By Corrina Sisk-Casson
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (March 28, 2018) -- Meet Mary Palmer, the newest chaplain serving Holston Conference’s Appalachian Trail ministry.
Palmer will have a different role than past chaplains, however. For five years, the ministry has sent chaplains on “thru-hikes,” covering 14 states and nearly 2,200 miles on foot. In 2018, Holston Conference will not only send a thru hiker, it will also send Palmer as the first circuit hiker.
“I knew about the chaplaincy from a friend who did it. I was intrigued by it and perceived it as a calling,” Palmer said. “I began online study in chaplaincy in September and sought counsel from friends that are chaplains. I applied for the thru-hiker position, still not knowing how I would do it along with the job I do at East Tennessee Children's Hospital.”
Palmer, age 60, is a physician in emergency and child-abuse pediatrics. When the founder of the Appalachian Trail ministry, Rev. Alan Ashworth, suggested the circuit-hiker position, Palmer knew it was “the perfect match for me. I can continue my work at [the hospital] and pursue the chaplaincy.”
Palmer, a member at First United Methodist of Oak Ridge, has been an avid hiker for more than 11 years. She started hiking as a way of working through a difficult time in her life. She says being outside and surrounded by nature is healing for her. She hopes to bring her experiences to hikers on the trail who are looking for something to restore themselves.
“We each have so much to offer, and we each need care in different ways. I pray that I can be in the place and time to offer spiritual support or connection at the time that it is needed,” she said.
Because the circuit-hiker ministry is in its infancy, Palmer is experimenting with ideas about how it can be most effective. She will spend a week each month, from March to November, hiking the Appalachian Trail.
She said she's excited to bring new ideas to connect with hikers: “I am learning about foot care and plan to offer that to hikers on the trail … modern-day washing of feet, complete with bandaging, massage, toenail care, and essential oils,” she said.
In addition to taking online chaplaincy courses, Palmer has been talking with active hikers and campers to learn all she can to enhance her work. She has found multiple resources, including local outdoor stores and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
On March 2-4, Palmer and the chaplaincy ministry team attended “Appalachian Trail Kick-off Weekend” at Amicalola Falls State Park, where an Episcopal priest inspired the foot-care idea. “Every vendor and presenter offered great ideas and support,” she said.
Most people don’t realize the trail is a community atmosphere. Although people come from all around the world to hike it, they create a close-knit group, she said.
“The AT community is a real thing, just spread out along 2,190 miles. You are infrequently alone,” Palmer said.
Holston's chaplaincy ministry team will review the new circuit-hiking ministry to assess what best serves hikers and to improve it for future chaplains. The trail ministry relies solely on donations for support. For more information, visit the ministry’s web page and Facebook page.
Corrina Sisk-Casson is a United Methodist Deaconess Home Missioner candidate who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Bishop Taylor commissions Mary Palmer (Holston video, 2/21/18)