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NAMB missionaries share Christ along Appalachian Trailcomment (0)

April 15, 2010

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

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

MSC missionaries Craig and Suzy Miles 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 AT.

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 AT 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 four 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 and a father who took hikers in, fed them and shared with them the truth about Christ.

A native of Stone Mountain, Ga., Craig had already 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 shortly after, the couple and her family began hiking almost every weekend in the North Georgia Mountains.

At the time he met Suzy, Miles was working in information technology for a regional bank but believed he had a higher calling. One morning, 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,” Miles 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.”

Miles 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 AT trailhead. 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, Miles 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. Suzy’s is “Branch,” which comes from John 15:5.

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 lbs. 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.

So 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 mind-set and the ability to walk thousands of miles under often heavy loads.

Trail chaplains, which 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.

“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.”  (NAMB)

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