ALCOA, Tenn. (March 13, 2016) -- When Chuck Jones steps out on the Appalachian Trail on March 15, he'll realize a dream he's had since age 12. He's even got the "AT" symbol tattooed on his left arm.
He’s the fourth United Methodist chaplain sent by Holston Conference to attempt the 2,200-mile hike since 2013. While every chaplain brings his own gifts and experiences to share with the people met on foot across 14 states, Chuck Jones brings a story of recovery.
"I'm lucky to be alive," he explains.
"He was a frequent flyer to the E.R.," says his friend and ex-wife, Lara Collins.
Jones, age 37, is the survivor of an addiction to prescription medications. The addiction robbed him of a position he loved -- as director of Camp Dickenson in Fries, Va. -- and sent him spiraling through relationships and recovery programs.
Former AT chaplains have reported that many of the hikers they encountered had struggles with addiction, said the Rev. Bob Hayes, a member of the Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry (ATOM).
“Chuck’s experience is going to make him a lot more sensitive to the hundreds of people he will meet,” said Hayes. “The fact that he can say, ‘Been there, done that,’ is really going to help.”
Emmerson completed his June-to-February journey, through the thick of winter, on the same day Jones was commissioned at a Holston clergy meeting on Feb. 23.
“I guess some past experience and training has given me eyes to see,” says Jones of his recovery and upcoming ministry. “There’s a reason why people have to make amends.”
It was the act of making amends (step 9 of the traditional 12-step recovery process) which led Jones to the Appalachian Trail.
In 2015, Jones says he realized it was time to “start asking for forgiveness” for the hurt left in the wake of his addiction. After leaving Camp Dickenson in 2007, he lived in three states and had three jobs before returning to his hometown of Blountville, Tenn., in August 2014.
A few months later, he contacted Michael Snow, current director of Camp Dickenson, and offered to volunteer at the camp.
“Michael Snow, being who he is, welcomed me back with open arms,” Jones said.
Snow was on staff at Camp Wesley Woods when Jones was director of Camp Dickenson from 2003 to 2007. Snow was also a Buffalo Mountain Camp counselor when Jones was a child. ("He had a lot to do with me knowing Jesus," Jones said.)
Growing up at Hulls Chapel United Methodist Church, Jones says he spent many happy summer weeks at Buffalo Mountain as a camper and then a staff member. “I was at home at camp,” he says. “I could breathe.”
Jones began to explore a call to full-time ministry as a student at East Tennessee State University. At age 19, he was appointed as a supply pastor to Mt. Zion Union United Methodist Church in Church Hill, Tenn. Later, he served at Benham's Circuit in Bristol, Va., and Damascus Circuit in Damascus, Va.
The job at Camp Dickenson followed, but he left abruptly in 2007 when he realized he needed help. An addiction had developed because he used prescription medications to dull emotional pain as well as physical pain from past injuries, he said.
“It was devastating for me to squander that,” Jones says of his years at Dickenson. “It’s taken a lot of work to come to terms with that.”
POWER OF THE CALL
Last summer, Jones spent five days volunteering at Camp Dickenson. He dug up a septic tank. He staffed the climbing tower. He served meals and took a lot of pictures.
He saw some of his former staff members and asked for their forgiveness. “They were able to express their frustrations, and I was able to receive it,” he says. “It was very healing.”
He also ran into Bob Hayes, serving as minister-in-residence. Hayes told Jones about the Appalachian Trail ministry and suggested he apply for the 2016 chaplaincy. Jones was excited.
“’Where do I sign up?’” Jones remembers saying. “I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was waiting for them to choose someone more appealing, more qualified, someone who had their life together a little bit more.”
The ATOM team, which supports every chaplain emotionally and financially, interviewed and vetted Jones and found him ideal for the job, Hayes says.
Jones began to realize the power of his specific call to ministry when he recently resigned his job at Lowe’s Home Improvement. His employers congratulated him and left the door open for his return -- after he finishes the trail.
“Once the cat was out of the bag, other people began to come and talk to me about their struggles,” he says. “Being back in Holston Conference and being transparent has mentally prepared me for this more than anything. I’m grateful.”
In addition to his recovery and spiritual experience, Jones says he’s a “minimalist” who likes owning nothing but the backpack he will carry across the mountains – and the “one pair of civilian clothes,” guitar and truck he left at his parents’ house.
On March 14, he’ll travel to Amicalola Falls, Ga., where he’ll meet up with an entourage of supporters including ATOM members and former chaplains. His plan is to hike the nine-mile “approach trail” to Springer Mountain, Ga., where the Appalachian Trail officially begins.
Early on March 15, Holston’s newest AT chaplain will finally follow God’s call into the wilderness. His destination is Mount Katahdin, Maine, which he hopes to reach by September.
“I consider the Appalachian Trail to be my parsonage,” he says.
Follow Cold Turkey’s journey on the Appalachian Trail chaplain’s Facebook page. To support the Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry, send checks to “ATOM," P.O. Box 2013, Bastian, VA 24314.
"Listening for God on the Appalachian Trail" (UMTV, Jan. 12, 2015)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.