I believe that one of the most important aspects of outreach and ministry is meeting people where they are. It means so much more to people when you step into their space to love them rather than attempting to force them into yours. That’s why the Appalachian Trail Outreach with BENCHMARK is such an amazing experience. These thru hikers are all on this trail for some reason. Whether that reason is for adventure, whether it’s to escape, whether it’s because they’re running toward or away from something, they’re all on a journey. When we step into their space, it resonates with them and there’s a connection there, even just in the act of handing them an apple or offering a hot meal. And that’s ministry. It doesn’t need to be huge, just intentional. We’re there to show the light and love of Christ through our actions. We’re not forcing anything on them, but we’re there with open hearts.
There’s a quote from John Muir that reads, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains.” Don’t get me wrong – a congregation of God’s people in a chapel is a beautiful thing. But standing outside in His creation, under the vastness of the sky, surrounded by enormous trees, inhaling the clean scent of fresh mountain air is a visceral experience. Just the act of section hiking, handing out fresh fruit, offering prayer produces a light inside people. It’s an amazing experience to ask if a hiker wants an apple and to just watch their entire face shift and break into a blinding smile – “I would love an apple.” When we ask about prayer, it definitely freaks some people out and they get worried we’re about to start preaching at them, but some people get a little serious and they think for a minute and then they say yes. Either they’re worried for themselves or they’re worried for their family and it’s touching to be a part of their experience even if it’s just by praying for safety for the next few months. It’s another point of connection for us, just standing under the trees and the sky. It’s so simple and beautiful to me.
The AT Outreach is not just a chance to escape the busyness of everyday life, it’s also a chance to reach out to people and to let them interpret it in their own way. One hiker (@nature_nik_13) came through on Saturday and posted on Instagram to say that he had a goal as he hiked the AT to “restore some faith in humanity” and to rediscover that “there are good people out there.” To him, our Outreach “did just that.” That’s the point. That’s why I come every year.