When Alan Ashworth was appointed as first-time pastor to Round Mountain Circuit in 1996, he immediately began seeking a ministry focus for his three tiny churches in Bastian, Va.
He was searching for a personal focus as well.
"I had never stuck with a job longer than 18 months before this preaching job," said Ashworth, who remains a "supply pastor" at Round Mountain.
Today, Ashworth is 61 years old and ready to expand the unique ministry he helped his congregations create. After 10 years of serving breakfast and kindness to Appalachian Trail "thru hikers," the Tazewell District pastor is leading a mission to send a United Methodist chaplain out on the trail.
The chaplaincy venture is backed by Holston Conference and will kick off April 4. Josh Lindamood, age 26, has been selected to hike the challenging 2,200-mile distance across 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Lindamood, a former Camp Dickenson worker, is the son of the Rev. Richard Lindamood, pastor at West End United Methodist Church, Wytheville, Va.
See "United Methodists send first chaplain to hike 2,200-mile trail"
"It's an opportunity for hikers to ask why we're doing this and an opportunity for us to talk about God's love," Ashworth says.
A native of Welch, W.Va., Ashworth is a longtime Methodist and longtime outdoorsman. "Home was a hillside," he says. "I loved nature and I loved hiking." He was a member at First United Methodist Church of Welch.
At age 16, he hiked a section of the Appalachain Trail with 11 other teenagers
-- a week spent traveling from Damascus, Va., to Big Walker Mountain. The adult leader, Dr. John Cook, made an impression on him.
"A lot of life is payback," he said. "There were a lot of people along the way who took an interest in me."
Ashworth entered Bluefield Junior College in 1969. By 1972, he was attending Virginia Tech, where the administration "suggested I take some time off to work on the guitar, as I was spending all my time doing that anyway."
By 1986, Ashworth had a bachelor's degree in English from West Virginia University along with a series of odd jobs in his past. It wasn't until 1987 that he found himself in Holston Conference, volunteering at Camp Laurel in Rocky Gap, Va. In 1988-89 he was an electrician at the camp; by 1990 he was the paid program director.
HOPE ON THE WAY
Ashworth began to hear the call to ministry later, after he had also worked as property manager at Camp Laurel and director at Camp Dickenson in Fries, Va. A conversation with the Tazewell District superintendent, Rev. Don Scott, landed him an appointment at Round Mountain Circuit in 1996. His churches included New Hope Union, Green Valley, and Pine Grove.
The brand-new preacher soon realized the New Hope church was "strategically located" less than two miles from the Appalachian Trail and about five miles from Jenkins shelter.
"It seemed to be at a point where folks are discouraged and need a lift," Ashworth said. He was aware that Appalachian Trail thru hikers typically start the 2,200-mile quest in early spring at Springer Mountain in Georgia. They arrive in Bastian, Va., sometime during April or May. Their ultimate goal is to reach Mount Katahdin in Maine before winter hits. Thousands of hikers attempt the challenge each year but only one in four finish, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
"After eight weeks on the trail, the fun is gone and the work has begun," Ashworth said. The pastor pondered and planned a ministry to intercept hikers for physical and spiritual feeding.
Appalachian Trail Ministry Outreach Ministry (ATOM) was launched in 2001. Ashworth's congregations supported his idea of placing a trash can and picnic table on the trail, followed by serving a Monday-morning hot breakfast for hikers.
"We throw a lot into it," Ashworth says, explaining how New Hope hosts 100 hikers each year without indoor plumbing in the church building. "We do a lot of breakfast casseroles, and a neighbor lets us run a garden hose from his house so the hikers can wash up."
Breakfast at New Hope is a relaxing time for the guests, with Ashworth playing guitar. Church members also offer free rides into town for supplies and provide niceties such as Mother's Day cards for the hikers.
"[Hikers] know Alan is the pastor but he doesn't preach at them," says the Rev. Bob Hayes, an ATOM organizer and retired pastor in Maryville, Tenn. "If they want to enter into a spiritual conversation, they can, but they don't have to."
With the next Appalachian Trail season approaching, Ashworth and crew are now raising $11,500 to support the new chaplain with training, gear, and supplies for six months. The group has received $3,500 so far, including a $500 grant from Holston's Young Adult Ministry Team.
Donors have the opportunity to sponsor stretches of the Appalachian Trail at $5.28 per mile. Seventy-five miles through the southern half of Virginia, for example, is available for $396.
The pastor who never kept a job past 18 months has now served his churches for 16 years and marked the Appalachian Trail with good works.