Donny Hill is all smiles when he talks about the “Jesus bus,” which is actually a convoy of about 15 vans driven by 30 volunteers who give free rides to those attending the Larry Joe Taylor Texas Music Festival at Melody Mountain Ranch.
More than 50,000 people are expected to attend the six-day festival, which kicks off Monday for its 29th year.
And for the past 14 of those years, Hill and a slew of his friends have been offering the free service to keep drunk drivers off the roads.
“Our goal is to keep people out of jail and out of hell,” he says with a smile.
But behind the smile is a serious mission: Saving lives.
“We started this about 14 years ago,” he said. “I am part of the ‘Jesus Crew,’ a non-denominational ministry that witnesses to people and shares the love of Christ.”
Years ago, the Jesus Crew would go to local bars and witness to people when they came out.
“One year we were standing outside a club and noticed no one was coming out,” he said. “We realized they were all at the LJT festival.”
So Hill called Sherry Taylor and asked if they could offer free rides to festival-goers.
“She didn’t really know what to say that first year, but she allowed us to go out there,” he said. “Then the next year when we asked if we could come back, she knew we were serious and got on board. Now Larry Joe and Sherry really support us.”
In fact, the Taylors make a donation to the group at the end of the festival and promote the phone number to receive the free rides on wristbands, teleprompters at the festival and on their website.
Sherry Taylor said she is grateful for the service.
“It’s wonderful, so many people use it,” she said. “Kids have learned not to drive because of them - and that’s a good thing. This saves lives.”
Taylor also said one of their corporate sponsors, Keg 1 O’Neal, gave the Jesus Crew a $3,000 donation this year as part of its “drink responsible program.”
The buses will run from noon to 1 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. Then they will kick back up at noon on Friday and run continuously until 6 a.m. Sunday.
“People call us all hours of the night,” Hill said. “We have drivers that will take people home at four in the morning if someone needs a ride.”
The massive effort is coordinated by several local groups including the Baptist Student Ministry (BSM), Chi Alpha, Cornerstone Assembly of God, Valley Grove Baptist Church and the Cowboy Church of Erath County.
“We teamed up with the BSM about five years ago and we couldn’t do it without their help,” Hill said.
The group also relies on donations from businesses and private citizens who believe in their mission.
“Our two biggest donors are Ernest Cannon and Shayne Procter,” Hill said. “They never want any recognition, but it’s time to give it to them.Their donations help us pay for the vans and the gas every year.”
Hill says he will spend this weekend scouring garage sales in search of blankets and jackets they will use to keep people warm inside the van.
“It’s warm when they get to the festival in the afternoon, but in the night it gets cold,” he said. “We like to keep them comfortable.”
When asked what keeps Hill going year after year, he sat back in his chair and turned serious.
“Four years ago I received an email from a mother who thanked me for giving her a few more years with her son,” Hill said.
He went on to explain that the woman told him her son had been an alcoholic.
“But she never worried about him when he went to LJT because she knew he always had a free ride and wouldn’t drive drunk,” he said. “She even had a picture of him standing in front of the Jesus bus.”
The woman told him her son had died in an alcohol-related crash after attending a different concert.
She then sent a $2,000 check to the Jesus Crew to keep the free rides going.
Hill got choked up recalling the story.
“That story is always in the back of my mind,” he said. “That’s the difference we can make in people’s lives.”
Donations and tips are accepted and if any money is left over, it’s donated to the BSM or goes into next year’s fund.
“The Lord always provides just enough,” he said.
Festival-goers can schedule a free ride by calling 254-300-7LJT.
To make a donation, message Hill on Facebook or call him at 254-592-7931.