In March 2010, Hugo, a close friend from Goshen College, and I attempted a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Roughly 5 months and 2,179 miles later, we finished that long walk in the woods. We were immensely tired, amazed, and pondering. There were a number of reasons for embarking on this journey from Georgia to Maine. For us, two important ones were the sense of adventure it held and the escape from the busyness of life and all of its demands. Neither of us expected the great hospitality, kindness, and care that we each experienced among the trail community. We found ourselves in awe of that slice of people who exist in a very counter-cultural way. We were honored to be a part of that community.
Even a year later, I am still reflecting on that time and in many ways I deeply miss it. I think about the wonderful people that we hiked with, the strong sense of community and shared experience of trying to get to Maine. And yet an irony remains in all this. Much of the Appalachian Trail community really wants little to do with God, much less the church. Many of them operated out of some form of secular humanism or vague spirituality. For them, it simply made sense to treat people and the earth with kindness, justice, and love, because those are basic human rights. Every person deserves to experience those things and should practice them. Hugo and I realized that we cared about many of the same things that the trail community did, but where these things were rooted was very different. When fellow hikers heard how our particular beliefs and practices, rooted in the Christian-Anabaptist story, emphasized the same things as their own stories, we no longer talked past each other.
So what did mission, in this context, look like for us? It looked like two friends choosing to hike the entire trail together, in the good times and the very hard times. Most friends that start together on the trail end up splitting after the first month or so for a number of different reasons. It meant that when we enjoyed the cool breeze, the picturesque mountain top views, or the delicacies of creation’s wonders, we gave thanks to God, the creator of all good things. When we shared food mutually among the trail community- we remembered what Christ has done for us in the cross and resurrection, and that we are invited to participate in that same resurrection hope. It meant getting to know a fellow hiker, not much older than us, who had lost his wife just 6 months earlier to cancer. For him the trail was a place of healing as he escaped the busyness and materialism of society. And yet in our relationship and trust with him, we were able to share the hope and healing that we knew and had experienced. We shared that for us this was greater than any walking footpath could offer. Mission happened in relationships, and in conversations. It happened in stereotypes being shattered, and mutual trust and care being nurtured. It happened when our stories connected with theirs, and in those Spirit engagements, we saw something of a larger reality.
Sometimes I think I see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when I reflect on that small slice of culture called the trail community. And sometimes I become frustrated with the church because I wonder if I see the Kingdom more on the trail than I do in mainstream Christianity. I am thankful to the trail community for a lot of things. No doubt, it has changed my life and the way I think about certain people groups. I may always live in the uneasy tension of how a secular community could embody the Kingdom more faithfully than much of the church has. Maybe it is a reminder that the Kingdom of God shows up in places that we didn’t think to look. Yet I am also reminded that as followers of Jesus we live with a greater hope and calling than many on the trail have ever known. The church does not live in ways that are sustainable, righteous, loving and justice minded simply because it makes sense, or is the right thing to do. Rather, the church, rooted in a larger story, is to embody these things because they are our very act of worship to God and is our witness to the power of the resurrection in the world. For this reminder, I thank the trail community.
Randy Keener lives, works and studies in Harrisonburg, VA. He is a residence director at Eastern Mennonite University, and a 2nd year graduate student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the Masters of Divinity program. In his spare time he enjoys running, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, and watching baseball.
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