or slurring their words, and I felt, This way doesn’t work. They’re not accountable. If you really want to bring them to Jesus, you have to be in their presence.”

The Lord then commanded Mr. Schneberger to lay claim to an abandoned gravel lot. In Gresham. At a clamorous intersection. And conveniently situated just a few blocks away from the gargantuan Fred Meyer shopping center.

On the afternoon we were there, a street evangelist named Mark Eidemiller stopped by just before hitting Fred’s store. “A little prayer never hurts,” he reasoned. There was a “Trust God” decal on the steering wheel of his ’69 Pontiac LeMans and sitting in the passenger seat was Jeanette Gutendorf, fifty, who bore a cast on her wrist. She was recovering from a hernia operation, she said, and her daughter had been murdered two years ago. She wanted Mr. Schneberger to lay hands on her.

He did, gently, barely touching the cast, and soon another “customer,” as Mr. Schneberger calls his visitors, arrived in a spanking new red Camaro. Chris Gudjohnsen, forty-one, was going through a divorce, his second. “So,” he told Mr. Schneberger, “my lawyer came at her with three sets of fangs, which, I guess, is good. But I’m confused, man. I’m always like, ‘Maybe I’ll grab her back.'” Hunched by the car, Mr. Schneberger grimaced and said, “There’s nothing He can do to stop this divorce, Chris, so let’s seal the deal.” He began to pray: “Lord, may you deliver this man a peace that passeth all understanding. May you free him from confusion. I remove you, confusion! In the name of Jesus, get out!”

Mr. Gudjohnsen choked back tears. “They should have this place open after the bars close,” he said, “because that’s when they could really save souls.”

Mr. Schneberger has no plans to adopt a late-night regimen, but he does aspire to relocate—and to expand lavishly. As he envisions, Pray Here will soon boast a chain of four Portland-area churches comparable to the Hot ‘N Now restaurants that once speckled Oregon. “You’ll have two drive-thru windows,” he explains, “one for people who, say, arrive in tears, and then one for people who just want a quick prayer and, see ya, they’re out of there.”

“With, like, instant peace?” I asked.

There was a lull between customers now, and Mr. Schneberger slowly paced the gravel as traffic hissed all around us. “It would be an express service,” he assured, “but never abrupt. You have to listen because everybody has issues. We cover it up pretty well, but there is rampant despair in the world. People need hope—and hope is something one human being can actually transmit to another.”

My daughter was still in the car, listening to all this, and getting quite squirmy. So we went home finally, and, for the next several nights we were together, Allie kept wanting to read the Jesus book at bedtime. She liked the picture of Christ with the gaping “ow-ees” in his hands and the “special crackers” people ate in church, and, most of all, the weird little map of the Middle East on the book jacket. We began reading that map obsessively, the two of us reciting the names of cities and countries, pondering the oddities and promise of each place—carrying on like this every night, borne along by the sort of hope that keeps us alive.