75 years of “Vehicles for God”

“Vehicles for God” was the motto of a fundraising campaign launched by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) 75 years  ago. The aim was to procure cars and motorcycles for pastoral care in remote areas. In this interview, Regina Lynch, executive president of ACN, talks about the beginnings and development of this special form of aid, which is as relevant today as it was back then.

What was the impetus for the “Vehicles for God” campaign?

The campaign has its roots in Germany. After World War II, the country had been reduced to rubble. There was no infrastructure to speak of, and the Church was no exception. Many displaced Catholics were now living in the diaspora, and priests worked hard to remain in contact with their parishioners.

They were known as “rucksack priests,” and they had to cover unbelievably long distances. We know of priests who traveled for days on foot or on bicycle. They were absolutely exhausted. Father Werenfried van Straaten recognized how desperate their situation was and asked himself: “What can we do right now to help these people?”

What happened then?

First, money was collected to buy motorcycles for the priests, later VW Beetles. A large number of used cars were also donated to the campaign. This was followed by the idea to convert decommissioned buses, or semi-trailer trucks, into “chapel trucks.”

A motorized priest

What were these “chapel trucks?”

Chapel trucks were semi-trailer trucks with converted trailers. One side wall of the trailer could be folded out to reveal an altar that had been installed in the interior. This altar was used to celebrate Mass when the priests visited Catholics in areas without a Catholic church. The trucks were also used to transport donations of clothing and food. The chapel trucks were extraordinary and had a huge impact. They showed the displaced Germans in the diaspora that they had not been forgotten.

Aid to the Church in Need soon expanded its activities to provide aid for Christians behind the Iron Curtain and then to the entire world. What challenges did the organization face in these areas?

Not all of these countries were in a state of complete destruction as Germany was after World War II. However, workers of the Church in these countries often had to – and still have to – cover huge distances, often  on roads that are in very poor condition. ACN has financed the purchase of motorcycles, cars, and even boats. Instead of having to walk, priests and religious sisters are able to drive to their communities.

What is the situation today?

In Africa and Latin America, for example, some pastoral care workers are responsible for 50 or even 100 villages. Of course they are not able to visit them every day, but with access to a car, van, or motorcycle, they are able to visit each parish several times a year to celebrate Masses and baptisms and hear confessions. In between these visits, catechists prepare the faithful to receive the sacraments and organize parish life.

Does ACN use different approaches in different countries? After all, a car is not the most effective means of transportation everywhere.

In many places, the roads are so poor that you can’t travel on them by car. Motorcycles are essential in these cases. There are also parishes that lie along rivers such as the Amazon, which means that local priests need boats to reach their communities. And in the Andes, where paths are very steep, we have occasionally financed the purchase of mules or donkeys for women religious. The local Church adapts to local conditions, and ACN likewise adapts its aid to reflect local needs.

Pastoral care is essential in regions ravaged by war and natural disaster. Does ACN also receive special requests?

A current example is the war in Ukraine. Soon after the war broke out, we received requests for vehicles that would enable Church workers to transport relief supplies, bring people to safety, or visit their parishioners, who live scattered across the country. Small buses are more suited to this work than cars. Another example is northern Nigeria. Even though many clergy have been kidnapped, priests still want to go out and visit their parishes. They used motorcycles for this in the past, but that has become too risky, and so the bishop asked us if we would finance the purchase of a car.

How much does ACN currently invest in vehicle aid?

We don’t have all the figures for 2023 yet, but the total will probably be about the same as the previous year, when we financed the purchase of 1,250 vehicles for use in pastoral care, including more than 560 cars, 250 motorcycles, 16 boats, and a large number of bicycles. We donated more than 400 bicycles in India, for example, to help catechists who have to cover very long distances. Each year, the organization spends about 13 million dollars on vehicle aid.

—Vӧlker Niggewӧhner & Tobias Lehner