Trail chaplain: “We are all hiking the same path”
When Matt Hall was a youngster growing up in Hillsville, Virginia, he remembers one of his grandpa’s friends saying “If you find a turtle sitting on a fence post, the natural question is ‘how did it get there?’”
Hall, the 2017 Appalachian Trail Chaplain appointed by the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church, asked himself the same question as he hit the halfway point on his six-month, 2,189-mile southbound trek of one of the most famous footpaths in the world.
Like the turtle who ended up in a seemingly unlikely spot, Hall, a former addict, finds himself in a similarly inconceivable situation, hiking alongside, assisting, listening and ministering to others on what may be the most unique pulpit in The United Methodist Church.
But as unlikely as his role might be, Hall knows the answer to the question of how he got there.
“I’m really lucky,” Hall said. “I get asked to go around and share my faith journey and that keeps it fresh in my mind. I’m always thinking about it and I know that all of those decisions – especially the bad ones – led me to my personal belief in Christ.”
Along the trail, as Hall meets people, both believers and non-believers, he has learned that everyone has a faith story, a story about how they got to where they are in what they believe. Most people, however, don’t consider the steps taken to reach that place.
“As much as I like for the believer to know why they believe, it’s also an important question to know what they think and why they got to that point of why they think that,” Hall said.
“Anytime you can get somebody to share that story truthfully,” he says, “that’s the beginning of building a relationship and having honest conversation about your faith.”
The story of one’s faith often is impacted by people met along the way. Hall has learned the same is true as he journeys along the Appalachian Trail. In fact, Hall has learned on his trek that he can benefit from almost everyone he meets, a lesson he believes transfers to deepening one’s faith.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned on the trail is to approach everyone with a learning spirit,” Hall said, “knowing you can learn something from everyone.”
Hall recalls one night at a Massachusetts trail shelter when he met a Buddhist monk.
“Meditation is something I struggle with,” Hall said, “and there sat an expert.”
Hall asked permission to join the monk the next day for morning meditations, a move that helped Hall with his own faith walk.
“I learned the importance of visualization and that has really changed the way I pray now,” he said.
The fact that everyone Hall meets while on the trail is also hiking the same path creates a bond, he said. Likewise, Christians have a mutual connection.
“Uniqueness is good, but we need to look for our commonality,” Hall said. “In the Christian world, that is Jesus. We need to look toward the center.”
The impact of what it means to be connected with others on the Appalachian Trail was acutely felt when Hall crossed from Maine to New Hampshire, a day that Hall says stands out as one of the most spiritual for him.
“There is so much anticipation leading up to the state line,” said Hall, who had started his trek in Maine four weeks earlier. “Everyone says Maine is the most difficult state. And you get to this line and there’s a little sign that says ‘New Hampshire/Maine’ and the number of miles remaining in either direction.
“There were hikers coming into Maine and we were coming out of Maine on that day,” he said. “And there was a moment where we shared the exact same point our journey, yet our journeys looked completely different.
“There was a chance I was meeting hikers who had 1800 miles on their legs and I had barely started,” he said, realizing that although they were at the same spot as they crossed the state line, their experiences had been different and he could learn from the more seasoned hikers.
“I remember listening to them intently,” he says, “because I knew they had information I needed to help me prepare for what’s ahead.”
The lesson transfers to one’s faith journeys, Hall says, adding that he has learned the importance of mentoring.
“Find people who know more than you do about your passions,” he says. “In the church, it doesn’t have to be the pastor. Out here on the trail, it doesn’t always have to be the most experienced hiker.
“On the trail, I like to find someone who knows a little about the area I’m in. I hiked two weeks in Maine with a guy from Maine. I was able to hike almost all of New Hampshire with a guy from New Hampshire.
“I’m not saying that you always follow their lead,” Hall says, “but you listen and take it in. “
*Crystal Caviness is a PR specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee. She can be contacted by email.