Carolyn R. Wilson | Special for the Bristol Herald Courier
DAMASCUS, Va. — Brad Sasser’s idea of serving people may be a little different from most pastors.
Three years ago, Sasser traded his pulpit for a different mission field, among the evergreens and majestic waterfalls along the trails of the Appalachian Trail.
Sasser, 41, is an outdoor Christian track chaplain based with his wife and two teenage boys in Shady Grove, Tennessee, just 15 minutes from the track town of Damascus.
“We serve and bless hikers. That’s what we’re doing,” said Sasser, who serves as a chaplain for the Assemblies of God US Missions, a nonprofit missionary organization, reaching people who have never entered a church.
Sasser and his family reside in an RV in Shady Grove from spring to early fall and return to their home in Louisville, Alabama for the winter, where they care for hikers in the Big Cypress National Preserve. near the Everglades in Pensacola Beach Florida.
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The chaplain is the author of “The Road Less Traveled: 23 Life Lessons from the Trail”, a book published in March, which is a compilation of stories from the last three years of his ministry, as well as the spiritual implications that each story carries for our daily lives.
The book is intended to raise awareness of the role of chaplains on the TA, as well as raise funds to support its chaplaincy program, said Sasser, whose track name is “Shep,” short for Shepherd. .
Chaplains have served hikers on the trail for years.
Sasser knows four or five other chaplains on the Appalachian Trail, some of whom represent the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy, a ministry of the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“We want to add value to someone’s trip. It opens doors for us to serve people in different avenues of their lives. We don’t hit people with the Bible,” he said.
The chaplain travels the Appalachian Trail, sometimes on foot and other times in his Ford F-150 with a portable grill, set up at the crossings, where he provides meals consisting of hamburgers and hot dogs, chips , drinks and other trail accessories like socks and bandages.
He occasionally encounters fruit markets in Pennsylvania and buys fresh fruit to serve hikers.
“They can easily get a Snickers bar, but they can’t find fresh plums, kiwis and watermelons on a hike.
“We call meals ‘trail magic’ or ‘trail blessings,'” he said.
As part of his Trail Servants ministry, Sasser meets dozens of hikers during each of his trail adventures, hanging out with them and listening to their stories. He also prays with them.
“For most people, there’s a reason they wake up and decide to walk 2,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail. They’ve lost a husband, they’ve lost a wife, they’ve lost their job, or they’ve sold their We hear all these stories and we are able to serve people from diverse backgrounds,” he said.
“Just yesterday I met a young man who had cared for his mother for the past 10 years until her recent death. He wanted to do something for himself and a friend told him about TA.
It is the relationships he builds along the path that best reward the chaplain.
He often drives to other states and to tent camps along the trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. He is able to build relationships with some of the same hikers by visiting them at various locations along the trail, in places like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine.
His family travels with him on camping trips, seeing new places and meeting new faces along the way.
It has been a total lifestyle change for the family of four. Lane is 15 and Meredith is 13, both home-schooled by their mother Michelle.
“He’s had some crazy ideas before, but this one just seemed right to me,” Michelle said of her husband.
“It felt like what we were meant to do,” she said, describing the lifestyle as a ministry that sometimes comes with challenges and daily adventures with two teenagers and two dogs.
“We experience new things every day. You never know what’s going to happen when you wake up in the morning,” their son said.
‘What I was put here to do’
Becoming a trail chaplain was perhaps one of the easiest decisions for Sasser to make.
While serving as a youth pastor at Bethel Assembly of God in Alabama, he hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail, testifying to the spiritual needs of hikers he encountered on the trail.
Unhappy with the sedentary lifestyle as an accountant “stuck in a cubicle all the time,” Sasser took a leap of faith in 2019 and quit his job, sold his house, and took a paid full-time position with trail chaplain – an opportunity to share the gospel and see breathtaking scenery that most people only dream of.
“I took a huge pay cut, but I felt like that was what I was here for,” Sasser said. “To do anything other than what you are called to do is a horrible life. Even if you succeed, in my opinion, you fail.
Allowed to settle anywhere on the Appalachian Trail, Sasser and his family visited different trail towns, agreeing that Damascus was the one that felt right at home.
On July 4, the Trail Chaplain and his family typically camp in the Pennsylvania area, but this year a special project keeps them near Damascus.
By the time Trail Days arrives next year, Sasser hopes to build a ministry center for hikers on his Shady Valley property, as well as a gazebo for hammock campers and sleeping quarters for nearly a dozen hikers. . Additionally, he builds a small cabin where he and his family will reside.
“It will be a blessing to have a space dedicated to servicing hikers in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee,” he said.
Earlier this week, Sasser and his family hosted students from Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., who made the trip to the area to help with the early stages of the hiker ministry center.
Sasser said the chapters in his book “The Road Less Traveled” are more like life lessons.
Her favorite lesson in the book is when you get blown away.
Citing an example, Sasser recounted a time when he and his family missed the opportunity to set up their trail blessings at a favorite spot in Shenandoah National Park. Instead, they were forced to move to a less than favorable location that offered no cell service or bathrooms.
“We were all reluctantly from this place that we had to settle for,” Sasser said.
“Then here is a young woman coming out of the woods, bawling, crying when she sees us. She was from Germany and was homesick. She had never camped before.
Sasser and her family prayed with her and talked to her after giving her fresh fruit and water.
“The lesson is that if I had been where I wanted to be, I would have failed to help him. Sometimes in life we go astray, but we are actually where God wants us to be,” said Sasser.
He will learn later that the young woman ended up continuing and finishing the hike.
Donations are welcome
It takes thousands of dollars to keep the wheels of the program turning, Sasser said. In an effort to support his Trail Servants program, the chaplain spends some of his time attending church revivals and other religious events in Alabama, speaking to the public about his work, and asking for donations.
He already plans to start another book, which will also help fund self-help ministry.
Sasser’s book “The Road Less Traveled” can be purchased locally at Discover Damascus at 128 E. Laurel Ave. at Damascus or online at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.
Donations to Sasser’s work can be made through a donation link at http://giving.ag.org/donate/700001-277397.
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at [email protected]