Radio redemption

photo Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Mark Davis takes calls Friday morning during the Healing Touch radio studio at City Church.

It's 11:59 p.m. and Mark Davis settles into a seat in the basement room of a church on Lee Highway, pulls a microphone to his mouth, straps on earphones and signals to a man a few feet away to fire up the phone lines.

Rhonda, a retired woman who visits the small studio most weeknights to pray for Davis and his radio show, closes her eyes. Keyboard music swells in the background.

It's midnight.

Davis' voice is a sleepy calm as he welcomes his listeners to "Healing Touch," which is being broadcast via satellite on Sirius XM's channel for Christian talk.

"We're here for you tonight, to pray for you and encourage you," Davis says. "What's going on in your life tonight?"

The phones begin to ring, one after another, and the queue of callers fills. Donald, a truck driver in Maryland, wants prayer for his struggling marriage. He says his wife, Clara, also a driver, is on the road and listening.

Diane from Maine, a first-time caller who speaks nervously on air, says her three sons have been taken from her by the state. She and her husband, a truck driver on the road that night, need prayer, she says.

Don, a driver in Tennessee, is on the verge of tears. It's hard to take care of his family because he's always gone, he says.

"I want prayer for my wife," he says. "She's battling cancer real hard. It's stage four and spread to her colon ... and my daughter, she has three small kids and her house burned down ... and my son, he went through a divorce and he's real angry right now."

Five nights a week from midnight to 2 a.m. Davis fields dozen of calls from late-night listeners, mostly truckers, looking to confess secrets and get advice. They talk openly and anonymously about sickness, love, loneliness, addiction, abuse, prison, bosses, sisters, brothers and Jesus. They look for a booster shot to their faith, a nugget of wisdom, anything to keep them going.

The show seems like a natural here. Chattanooga, a Bible Belt town, long has been a busy throughway for long-haul trucking, with two of the country's largest trucking companies, Covenant Transport and U.S. Xpress Enterprises, based near the city.

But for all the hearts that have opened up to Davis in his two years on the air, local support has been hard to find.

Beginning tonight, in debt and lacking adequate donations, the show will be cut to one night a week from five.

To ListenThe Healing Touch is broadcast live on XM 170 or Sirius 161 from midnight to 2 a.m. on Sundays. To call into the show call 1-888-899-HEAL.To GiveGo to the show's website at

Since Davis began hosting the show on satellite radio, listeners from the Carolinas to California have come to think of the man behind the microphone as their pastor. They view fellow callers on "Healing Touch" as their makeshift church.

They tell him it's hard to make friends, nurture a marriage or find a church when you're gone weeks and months at a time. The long stretches of open road can feel suffocating in the middle of the night.

Davis tries to help. Even after the show wraps, he and the show's engineer, John Creel, sometimes stay until 6 a.m., talking and counseling truckers over the phone. He answers nearly 300 e-mails a week from listeners, working to connect people to one another and help satisfy their need for friendship or support.

"We are trying to pray for the least, the lost and the lonely, the people who feel like they have no hope," Creel said. "They call us to try and find hope."

The show became so popular that six incoming phone lines couldn't handle the traffic. Davis estimates the show has as many as 20,000 listeners. People often wait on hold for 30 minutes to be one of the 10 or 15 callers to receive prayer on the air.

And some calls are serious, even life and death.

Davis handled three suicidal callers in the past year. One trucker, Ross, was driving through Canada when he called "Healing Touch" and told Davis he planned to speed his semi into a bridge and flip the truck into a 200-foot ravine.

"He hated his life," Davis said. "His wife was having an affair with a man next door. He had lost his job. His sister wouldn't talk to him. He said, 'I'm tired of living. I have a plan to kill myself in about 20 minutes.'"

But Davis, who gets emotional when he tells the story, talked him down, convinced him to pull the truck over and pray. A week later Ross called back.

"I'm saying to you tonight and I'm telling you from the bottom of my heart, thank you for saving my life. Thank you for being here for us truck drivers that are out here pounding the pavement," he said on air. "All I could think about that night was to call and talk to you, get through to you. You saved my life."

The show was started 11 years ago by a Jacksonville, Fla., woman named Norma Dearing. When she started the program, Davis said she felt called by God to help hurting people in the night. But it was never her goal to reach truckers.

"People stay up late at night. They can't sleep. They worry. They don't live a happy mom, dad, 21/2 kids, station wagon, kind of life. Their life is out of whack," said Davis.

XM satellite radio, now Sirius XM, picked up the show in 2003 and put it on the red-eye slot of Family Talk Christian Radio Sirius161, XM170.

Six years later, Dearing asked Davis, who has pastored several local Methodist churches and ran a healing ministry called New Decree, to step in and volunteer as host of the show when she fell ill with breast cancer. Almost everyone who works on "Healing Touch" is retired from other jobs and works without pay.

For months, he broadcast remotely out of a friend's daughter's room because they had nowhere else to house the show. Then he and Creel drove to Jacksonville to bring Dearing's satellite equipment to Chattanooga. For a while, they hopped around to churches that would donate some space for them to set up and take calls during the midnight hours.

And eventually they found a permanent home in a basement room of City Church.

"To be on the radio at midnight, normal people don't do this," Davis said. "But the audience liked me."

Especially the men, especially the truck drivers, he said.

But as the show grew its listeners, financial support dropped. When it moved to Chattanooga, many donors in Jacksonville didn't want to renew their contributions. And it's been hard to find new backers in a tough economy, he said.

Since the show is played on nonprofit stations, Davis doesn't have advertisers. He doesn't have the staff to make commercials anyway, he said.

This week, he told listeners that the show - which owes $50,000 in past due air-time bills to the company that broadcasts the program - will continue but only once a week, on Sundays.

Now, when callers talk to Davis, they tack an extra prayer onto their own.

"Brother Mark I want to say a prayer for you," Rand from Kentucky says on air. "You pastor a church of 10,000 members. We wrap our arms around you. ... It's tough out there when you're by yourself. If it wasn't for you, us long-haul drivers would be lost. You're like a shepherd for us drivers.

"When you're not on the air it breaks my heart."