Presbyterians Today

APR-MAY 2018

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each Sunday, and did little else. The church did some soul-searching about how they could show God's love in the world. After much discussion and prayer — and yes, some resis- tance and more prayer — we decided we would start on this journey by opening our church building to Appalachian Trail hikers, since the church is located right on the trail as it crosses from Pennsylvania into New Jersey." Today the church has 130 members. Their hands-on ministry to hikers involves both the oldest and youngest congregants, who gather to serve and interact with dozens of hikers every Thursday evening of the summer for a potluck hot-dog dinner. The ministry, however, goes beyond sharing food and table talk. Every day during peak season, in a scheduled rotation, a member/ volunteer cleans and freshens the rather odoriferous Hiker's Center. Others lug home shower room towels provided by the church, which they launder and return. Still others are on speed dial to transport injured or ill hikers to doctors or emer- gency rooms, or to nearby stores to purchase supplies. The Rev. Karen Nickels, who served the church for more than 25 years, says the congre- gation thrives because the members are focused on the needs of others, rather than on themselves. "The church practices the spiritual discipline of hospitality — creating a space which is safe and free. It meets the needs of the other without asking for anything in return," Nickels said. One example of this hospitality is David Childs, steward of the hiker mission for more than 20 years. He, along with the pastor, is always on call, attending to the needs and concerns of hikers. Many times, though, simply being there to listen is what hikers need the most, he says, adding, "Listening is an act of compassion." Childs checks in on those staying at the Hiker's Center at least once a day, hearing their concerns and sharing his experiences as an Outward Bound instructor who climbed to the top of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. He offers the hikers practical tips and emotional encouragement. By the time hikers have reached the Delaware Water Gap, nearly 1,300 miles from Georgia's Springer Mountain, they're well over halfway to Mount Katahdin. "Hiking the trail is always one part spiritual pilgrimage," Childs added. Sacred stories Members and friends of the Church of the Mountain believe in "being" rather than "preaching" when it comes to hospitality. For these folks, it's all about listening carefully to the hikers who tell their stories about why they willingly, albeit reluctantly at times, have chosen to endure the hardships of the trail, and what the hikers are learning on their adventures. Those at the church hear stories of old men grieving the loss of loved ones, of young people delaying the responsibilities of adulthood, of wounded warriors trying to "walk off" traumatic stress, and of those who are trying to heal from broken- ness and addictions. These welcomed travelers intro- duce themselves by sometimes puzzling trail names, like Sunshine, ISO, Psych and even Amazing Grace. The names are usually bestowed upon them by other hikers. Several hikers attend Sunday morning worship during their one- or two-night stays. On one such Sunday last June, there were hikers from Austria, Germany, Australia, Scotland and the United States. For some, like Highlander, it was the first time they had ever attended church. Highlander, a midlife hiker from Scotland, said he was an atheist. But when he completed his hike, he rented a car to do some touring Appalachian Trail statistics Appalachian Trail statistics The Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that the number of hikers attempting a northbound (Georgia to Maine) "thru-hike" has more than doubled, from 1,460 hikers in 2010 to 3,735 in 2017. For hikers attempting a southbound thru- hike (Maine to Georgia), the number has nearly doubled, from 256 in 2010 to 489 in 2017. Hiking the whole trail usually takes about six months. TRAIL TALES Walker, age 70 A soft-spoken, white-haired hiker, trail name Walker, was trekking the Appalachian Trail for the second time in three years. The first time he walked to grieve. "I started in Tennessee in January. I was all alone and I screamed at God a lot. I cried my heart out, and I walked and I walked. By the time I reached Maine, I had physically and spiritually grieved my 4-year-old grandson who died from cancer the year before," Walker said. The second time he hit the trail, he was hiking as a chaplain, giving aid to whoever needed it along the way. Pr e s by te r i a n s To d ay | APRIL/MAY 2018 31

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