Poconos church provides a home away from home for distance hikers
By the time long-distance hikers reach the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain they have grit, said the Rev. Sherry Blackman.
"They have got blisters, they've had poisoned ivy, they've had bug bites, sometimes worse kinds of bites," said Blackman, the church's pastor. "They're really pretty worn thin in more ways than one."
In the basement of the red-brick church off Main Street in Delaware Water Gap is a hikers center with overnight accommodations and facilities for those hiking the Appalachian Trail. The church also hosts a free hikers potluck dinner every Thursday from mid-May to mid-August.
The church and the town have embraced the hikers including thru-hikers, those attempting to trek the historic over 2,000 mile trail in its entirety in one shot. Traveling northbound, the trail — often called the AT — starts in Georgia and ends in Maine. Its official halfway point is in Cumberland County, south of the Poconos. The AT runs 75 miles through Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania.
In 1976, the church was struggling, said Larry Beck. Very few people were coming to Sunday Mass.
"I like to call them the faithful 15,” he said.
The AT traverses through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The Mount Minsi trail head is off Lake Road, under a mile from the church. Hikers are often walking around town, said Beck.
The hostel started as one room in the church’s basement. That first year, around 200 hikers stayed at the center, he said, adding it brought a new spirit to the church.
The church became a "Light on the Hill," Beck said.
"It is something that rejuvenated the church and also ... hikers loved it," he said.
Long-distance hikers carry what they need to survive on their backs until they reach either a post office or a town. That does not include bathroom facilities. At the hostel, they kick back, resupply and shower in a welcoming community, said Dave Childs, who runs the church’s hikers center.
Church of the Mountain and its grounds can accommodate 50 to 60 distance hikers nightly, said Blackman. The hikers have the option to sleep on one of two couches, the floor or on their sleeping pads in the bunk room. Behind the church there’s a lean-to — a temporary shelter with a roof — and space for tents.
Artwork and posters collected throughout the years hang on the walls of the hostel alongside photos, including one with Earl Shaffer, the first person to thru-hike the AT.
They can stay for one or two nights, unless they’re injured, said Blackman. Childs has even gone out to pick up injured hikers from the trail.
"We have learned that if you don't get back on the trail by then they might get too comfortable and then get off the trail altogether," she said.
The hostel is listed in the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's guide book but hikers exchange information, so it’s often word of mouth.
The resting place is both important for the hikers and the church, said Beck.
“It gives us, as a church, an opportunity to do service work and to ... show hospitality to strangers," he said.
The hiker ministry attracted Blackman to Church of the Mountain. She’s been pastor since 2014.
"I've lived many places in my life," she said. "And there is no place I've ever lived ... like Delaware Water Gap.”
Blackman has a journalism background. She is always curious about why people are on the trail at that moment in their lives.
“I call myself a spiritual investigative reporter," she said.
That curiosity led to many conversations at the hostel and the dinners. And in 2021, she wrote and published a book from those chats called “Tales from Trail.”
"What I have learned is many people are grieving. People are transitioning from one life to another. People are working through forgiveness. That's been a major theme ... on the trail." she said.
The church’s only agenda is to feed and house the hikers and get to know who they are, Blackman said.
During the potluck dinners on Thursday at 6 p.m. they always have grilled hotdogs and Beck’s famous homemade ice cream, but otherwise, there’s no set menu. They never know how many people will show up for the dinners. The church’s parishioners and people from the community bring what they can.
They call it Loaves and Fishes.
"Because for some reason, no matter how many people we have, everybody gets fed," said Blackman.
Blackman said their commitment to the hiker community is how they love their neighbor.
“It's a way ... for people to know that there's a place that they can come and rest and be safe and be cared for," she said.
The hikers have often cried.
“Gratitude. They're just very, very grateful," said Blackman.