Driving the Salvation Army bus: A parable for ministry

The interview was going well as I shared my vision for all that I could offer as the program director for the main unit of the Greensboro Salvation Army Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

I had earned my stripes as a volunteer drama teacher at a satellite unit located in one of the federal housing project community centers. I didn’t really know what I was doing (pay attention, this is a recurring theme) but I showed up consistently and for an extended period of time and that in and of itself made me stand out.

The director of the main site quizzed me about my background, my ability to be flexible, and my willingness to work with a diverse group of people. I answered in all the right ways. Then, “Do you have your CDL?” She asked. CDL. I was quickly mentally scrolling through acronyms and coming up blank. It must have been obvious because she said slowly, “Your Commercial Driver’s License?” “No. No I don’t,” I replied. “Are you willing to get it?” “Yes, of course,” I said without thinking. (This is a recurring theme, too.)

I’d sought out the job at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club because I wanted to help children and youth. I wanted to teach them new skills, provide them with a caring adult presence, help them to dream dreams and envision great things for themselves and for the world, only to discover that an integral part of my job would be driving the bus … the Salvation Army, hoopty, got-to-have-a-few-hundred-thousand-miles-on-it, how-did-it-pass-inspection, seats-about-500-if-you-pack-the-kids-in-right, breaks-down-every-summer-on-the-hottest-day-in-July, bus. However, before I could perform this task I had to get the aforementioned CDL.

Getting the CDL was a whole lot easier than actually driving the bus. The written test was no problem. I am good at book learning. The driving test? A little harder, a little nerve-wracking with the sour-faced DMV employee seated beside me, but still, not bad because I didn’t have to drive the bus! I only had to drive one of the equally hoopty 18-passenger vans. (If the written test is like seminary, the driving test is like a summer internship, controlled, limited in scope, brief, and only loosely akin to the real deal. “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” sort of thing.

The first time I got behind the wheel of THE BUS, I was astounded at how unlike it was to anything else I’d ever driven. The steering wheel was the same shape, gas on the right, brake on the left, but after that the similarities all but stopped. No matter, now I am the driver, I will figure it out. As I said, this bus had many, many miles on it. I was not the first driver, nor would I be the last. My job was first to do no further harm to the bus and, more importantly, to keep safe the passengers I would be transporting from one place to another.  Anything beyond those two things would be a bonus, a big bonus. I wanted to teach and mentor and inspire. I needed to make sure I didn’t wreck the bus. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive but keeping focused on the latter was important if I was ever going to do the former.

Keeping the bus safely on the road may seem simple enough but it requires a specific set of skills that are not learned while getting the requisite CDL. For example, DMV workers do not all pile in the van, climb from one seat to another, fight with one another, play with the windows, or lean out and scream at passing cars. Passengers on THE BUS will, however, do all of the above. You see, not everyone on the bus is interested in facilitating the journey. In fact, some on the bus, and it doesn’t take long to discover who they are, will consistently make it very difficult for you to focus on where it is you are trying to take the bus and those on it. Some you’d just as soon leave behind, so to speak, but that choice is not ours to make and we have to drive whoever happens to get on our bus. O, joy!

This is when it becomes important to enlist any and all other responsible parties traveling with you. They may be the other designated leaders and they may not. Some of the most effective helpers on the bus are those people in unofficial leadership roles, for example, the kids that the other kids respect. If you can get those people to help maintain control on the bus while you drive, then you can safely, sometimes even pleasantly, get somewhere. Identifying those people takes a little time, but it is so worth the effort and cuts down on the shrew-like moments when you scream things like, “Don’t make me have to stop this bus!” Or, the ever popular, “I swear, if I have to say one more thing to you, I am turning this bus around and we are going back to the club and everyone of you are going to sit in the gym until your parents come pick you up! Do you understand me?? Do you want to be responsible for keeping everyone from going on this trip? Do you?” Well, yes, in fact, sometimes they do. Hence, the real importance of utilizing other passengers on the bus, passengers with far greater influence than the come-and-go drivers will ever have.

Keeping the bus safely on the road and headed somewhere involves, obviously, knowing where you are going. But here is something I didn’t learn until I was behind the wheel of the bus: In order to get to the destination safely, I had to spend almost as much time looking backwards as I did looking forwards. I didn’t like this reality as it is far more interesting to be looking ahead as opposed to having constantly to check the rearview mirrors. But, the truth is, if you are ever going to change lanes, or, have mercy, change directions, then you have to know what is behind you. THE BUS is big, awkward, and slow. You can’t just whip it around like the sports car you might rather be driving. You have to know what’s already past in order to move into the future. You also have to keep an eye on the passengers or you won’t know how they are, who is allied with whom, who isn’t speaking to one another, who clearly didn’t sleep at all the night before, or who is on the verge of being overcome with motion sickness, unless you are willing to look backwards as well as forwards.

Checking the mirrors regularly also informs you about what is around the bus and how it might affect the journey. Traffic, construction, school zones, pedestrians, eighteen wheelers, detours, all of these things have an impact on how and when and if the bus will get anywhere. The bus does not exist in a vacuum and even if no one else on the bus is concerned with what is going on outside of the bus, the driver has to be equally in tuned with what’s happening inside and outside. Otherwise, everyone’s safety is in peril and the rule of first doing no further damage will be broken, and no one will get anywhere.

Keeping the bus safely moving is often boring but also not infrequently punctuated by times of intense stress and even moments of abject terror. Maintaining your focus and alertness is crucial because any manner of crisis may arise with the bus or her passengers at any time. For example, it is a real heart stopper the first time you discover that the parking brake is no longer working. Glancing back and seeing the bus, thankfully empty of people, rolling down the gentle grade of the Pizza Inn parking lot can take years off of a bus driver’s life. You are not trained to handle such incidents in driver’s ed. A willingness to take charge and act quickly will work in your favor during such times. Being in good physical shape doesn’t hurt, either. Then, after the first time, being sure to have a few solid wooden blocks to shove under the tires will prevent it from happening again with dire consequences. (This, too, will be your responsibility. Why? Because you are the bus driver.)

And don’t expect those who ride with you to notice, or appreciate, the good job you do. More often than not, none of the passengers on the bus will thank you for driving. They will be oblivious to the fact that you went and picked up the bus (scraping it on the side of the cinder-block building in the process, by the way. The benefit of having an old, not so pretty bus is that no one ever notices the three feet of exposed metal on the right side of the bus. Grace does abound!). They will not think about the fact that you made sure the bus had a full tank of gas. They will not care that you picked up the trash left behind by the last group and even swept out the cheese crackers and removed the visible gum from the back of several seats. They will pile in and pile out and not give a second thought to the effort it took to get them there and back safely. It isn’t their job to appreciate you no matter how much you wish they would.

Despite all of this, the ugly bus that the world doesn’t notice, the unexpected breakdowns, the boring routine maintenance, the less than grateful passengers, despite all of this, it is often really fun to drive THE BUS. It is satisfying to look in the rearview mirror and see how far you’ve come together. It is humbling to return home, stop the bus, and realize that there is not a sound coming from the seats because all the passengers are asleep, tired from the journey, completely able to relax, trusting that you have the will and the skills to get them where they need to go. It is amazing, and keeps you climbing back in the big seat, when you discover that you have taken some people places they would have never otherwise gotten to go. When a child who has grown up in the sweltering southern heat tells you, at age ten, that this is the first time he has ever been to a swimming pool and you watch as he gingerly gets in the shallow end and musters up the courage to put his face in the water and then his whole head and in a few more minutes he is attempting to float and kick and maybe, after a few more trips, maybe he’ll learn how to swim, it suddenly hits you that if you hadn’t been willing to drive the bus, he might not have had this experience. Then you realize that sometimes driving the hoopty bus is the means for dreaming dreams and creating visions and, well, ministry, and that is thanks enough … O man! Did I remember to chock the wheels? Please, God, let me not be the first driver to lose the bus …


Jill Duffield is pastor of Tirzah Church in Waxhaw, N.C.