A Rural Church on the Appalachian Trail Serves Hikers

New Hope Union United Methodist Church in Bastian, Virginia
Develop an effective outreach to a transient population.
Serve breakfast to hungry hikers.

There are small churches—and then there are small churches. New Hope Union UMC—a church of 19 members with an average attendance of eight—is tucked in to the rural, unincorporated Appalachian community of Bastian, Virginia.

The church’s building sits on a dead-end road and has no indoor plumbing. The space is cramped, and the congregation shares Rev. Alan Ashworth with his other small church in Bastian, Pine Grove UMC. New Hope has lost many elderly members over the years, and it’s struggled to rebound.

Despite these challenges, New Hope, located just a few miles from an Appalachian Trail trailhead, has found a creative way to serve a very specific community of people who pass through Bastian between April and June each year: Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers.”

“We’re a quarter of the way up the trail from Georgia, so by the time hikers get to us, the fun is gone,” Ashworth explains. “Out of nowhere, an unexpected kindness comes. The hikers call it trail magic. We call it God’s love.”

Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministry (ATOM) began small in 2002: The church placed a trash can on the side of the trail, then a picnic table. Next, volunteers offered rides to hikers who wanted to go into town. The church wanted to learn hikers’ specific needs, and it turned out, they wanted a good, hot meal.

So ATOM evolved. New Hope began feeding hikers breakfast at the church every Monday during the season. Each spring before the first hiker arrives, Ashworth hikes to Jenkins Shelter about five miles south of the trailhead near the church, where he posts a flyer advertising the meal.

Then on Monday mornings during the season, volunteers in matching T-shirts team up from New Hope, Pine Grove and even the larger nonchurch community. Some people shuttle hikers between the trailhead, the church and town. Others prepare breakfast at home and bring it to the church to serve: homemade apple butter, jellies, maple syrup and cane molasses, pancakes, biscuits, scrambled eggs.

“Hikers are notoriously hungry, and we could serve prepared foods that are cheap, but we decided we were going to do this right,” Ashworth says. “A lot of attention—and I’d like to say a lot of love—is given to this.”

Hikers have been grateful for this simple kindness.

“In the Appalachian Trail community, people don’t require a lot of luxury. They don’t have running water either, and they’re happy with a warm place to sit out of the weather, conversation, good food, smiles. Sometimes there’s music and a ride to town. All of those things don’t cost us much money.”

They’re New Hope’s way of meeting not just physical needs but emotional ones too. And though the church isn’t pushy, they’ll share their faith if they’re invited.

“Conversations take place that we know impact hikers’ lives,” Ashworth says. “We get cards and letters from hikers telling us what that day meant in their lives. There are always blessings that come from serving God and his people.”

But ATOM has become a challenge for New Hope. Even with its ability to improvise, partner, donate and adapt, ATOM operated on a skeleton crew last spring, Ashworth says.

Spring 2018 will probably bring some changes to how the ministry serves hikers.

“When we got into this thing, we never knew where it would go,” Ashworth says. “But I think we’re always called forward, so that’s my plan.”

Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.