Germans are famous for their love of fast cars. But for those needing a little respite from the country's high-speed highways, autobahn churches offer a unique brand of peace and sanctuary for the modern traveller - writes Ruby Russell.
"We seek to care for our guests fully - not just for their cars but also for their body, soul and spirit," said Anna Isabell Strohofer, whose parents opened the ecumenical Light on Our Path Church ten years ago at the family-run Strohofer service station close to Nuremberg in southern Germany.
"It was the aim of our family to create a place where drivers can recover mentally," she added
A family tragedy also played a role in the decision. "My mother's brother died aged 18 in a car accident," said Strohofer in an interview. "My family had always been very religious but this accident made our faith much stronger, and was also a reason to build the church: to remember him."
The church now draws all kinds of travellers from bus charters to long-distance truck drivers, and even hosts ceremonies where bikers come to have their motorcycles blessed.
The tradition of roadside crosses and chapels where pilgrims and other travellers pray for divine protection on the road dates back to the Middle Ages, and seems very much alive at today's autobahn churches.
"Thank you for your protection over 5,000 accident-free kilometres home to my family," wrote one visitor in the message book at the Protestant community and autobahn church at the village of Werbellin. "Thanks for this oasis on our path of life," reads another.
Still, the chance to pause and reflect that these "rest stops for the soul" offer is hardly a throwback to the past, say advocates, but caters to a very modern need.
"What is new is the speed of life today," said Guenter Lehner, of the Akademie Bruderhilfe-Pax-Familienfuersorg, a Christian insurance company that coordinates Germany's 38 autobahn churches. "Now we need to slow down, to have a break during the journey because the cars are very fast, and life is very fast," he said.
The first autobahn church, the Roman Catholic Mary, Protection of Travellers, opened in 1958. It was intended as a monument to be seen from the road, opening just once a week for Sunday Mass. But drivers demanded more.
"People started to visit it and rub their noses at the closed doors," Father Wolfram Hoyer explained in an interview. "So the church was opened and people flocked in ... They wanted simply to get out of traffic, to have a place where they could rest - psychologically, physically, religiously - and then drive on. So these are kind of spiritual filling stations."
Now, Hoyer says, supermarket-style automatic doors allow the faithful access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and more autobahn churches continue to open across the country.
Some, like Mary, Protection of Travellers, and St. Christophorus Himmelkron on the main route between Berlin and Munich - with a rocket-like spire and dedicated meditation room - are purpose-built. Others stood in the same spot long before the autobahn thundered past. All are clearly signposted from the highway, and the Bruderhilfe Akademie estimates they attract around one million visitors a year.
"Everyone who drives ends up in autobahn churches," Hoyer said. "From our message book, I know that we have had several Jews, several Muslims and people who say that they are not faithful - but they are in some way; they stop and pray or meditate."
Some believe the popularity of autobahn churches at a time when ordinary parish congregations are declining, is not only the result of modern modes of transport but also a changing approach to worship.
"Increasingly, people aren't attracted to the religious service on Sunday but they need and they enjoy the silence of churches," said Lehner. "I think this is a very modern use of churches."
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]