Most days I cross the Appalachian Trail at Bearwallow Gap, in Virginia, coming down from the Blue Ridge Parkway as I drive to the church where I serve as pastor. Quite often during the summer, hot and weary hikers see my Virginia AT license plate that reads HIGHKIN and signal for a ride down the mountain to the town of Buchanan. I always put down the windows as I pull over and believe me – you would too. These thru-hikers come from all over the country, and sometimes other countries. They are modern day pilgrims, leaving the comforts and complexity of our technological, market-driven culture. Sometimes they share their compelling stories. Many are living through transitional moments in life – college graduates waiting to enter the job market, retirees contemplating what’s next, and grievers who have lost a job, a friend, or a partner.
Many start their journey from the isolation of an individualistic society and they load their packs anticipating a solitary experience. Yet they encounter the unique community that is the fellowship of AT hikers on the trail. Most of the time the hikers I transport down the mountain are travelling together in twosomes or threesomes with people they meet on the trail. “Where y’all from?” I ask. They answer, “Boston, Seattle, Davenport Iowa.” The thru-hiking AT community is an alternative to the competition of American market-driven society. Collaboration and hospitality color the AT experience as well as the rare practice of listening. But I have hiked enough of the AT to know it as beautiful and potentially transformative, but it is also hard, fierce and utterly demanding.
The church has much to learn from the AT community. And one church that has been learning from it for years is the Church of the Mountain in Delaware Gap, Pennsylvania, located a stone’s throw from the AT. This church is well-known among experienced hikers because it houses the oldest operating Hiker Center on the AT, opened in 1976. Every year 1,400 hikers stop at this little Presbyterian church and take part in the numerous offerings shared by the congregation. In the basement of the sanctuary (built in 1853) the Hiker Center offers a common room, a bunk room and treasured bathrooms and showers. Church members provide rides into town. Every Thursday during the summer the church holds an open potluck where, on average, twenty-five hikers enjoy the hospitality of a home-cooked meal. Each week their popular concert series sponsors local bands, which attracts hikers and people throughout the Stroudsburg area.
I talked with the pastor of this congregation, the Reverend Sherry Blackman, a second career minister who was a journalist before seminary. She started at Church of the Mountain in 2014. Sherry stressed that their ministry was not about proselytizing or trying to convert hungry, sweaty hikers to Christianity. Instead this small congregation finds its vitality in sharing community and offering hospitality which creates enough space for human beings to search for meaning together. They have had their challenges through the years as any such effort would necessarily present. Sometimes the hikers get fed up with each other and fight. A few times the Hiking Center has been broken into by someone mistakenly hoping to find cash. Community is a wonderful thing but it ain’t easy. Sherry described one of her favorite things is driving to the church on Sunday morning and seeing laundry hanging out all over the church yard.
While talking to Sherry, I realized that I was searching for answers myself. Why is the AT so open and free a place for people to tell their stories and seek meaning? After all, this is the purpose of religion. Harvey Cox said it better than I can.
“All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by. Religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need.”
Of course, the problem is in the line “whatever else it has done.” Yet the AT does a number of things that helps people make meaning of their stories. The AT puts people in the middle of the natural world from which we are often separated and reminds us how interconnected the world is. The AT teaches that money is of limited use. The AT quiets our addictions to technological distractions (doesn’t break the addiction, because you can still Twitter from some of the AT). The AT encourages collaboration because I know I have had to ask for help on the trail numerous times.
Sherry put it like this near the end of our conversation. She said, “The AT breaks down life to its simplest equation and allows the possibility of transformation.”
Church, we have much to learn.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.