Hiking for the Lost
by Samara Smyer2/12/2024 9:00:00 AM
In the summer of 2020, a long-distance hiker known as “Boxcar” found himself stuck at a hostel in Tennessee with only his van and his dog. After a few days, Boxcar started telling people that he planned to end his life and asked if they would take his dog.
Brad Sasser, a U.S. missionary with Chaplaincy Ministries, was also residing at the hostel and asked Boxcar what he needed God to do in his life. Boxcar told him that he desperately needed a job that would pay him at least $15 an hour, and he also needed someone to care for his dog while he worked or he couldn’t take the job. Brad sat with Boxcar that evening and began to pray for a miracle.
Two day later, Boxcar approached Brad with the news that a nearby restaurant had hired him as their head chef, offering him $15 an hour. “They are also giving me a cabin to live in for free! I can keep my dog there!” he said. Brad congratulated him and continued to build their relationship and share the gospel.
After some time, Boxcar accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. He was baptized in water one year later as his mother, who had been praying for his salvation, watched.
Brad, known on the trails as “Shep,” says that Boxcar is one of the many people he has encountered on hiking trails who feel lost and without hope. “There is usually a deep hurt that compels people to hike; to try and find peace in nature.” Recognizing the loneliness that many long-distance hikers experience, he aims to provide companionship and support on the trail.
Brad’s involvement with hiking began in 2012 when, as a youth pastor, he walked across the state of Alabama to raise money for Speed the Light. When the six-day hike ended, Brad was hooked. He continued to hike in his free time and began building relationships with people on the trails, many of whom hiked full-time.
Astounded by the stories of loss and pain he heard from other hikers, Brad felt called to reach and minister to those on the trails. “I realized that, to reach these nomadic people, I couldn’t just dabble. I had to be all-in,” he says. He contacted U.S. Missions and, after serving as a missions associate and career missionary, Brad became a fully appointed missionary in 2023.
While recreational hiking is a popular hobby, Brad’s ministry mainly focuses on those who adopt hiking as a lifestyle and live nomadically on the trails. Brad and his wife, Michelle, known as “No Miles,” act as pastoral figures to these individuals who do not stay in one spot long enough to have a permanent home and church.
The Sassers establish connections with men and women on the trails by providing for the physical needs of hikers. They arrange grills and tables filled with fresh food at trail crossings and wait for hungry hikers to emerge from the woods. After weeks of eating ramen and dehydrated meals, some hikers are moved to tears at the sight of real food. Over the meal, Brad and Michelle get to know the hikers.
“We have never had anyone act coarsely towards us,” Brad says. “Some will eat and then move on, but a lot stay back and talk with us.”
Brad and Michelle will then relocate further along the trail and set up another picnic spot. Over time, hikers from their previous location will approach, allowing the Sassers to deepen their connections with them. The couple has an app called Trail Servants that hikers can download to stay informed about Brad and Michelle’s upcoming locations. It also offers multiple versions of the Bible and other Christian media.
“Over time, people tend to open up more and share the reasons they are on the trail,” Brad says. As they become more comfortable, Brad can share Christ with them, pray for their needs, and extend his friendship to them.
Bible verse stickers are a valuable tool on the trail. When asked what the stickers mean, Brad is able to share the verse and introduce the hikers, who often know very little of the Bible, to the gospel. “If you can just get people into the Word, the Word can do most of the work,” he says.
Brad knows that the hike can serve as an introduction to Christianity for those who do not live full-time on the trails. “The real work that God does sometimes happens after they slow down,” he says. Even for those who return home after a long-term hike, the Sassers continue to nurture their relationship and encourage them to find and participate in a local church.
One man Brad met on the trails was hiking as an effort to help with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he acquired during his time in the military. With encouragement from Brad, he joined his local church upon completing his hike. He later reached out to Brad, telling him that being in church was helping him cope with his PTSD.
“I would challenge churches to look past the outer, sometimes wild and unkempt appearance that many hikers have,” Brad says. “These are souls. Sure, they can be difficult to reach, but they are broken and hurting. They need a Savior.”