When she welcomes hikers at the breakfasts at First Baptist Church, Franklin, Patsy has a spiel she recites almost every morning. "You can come up for seconds, thirds, and fourths, we're not keeping track. If you leave here hungry it's your fault, not ours. Today's menu is bacon and pancakes, but if you're taking a zero day*, you're welcome to join us again, when the menu will be..." Returning guests join her in saying, "Pancakes and bacon."
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (or A.T.) begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and goes on 2100 miles into Maine (almost everyone who plans to hike the whole route -- they're called thru-hikers -- goes south to north because that's how the weather works). Franklin, North Carolina, is about 110 miles along the trail, and an official stopping point for hikers. Years ago, a hiker came to First Baptist and asked for breakfast. In 2008, the church began officially serving breakfast for hikers, every day for several weeks at the height of the thru-hiker season.
We heard about the breakfast from a friend of ours who is a thru hiker this year. She told us that if we didn't have a church yet for North Carolina, we'd have to go to First Baptist in Franklin, so Mindy phoned the church and asked whether we could help serve breakfast while we were in town. The church secretary assured her that we would be welcome. When we arrived at church on Thursday morning (at 6:45, well before the sun was over the mountains), we found the kitchen full of workers cooking pancakes and bacon on several griddles.
The senior pastor, Dr. Robert Brown, invited me to ride along when he drove one of the two the church vans to pick up hikers. We drove to a local hostel, and a dozen people filled the seats. Robert asked where people were from; I remember hearing Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania. During the ride there were discussions of the joy of showers and the importance of good footwear.
We dropped everyone off and went to look for other hikers, but the other van had already gotten them, so we went back to the church. All the jobs were covered, so I got to the end of the food line. Three good sized pancakes were on my plate with a healthy serving of bacon. Besides butter and syrup, there were also a variety of other topping options (pumpkin butter, apple butter, and Mennonite raspberry jam among them). There's a random collection of cookies in zipper bags on the table, and hikers are happy to take them as a treat for later.
Hunger is a companion on the trail, so most breakfast guests make frequent returns for more. Though some vegetarians go through the line, most people are thrilled with the bacon. Bacon was dreamed of on the trail, and in the church kitchen those dreams come true. Some are thrilled by the orange juice ("No scurvy today!" someone said).
But the food isn't the only offering of the morning. Connie wanders from table to table taking pictures of guests with a digital camera. She prints them up while the hikers are eating, so it's almost like having a Polaroid taken. Pens, paper, and envelopes wait on the table for people to write home. You'd think that with cell phones, people wouldn't care anymore about mailing photos and notes home, but they do. And the church takes care of the postage, even if it's to New Zealand or the Netherlands or another part of North Carolina. Patsy tells hikers, "You've made it a hundred miles, and somebody wants to know that you're alive and getting a good meal," so most hikers write a letter and enclose the picture. We even heard that a hiker proposed by means of a breakfast photo in a letter from First Baptist.
Posters on the walls offer the opportunity to sign as proof that they've been through and to look up others who've gone before (Usually they sign their trail names; almost everyone has an alias.) Every poster is headed "Class of" whatever year it was, and both last year and this year had to have an extra sheet of paper added.
After a half hour or so, Pastor Robert gets the attention of everyone and says, "I'm going to talk for two minutes You can time me.” He tells a story about running a race and reads verses from Hebrews 12: 1 & 2 about running the good race and fixing our eyes on Jesus. And he was done in less than two minutes. Robert has just a few of these short talks that he puts into rotation for the month or so that breakfast is served. We were around for only four mornings (and one of those mornings, Jack Jarrett, the associate pastor, spoke), so we didn't hear a repeat.
I asked Robert about the people who walk the trail, especially the people who walk the full trail which takes about five months. He said that many hikers are going through transitions in their lives: divorce, loss, even retirement. During our first breakfast, about two and a half weeks into this year's season, Patsy announced that they'd reached 500 guests. Our fourth and final morning, they'd served almost 700 meals. Something else special happened that morning. The church was given acknowledged for their work in promoting Franklin as an A.T. community (along with a check to "buy more bacon").
Often I heard hikers thanking the servers. "You're angels," said one man. One woman thanked Patsy for the work the church did, but Patsy replied, "We as a church get much more than we give to you. The work of the breakfasts brings us together in the church as a community."
The church has, of course, other outreach ministries besides the breakfast. They have Good News Clubs that bring Biblical teaching to local elementary schools. We helped serve at a Saturday Community Lunch that provides a good meal for those in need, along with a free store offering clothes and toiletries. In a few weeks the church will be sending a work team to serve in Honduras.
And the Wednesday Bible study, Sunday School, and worship service we attended clearly presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just the church does all it can to see that hikers don't leave the breakfast hungry; the church works to see that no one in the congregation will suffer spiritual hunger.
*A "zero day" is when a hiker takes a day off hiking.
Service Length: 1 hour 8 minutes
Sermon Length: 23 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Ushers at all possibly entrances to the sanctuary handed out bulletins; each bulletin had a tear-out sheet for visitor information, prayer requests, and requests for further information. There was a greeting time near the beginning of the worship service, and several people we'd met during the week came to say hello to us. Strangers also said hello during the greeting time.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 98
Probable Ushers' Count: 145
Snacks: none, although Sunday School classes tend to have coffee, tea, and snacks
Musicians: piano (man), organ (man), choir (4 men, 9 women), and director (man)
Songs: "Come, Holy Ghost" (organ prelude)
"How Great Thou Art" (choir call to worship with congregation quietly joining in)
"There is Power in the Blood"
"Love Lifted me"
"Rise and Shine" (children's march when children came for their story)
"Speak to my Heart"
"Jesus Shall Reign" (organ postlude)
Miles to church: 2.5
Miles from start: 11,274
Total 2016 Miles: 11,019
Church website: fbcfranklin.org