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Appalachian Trl. an ‘amazing opportunity’ for witness

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2010 Week of Prayer, March 7-14, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $70 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,300 North American missionaries.

FRANKLIN, N.C. (BP)–To understand a person, walk a mile in his shoes. But if that person is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, you’ll have to walk several hundred miles.

“It’s not until about mile 500 that they start to listen,” said Suzy Miles, a North American Mission Board Mission Service Corps missionary. “Before that, they’re superheroes.”

Suzy and her husband Craig started Appalachian Trail Servants (AT Servants) six years ago so they could help represent Christ through service, evangelism and discipleship to reach the longtrail hiking community trekking the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail.

The couple has hiked about 1,000 miles of the trail themselves and visited most of its length to conduct ministry training to churches near trailheads and to minister to hikers through acts of kindness.

The Mileses are two of more than 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. They are among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 7-14. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Share God’s Transforming Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million.

As NAMB Mission Service Corps missionaries, the Mileses must raise their own support among family, friends and related churches. Although they are self-funded, they also receive additional support — such as training, administrative support and field ministry assistance — from the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

The Appalachian Trail is a marked, yard-wide footpath winding through the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain in north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. Conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937, it passes through 14 states. More than 4 million people hike some part of the trail each year, and another 2,000 “thru-hikers” attempt to go the entire distance.

Suzy grew up in Dahlonega, Ga., with a family who took hikers in, fed them and shared with them the truth about Christ.

Craig, a native of Stone Mountain, Ga., had earned a degree in economics at the University of Georgia and seminary master’s degrees when he met Suzy. Suzy had been the hiker in her family and, before long, the couple and her family began hiking almost every weekend in the North Georgia Mountains.

Craig was working in information technology for a regional bank at the time but believed he had a higher calling.

One morning on the way to work, he stopped by his Baptist church and prayed a simple prayer: “Lord, how can you use our time and talents for Your glory?” God was about to answer Craig’s prayer.

“Right after I prayed that prayer, I spotted a missionary magazine on a table next to me,” Craig said. “On the cover was a story about extreme hiking in China. It just clicked in my head that we needed to start a ministry on the Appalachian Trail. Suzy and I were seeing hundreds of hikers pass over the roads and trails and through the woods of north Georgia, but we knew their spiritual needs were not being met.”

Craig and Suzy married, and now six years later, their home and ministry are based in Franklin, N.C., only a short drive from a major Appalachian Trail trailhead. With two infant children and an expanding ministry, they continue to serve hikers but are beginning to focus their attention on training churches and leaders who have a heart for hikers.

Hikers are a subculture, Craig said, and most of them use trail names rather than their own. The Mileses are no different.

Craig’s trail name is “Clay,” taken from Romans 9:21, which describes God as the potter molding the clay. Suzy’s is “Branch,” which comes from John 15:5 where Jesus refers to Himself as the vine and believers as branches.

Whether simply hiking on a crisp autumn weekend or thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, the sport is not for the faint-of-heart. Backpacks containing tents, sleeping bags, food, clothes, first-aid and water purification equipment can weigh 35 pounds or more.

In addition to the obvious physical and mental challenges, other hazards include severe weather, Lyme disease, steep grades, limited water and poison ivy.

“Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail takes a tremendous commitment of time and resources,” Craig said. “And the hardest part is not the physical aspect but the mental. Within the first 30 miles, 20 percent drop out. By North Carolina, 50 percent have dropped out. By West Virginia, 75 percent have quit. Only 15 percent of those who start in Georgia make it to the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine.”

To reach these hearty souls, the Mileses have focused their efforts on training churches and trail chaplains — a select position with AT Servants that requires a mature walk with Christ, a missionary mindset and the ability to walk thousands of miles under often heavy loads.

“We receive dozens of applications every year, but only one or two meet the criteria,” Craig said.

Trail chaplains, who have the greatest direct impact on hikers, trudge the 2,175 miles with every ounce of gear any other hiker would carry and with a goal of enjoying the journey and reaching the end. But chaplains sit around shelters and campfires with the purpose of representing Christ, answering hard questions from thoughtful, hurting people and walking alongside those same people for days, weeks and months.

In 2005, recent college graduate Jonathan Carter finished his stint as a trail chaplain. In October 2009, Joel and Cortney Leachman completed their journey. These ventures created entree into difficult seasons of people’s lives and resulted in several hikers receiving Christ.

The Mileses believe God gives Christians divine appointments and they should expect them and take advantage of them.

“We pray for and expect a daily divine appointment during which we might be able to share our testimonies, answer difficult theological questions, provide counsel or share the Gospel,” Craig said, recounting his and Suzy’s experience on the trail.

He recalled a sudden evening thunderstorm that drove him, Suzy and a group of fellow hikers into the closest trail shelter for protection against a cold, stinging rain.

“Since the next shelter was 10 miles away and none of us wanted to brave the cold rain to get there, we stopped and shared the same shelter for the night. This gave us an opportunity to strike up some spiritual conversation,” he said. “This was a divine appointment.”

Still on the lookout for divine appointments, Craig and Suzy cultivate the soil of the hiker community with a sense of urgency for those churches and individuals with a heart for hikers.

“We have an amazing opportunity,” Suzy said. “If we can represent Christ to someone during a critical few months on the trail, we can see Christ change them for a lifetime.”
Adam Miller and Mickey Noah write for the North American Mission Board.
View video profiles of all 2010 Week of Prayer missionaries at www.anniearmstrong.com/2010video.

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  • Adam Miller & Mickey Noah