BASTIAN, Va. (Aug. 20, 2018) -- Most Sundays, New Hope Union United Methodist Church doesn’t have enough bodies in the pews to field a football team.
But the congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Alan Ashworth, sit on a big ministry opportunity: The Appalachian Trail runs practically through their backyard.
An estimated 2 to 3 million visitors hike a portion of the 2,200-mile trail each year, including several thousand “thru-hikers” who walk the entire length. The tiny church saw the chance to impact the huge hiker community — truly “meeting people where they are.”
New Hope’s Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry began small in 2002. With admittedly limited financial resources and manpower, a realistic starting point was to put out a trash can. Hikers are good not to litter but are also keen to shed any weight they can, and opportunities to discard trash are few and far between on “the AT.”
The trash can led to a cooler that stayed stocked with cold drinks and a printed weather forecast for the week ahead (this was before weather apps were common). Members would meet hikers at the trail head to shuttle them into town to a hotel, bank or post office. New Hope’s “trail magic” — hiker speak for unexpected hospitality — expanded into a full-blown hot breakfast for several weeks each spring as the “bubble” of southbound hikers make their way into Virginia.
“Each season we greet people from all over the world, and we’re able to show them God’s love and encourage them in their own pilgrimages,” Ashworth said. “Some of my best ministry takes place just talking to people.”