By Annette Spence, Special Contributor…
For the past 10 springs, three tiny churches offered free home-cooked breakfasts and other friendly services to Appalachian Trail “thru hikers” passing their portion of Southwest Virginia.
This year, the ministry moves out on the legendary trail with the introduction of a roving United Methodist chaplain. Josh Lindamood, a 26-year-old preacher’s son, is scheduled to take the life-changing hike himself, beginning April 4 at Springer Mountain in Georgia and finishing some six months later at Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The goal is to provide an encouraging spiritual presence to trekkers tendered by nature and physical challenge during the 2,200-mile, spring-to-fall quest, said the Rev. Alan Ashworth, pastor of the three hospitable churches that began Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry in Bastian, Va.
“I know we’ve touched lives because of the letters we’ve received, but the relationship ends right there,” Mr. Ashworth says of the 1,000 or so hikers who have received a hot breakfast or a ride into town for supplies over the past decade. “The idea behind the chaplain is to put somebody on the trail an amount of time to build real trust.”
The chaplaincy venture is backed by the Holston Conference, the parent regional body for 897 United Methodist churches. Mr. Lindamood, a landscaper from Lynchburg, Va., has already received chaplaincy training and will soon receive “wilderness medical training” before shouldering his backpack through 14 states and a variety of weather conditions.
“Everybody hikes the ‘AT’ for different reasons and at different points in their lives,” Mr. Lindamood said. “I just love nature and the outdoors and the way God speaks to you when you’re in it.”
Mr. Ashworth believes that Mr. Lindamood will be the first chaplain to represent a mainstream denomination while hiking the entire route (as a thru hiker), although he knows of evangelists and religious fundraisers who have done so or who hike part of the trail (“section hikers”).
A former church camp director, Mr. Ashworth’s been talking to hikers about their particular needs since he first convinced his congregations to provide a trash can and picnic table on the trail in 2001.
Later, church members realized that weary travelers could benefit from a hot meal as they passed through. So breakfast was served at New Hope Union United Methodist Church, located 1½ miles from where the trail crosses state Route 615 in Bastian, Va. Mr. Ashworth also pastors Green Valley United Methodist and Pine Grove United Methodist, each with fewer than 20 worshippers on Sunday.
The three congregations worked together to provide a unique ministry, including placing a cooler with drinks, weather reports and New Testaments on the trail. Over the years their nature-loving pastor began to dream of the next step.
“We started with an idea to intercept hikers and minister to their needs,” Mr. Ashworth said. “But we had a desire for lasting relationships and long-term contact.”
The Rev. Bob Hayes, a retired pastor and avid hiker in Maryville, Tenn., was one of the first people approached by Mr. Ashworth in pursuing the chaplain mission. Like others, Mr. Hayes immediately recognized the opportunity for faith-sharing within a life experience well-known for drawing or driving spiritual seekers.
However, the AT chaplain is not on a mission to cultivate new church members.
“Josh is not ordained and he doesn’t have theological training,” Mr. Hayes said, “but he has faith in his heart and he’s an authentic thru hiker. We wanted somebody who could enter into dialogue with people without having all the answers.”
Mr. Lindamood said he’s long had his own dream to conquer the trail, although he couldn’t afford the expense. (“He was somebody, I think, who was waiting for a call,” says Mr. Ashworth.)
Organizers are raising $11,500 to support the chaplain with training, gear, food, insurance and other expenses.
“I’m definitely looking forward to growing myself spiritually, to being one-on-one with God and hashing some things out,” Mr. Lindamood said. “But I’m also looking forward to connecting with people, to witnessing for the presence of God, without forcing it on anybody.”
A group of United Methodist pastors, including Mr. Ashworth and Mr. Hayes, will provide spiritual direction and support by telephone or Internet on the long and difficult path from Georgia to Maine. At least one pastor will accompany the chaplain during his first week on the trail.
“I have so many great resources outside my own knowledge, so many people I can turn to,” Mr. Lindamood said.
The chaplain’s backpack will be marked with a symbol incorporating the recognizable green “AT” logo symbol with the traditional United Methodist cross and flame. Mr. Lindamood also has a Facebook page established as “Appalachian Trail Chaplain.”
The Holston Conference doesn’t have plans to send out a chaplain each year for a 14-state pilgrimage. However, organizers may appoint a chaplain to serve hikers passing through Holston in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Holston also includes Damascus, Va., home of the mid-May “Trail Days” festival that draws the largest single gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers anywhere.
“We have an opportunity to offer something beyond food,” says Mr. Ashworth. “We can offer encouragement.”
Ms. Spence edits The Call, a publication of the Holston Conference.