It all started when hikers trekking the Florida National Scenic Trail asked permission to pitch a tent on the property of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Altha, Florida.
Located just south of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle, the church’s answer was to launch a hiker ministry that offers two small cabins with a kitchen, bathroom, hot shower and a laundry room. Weary hikers welcome the accommodations.
Hillcrest Baptist is one of several Florida Baptist churches who see their proximity to the trail as an opportunity to minister to hikers through hospitality.
That’s what Wilton Quattlebaum has done for the past seven years at Hillcrest, where he serves as associate pastor.
But that’s not all. The affable and talkative Quattlebaum, who also is team leader for evangelism and discipleship for Apalachee Baptist Association, extends the hospitality even further by preparing hot meals for hikers who stay the night. A hot meal at day’s end, a hot breakfast to fuel the next leg of a hike and the kind and friendly host make this church a popular stop.
Hikers call it the “Wilton Hilton” and rave about it online and in hiker groups on social media. One hiker posted online, “You feel the love, and you want to extend it to others.”
Quattlebaum makes sure, not only that the hikers’ physical needs are met during each visit, but also that they learn about their spiritual need for Christ through his unabashedly evangelical conversations.
“I will share the gospel with anyone,” he said. “I don’t mind sitting down with someone who’s a secular humanist or agnostic or atheist. When they realize you care, you can have respectful discourse with them, and they will open up about what they believe and why.”
Hikers have plenty of questions. Most of the hikers who pass through are not Christian, he said, and most are highly educated. Quattlebaum estimates about 75% have at least an advanced degree. Some come from other countries. This gives him an opportunity to answer their questions and destroy stereotypes they may have about the gospel and Christianity.
“They have a lot of time to think out on the trail,” he said.
That’s why his discussions with hikers can be so important. Some wake up with more follow-up questions about what was discussed the previous night. Some ask if they can continue the conversation on their return trip. Some reach out to him months or even years later.
“This year I got a call from an Australian hiker who came through three years ago. He called to thank me for sharing the gospel with him,” he said.
The hiking season on the Florida Trail typically runs from November through the first of May. It’s a 1,000-mile hiking trail that weaves its way across Florida from Big Cypress National Preserve in the south to Gulf Islands National Seashore in the western end of Florida’s Panhandle.
As he prepares for the coming season, Quattlebaum estimates he hosted about 200 hikers last season. The numbers can vary nightly, from four or five to as many as 17.
“You never know who you’re going to be ministering to that night,” he said. “From secular humanists to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Muslims. Some nights you get some Christian hikers, and you have some really good fellowship.”
Funding the ministry
The main expense for the ministry is the food, but support is plentiful. Funding comes from various sources, including church members, area and state churches and the Apalachee Baptist Association.
But the bulk of donations actually come from Christian hikers who have experienced the hospitality firsthand. Already, Quattlebaum estimates he’s received enough funds to cover next year’s expenses. He noted he doesn’t accept donations from non-Christian hikers.
Despite the success of this work, Quattlebaum, 53, says he’s the last person he would pick for a hiker ministry. “I’m just an old, crippled guy,” he said, referring to a lingering back injury that has him walking hunched over a bit.
But he is passionate about Scripture and the love of Christ, calling himself “a layman that studies a lot.”
Because of the ministry’s success in the Panhandle, other Baptist churches in Florida who are adjacent to the trail, like Fort Christmas Baptist Church in Christmas, have begun ministering to hikers in other parts of the state.
“I care because my Lord cares,” he said.