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Listening for God on the Appalachian Trail

Dave Smith is not a pastor but he does believe that people seeking God don’t always do it in churches. Smith himself was feeling lost when he stumbled onto the Appalachian Trail, but his experience there helped him find his faith again, and led him to offer counseling to other hikers as a chaplain for The United Methodist Church. He took us along to the place where so many find spiritual rest.

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(Locator: near Damascus, Virginia)

"God speaks to you in a lot of different ways, the trees and the streams that flow by. If you listen, you can hear God.”

Seventy-year-old Dave Smith has done a lot of listening in these woods. In 2014, Smith hiked the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail as a chaplain for the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Dave Smith: “You end up sharing things with people that back home in real life you’d probably never share with somebody.”

Smith is not a pastor, but he became a chaplain after finding healing in these great woods. It was a walk that changed the course of his life.

David Smith: “My 3-year-old grandson was diagnosed with pediatric cancer and it just happened to occur on my birthday in 2007. The initial diagnosis was that the he was gonna be fine. Unfortunately, in about five months his heart stopped and we lost Walker. I blamed God. And I became angry with God. I became very depressed. And my faith was tested. My day consisted of getting up in the morning and just aimlessly driving all day. One day, purely by accident, I found myself at a trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. During that walk I must have talked to 50 or more people. And when I got back to my car and started leaving there that day, I realized I feel the best today that I had felt in 5, 6 months. So I kept coming back and God and I got reconciled with each other. And I continued to hike.”

On the trail, everyone has a nickname, Smith’s is Shortstop, from the first hiking club he joined early on.

Dave Smith: “I was not in shape. I was not in condition to be out walking in the woods. I kept saying, ‘Folks, I gotta take a short break here.’ So after a while, a few hikes, I think they kind of got aggravated by all my short breaks. And so, after a period of time they started calling me ‘Shortstop.’ And it has stuck.”

Each year, two to three million people cross paths here.

Dave Smith: “We all become a family. You become acquainted and become friends very quick.”

Many tackle the trail in stages over months or years. A through hike is uniquely challenging…14 states…Georgia to Maine…covering 2182 miles.

A trail chaplain can offer a listening ear.

Dave Smith: “Had one young man on the trail, his question was: ‘What do you say is really important in life?’ What a great opportunity to share the importance of having a strong faith foundation in your life.”

Smith has met travelers as young as 5 and as golden as 80 hiking the full trail. Many are trying to find their footing in life.

Dave Smith: “I’m not here to force my beliefs on anybody. But I’m here to share if the opportunity presents itself.”

Smith says as a chaplain, he prayed to connect with people on life journeys.

Dave Smith: “I saw God’s hand in bringing folks to me and those folks coming and sharing their stories with me.”

Shortstop hopes his fellow travelers along the Appalachian Trail found that peace and direction they were seeking for the road ahead through life.

Dave Smith: “It’s not the end of the trail that marks the end of my hike. It’s the lives that get touched along the way and where those lives go next year and the year after and the year after that. That’s what’s really going to determine how successful this hike was.”

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The first time Dave Smith hiked the trail, he raised money for pediatric cancer research in memory of his grandson, Walker. The walk in 2014 was in support of a Holston Conference fund to keep a United Methodist trail chaplain on the Appalachian Trail.  The Holston Conference spiritually supports the Appalachian Trail Chaplain program but all money is raised from individuals who share a love of hiking and a commitment to taking The United Methodist Church outside the walls.

Dave Smith is a member of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

This story was first posted on January 9, 2015.
Media contact is Fran Walsh, at 615-742-5458.