The congregation had its doubts. Protestant minister Carsten Rostalsky had suggested
turning their small church in Werbellin, one hour north of Berlin, into an autobahn
church. What about all the strangers?
Autobahn churches invite people to take a break from the road, come in and find some
quiet time for prayer and contemplation. Then the visitors just drive away. The first
of its kind was opened 50 years ago in Adelsried near Augsburg, under the name Mary,
Protector of Travelers.
While the number of churches in Germany is falling, autobahn churches are enjoying
something of a boom. In the past decade their numbers have risen from 11 to 32, with
15 Protestant, six Catholic and 11 ecumenical houses of roadside prayer. They must
be located within half a mile of the autobahn, offer sufficient parking space and
extra-long opening hours.
Rostalsky’s flock reconsidered after visiting another autobahn church and learning
about that parish’s positive experiences. And, when the Autobahnkirche Werbellin
officially opened its doors, it galvanized the community. Today, even residents not
affiliated with any religion volunteer for opening and closing duties.
Yet mostly, the church serves the people that come in from the road. Annually, some
300,000 people nationwide visit these churches at least once. In a recent study,
the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg found that the typical visitor
is older, male and white: typical of drivers, but not of churchgoers. Indeed, 85
percent of the visitors attend church regularly, they like to light a candle – and
tend to leave again after five to 10 minutes. According to the study, they seek regeneration
and silence and appreciate the anonymity.
What eventually convinced the people of Werbellin to embrace strangers was the guest
book, a common and widely used device. People write down whatever concerns them,
ask for a safe ride or give thanks for arriving safely. Highway police officers regularly
write and pray for fewer traffic accidents. For Rostalsky, the book “serves as a
seismographic indicator of people’s hopes and fears, after all, they’re from all
over the country. Sometimes I can just read from it as an intercession.”
Although no regular services are held for drivers, Rostalsky has performed baptisms
and weddings. One couple had been commuting daily from Berlin to Schwedt and the
Werbellin church was along their way. Talk about a drive-thru wedding!