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Germany

Germany's Autobahn Chapels Offer Rest Stops For the Soul

The entries in the guest book or Book of Concerns at one church beside the autobahn in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate show that modern mobility and spiritual solace need not be mutually exclusive.

A highway sign indicating an autobahn church

Prayerful pit stops are possible thanks to autobahn churches

The comments written in English, Polish, Czech, Dutch and German are from motorists who took time off from a journey to find peace of mind beside a busy motorway in the municipality of Waldlaubersheim. Some of the visitors leave behind their most intimate thoughts, wishes and prayers.

"Thank you for giving me the strength to kick my habit," reads one anonymous comment. Another is from Ollie: "I'd been driving back and forth past this spot for nearly half a year before I decided to stop and seek out your house."

The Protestant church of St. Martin in Waldlaubersheim is one of 33 such churches located alongside Germany's famous Autobahns, an institution which celebrated 50 years in a ceremony in a church on the A8 in Adelsried in 2008. More than 1 million people visit them every year.

These houses of worship invite people to seek "relaxation, refuge and contemplation." The churches are "rest stops for the soul," according to the website autobahnkirche.info maintained by the Bruderhilfe pastoral organization in Kassel.

Highway chapels curb road rage

Slow-moving traffic on a Germany highway

Stopping at an autobahn church may ease traffic-jam tension

"Drivers who stop at an autobahn church tend to continue their journey in a more relaxed manner and are more considerate to other road-users which goes to show that a visit contributes to road safety," the custodians of the church write.

Yet what qualifies a church to be an autobahn chapel? "It must be close to a motorway exit and stay open the whole day," said Birgit Krause who works for the Bruderhilfe.

Although the autobahn churches maintain no firm links with each other, their pastors do meet once a year to exchange ideas. Most of the chapels are Protestant, but the doors are open to worshippers of all confessions, said Krause.

Many of the churches are remote from rural communities, yet damage or vandalism is no more of a problem than it is elsewhere. "People are coming in and out the whole time which acts as a check on anti-social behavior."

Until 1991, St. Martin's Church was a house of worship for people from Waldlaubersheim until a local vineyard owner came up with the idea of turning it into an autobahn chapel.

Drivers just want simple rituals

"He was on the road a lot in his car delivering wine and knew how stressful driving can be," explained pastor Joachim Deserno. "In the beginning, we racked our brains over all the things we would need to provide for visitors until it suddenly occurred to us - they don't actually want much."

The guestbook is an important feature along with a leaflet containing a blessing for each visitor. Drivers can also write down their prayers, wishes and concerns on slips of paper and attach them to a large wooden crucifix. Candles can be lit in a corner next to the altar while to the rear of the transept, below the handsome old organ, stands a table with toys and books for children.

An Autobahnkirche

Autobahn churches are especially popular with the elderly

"That has come in use for local services too," said Deserno.

Experts from the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg found in a survey that a typical visitor to an autobahn chapel is at least 50 years old, with men churchgoers outnumbering women.

A study of 400 questionnaires also revealed that two-thirds of visitors come in from the road not just to rest but to pray, light a candle or take part in a religious service. The majority of visitors were Catholics.

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