Man shares Gospel through hitchhiking

LA PUENTE, Calif. — He's "J.L." on his business card. His wife calls him "Mac." Some friends call him "James," although he often forgets to stand up when he's introduced as James. But he's best known simply as "The Hitchhiker."

James L. McCollough's motto is "Sharing the Gospel around the world, one highway at a time."

A 59-year-old former Marine, McCollough has been hitchhiking all his life — not because he can't drive or doesn't own a car. He can and does. Hitchhiking is his God-led ministry, his chosen method to share Christ literally on the highways and byways of life.

McCollough is a missionary for the North American Mission Board and works for the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association. His ministry is aptly named "BlackTop Ministries." From California to Mexico to Indiana to Florida, this man has traversed plenty of blacktop.

"I go out about every day," says The Hitchhiker, who on this day was in Nevada, dressed in his usual "USMC" reflective orange vest, "Jesus Saves" belt buckle and red "I love Jesus" baseball cap. For added safety, he wears bright yellow reflective wristbands. His ID badge from the mission board simply says "The Hitchhiker."

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he hitches the 25 miles from La Puente to Downey, Calif., to work at the association office. But on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he's on the real "Gospel road" again — going wherever the Lord leads and kind drivers will take him. He prefers the back roads, where hitching is not against the law.

And he prefers not to ride with Christians unless it's almost dark or raining, explaining that "they don't need me. I want to ride with the lost. I can help them by sharing Christ."

McCollough will tell you that hitchhiking is not as easy as in the '50s and '60s when drivers were more willing to pick up those thumbing for a ride.

"By law, truckers will no longer pick up hitchhikers. You can't hitchhike on the freeways and interstates although you can on the ramps. By California law, you have to be three feet away from the roadway."

In today's world, hitchhikers probably are feared more than ever. Before he's picked up, a driver will give McCollough a real once-over from a distance to make sure he's not a threat. But once McCollough is in the car's passenger seat, the driver is a captive listener to the Gospel. They'll also get a tract or a mini-Bible to keep — in Spanish if he's thumbing in Mexico.

For those who accept Christ, McCollough gives them an autographed Bible. He also adds them into his cell phone and calls them back to check on their progress and see if they're reading their Bible and going to church.

The Bibles he distributes are imprinted with "Heaven is sweet, hell is hot. You're going to one, ready or not!"

Hitchhiking is hard work because sometimes McCollough must wait hours in the boiling California sun for a ride. He says this doesn't discourage him, though.

"If I have to wait a long time between rides, I just look at it as a divine appointment. I view it as there's someone out there special who God wants me to meet and talk to. I've already prayed and trusted someone to be there. And usually it turns out to be someone with a real need."

He was recently picked up by a woman from Riverside, Calif., who was fleeing from an abusive relationship with her husband. She had fled with nothing and had little gas in her car. The Hitchhiker shared Christ with her, bought her a tank of gas at his own expense and told her to look up Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in Riverside and tell them The Hitchhiker had sent her.

When the SBC recently held its annual meeting in Indianapolis, McCollough's colleagues told him he could fly to Indy at the associational office's expense.

"I told them to let someone else use the plane tickets, that I'd hitchhike." So McCollough hitchhiked the 5,000-mile round trip between La Puente and Indianapolis. At the convention's close, he inspired dozens of NAMB employees when he spoke to them about his ministry.

Born in Gastonia, N.C., McCollough overcame polio as a youngster during the polio "scare" of the 1950s. Although neither his truck-driving father nor mother attended church, his mother was a prayer warrior.

"I watched several friends pass away or become crippled by polio," McCollough recalled. "But my mother said, 'I'm not worried. I've already prayed about it. My God is not going to take you.'"

As a teenager, he started hitchhiking to get to and from local Belmont (N.C.) High School. After high school, McCollough then hitchhiked from his home to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where he studied electrical engineering.

But at 19, he joined the Marines, serving in Japan. After his discharge, he decided to make California his home, earning a degree in electronics at Long Beach College. He also worked as manager of a Jack in the Box restaurant. He still was not a Christian but that was about to change.

"I was hitchhiking to work one day on the 405 North in Long Beach and two guys picked me up and shared Christ with me," he recounted. "I was 30. They gave me a Bible and when I got to work, I dropped it in the trash." His future wife, Martha, dug it out of the trash can and scolded him.

"A few years later, a hard-headed Marine who'd been running for over 30 years, accepted Christ -– along with the daughter of the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Carson, Calif.," McCollough said. The pastor's daughter was Martha. They've now been married 30 years, live in La Puente and have seven children, ages 21-27.

Already a deacon, The Hitchhiker was ordained as a pastor in 1987. Today, when he's not thumbing down a California highway, he pastors Hillside Southern Baptist Church in La Puente. He even hitchhikes to the churches that invite him to come and preach.

"It's sort of joke," McCollough said. "Most pastors tell other pastors that if 'you invite James to preach, allow him some extra time to get there!'" Baptist preachers in California also know that if they see James hitchhiking, there's no need to stop and try to pick him up. He's looking for a lost person to ride with.

The time McCollough could devote to his hitchhiking ministry increased in 2006 when he retired as a Department of Defense inspector after 30 years of service.

Late in his DOD career, he even spent several months on a volunteer assignment in Taji, Iraq, 12 miles north of Baghdad and site of a major U.S. military installation.

"But they had problems with me over there, because you guessed it. I kept hitchhiking around the Taji area." It was not the safest thing to do.

Paul Wilkerson, president of the California Southern Baptist Convention, said, "I've known James a long time, for 25 years. He's a very interesting fellow. James has been a very consistent, loyal witness for Christ. He chooses hitchhiking as a way of meeting people and sharing the Gospel.

"In all the years I've known him, he's never asked me for financial support. And as an MSC missionary, he has to raise his own support," Wilkerson said.

"This is just something he honestly feels is God's calling on his life. He just loves Southern Baptist work. His whole life is soul-winning."

Whether it's because he's a bulky ex-Marine or a child of God, McCollough said he has absolutely no fear when hitchhiking on the road. And in 40 years of thumbing, he's never been victimized or had a bad experience.

"I just don't worry about any danger," he said. "I feel God appointed me to do this." He said wife Martha doesn't worry either. "She feels the Lord has laid it on her heart to be supportive, and she has been for 30 years."

McCollough also is in terrific physical shape for a man his age. You have to be to thumb for rides for hours at a time, in all kinds of weather, carrying a load of tracts, mini-Bibles, extra clothes, two coats and extra shoes.

"Hitching on the way back home from the convention in Indianapolis, a young man picked me up and wanted to give me some money. I refused the money so he offered to carry my bag. He could hardly pick it up. It was full of all the stuff you get at the convention."

When he got home, The Hitchhiker weighed the camouflaged military duffle bag he carries on the road. It weighed 170 pounds.