Archive for Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Spreading the word

Man walking across U.S., preaching

September 24, 2003

For Don Vermilyea, the walk has just begun.

Last Thursday, Vermilyea walked from Camp Mount Hermon to Tonganoxie, a short jaunt for a man in the midst of walking across America.

A member of the Church of the Brethren in Franklin, W.Va., Vermilyea, who weighs 150 pounds and carries all of his worldly possessions on his back, has been on the road since Feb. 2, 2002.

His goal is to stop at most of the 1,035 Church of the Brethren congregations in the United States. At each church, he preaches his beliefs.

"We need to take all the words of Jesus Christ seriously," Vermilyea said. "It's up to us to deal with it and model our lives after Jesus Christ."

His trip's goal was to plant this seed of thought in one person.

"That happened in Tucson," Vermilyea said. "It's been gravy since then."

Tucson was where he began his journey. Vermilyea said he selected his Arizona starting point because he didn't want to make his winter start in "snow country."

And, he said, by starting far from West Virginia, where he had sold the farm he'd worked for 25 years, he'd rather be walking toward, rather than away from, home.

So far, Vermilyea, who is 53, has visited between 60 and 70 Church of the Brethren congregations. He estimates that by the time he's done, he will have reached the age of 63.

Vermilyea walked part of the way to his next stop in Kansas City, Kan., on Thursday with Katie Strahm, a member of the Topeka Church of the Brethren.

"I read about him in our church magazine," Strahm said. "My husband and I brought our tents and camped out at Camp Mount Hermon so that we could be there to meet him."

Vermilyea will be preaching at Strahm's church on Nov. 23, during part of his Kansas stay. Until December, he'll be in the state, meeting at churches across the state.

Vermilyea said walking has been only part of the challenge of the journey. As a walker with a backpack nearly as large as himself, he's frequently viewed with skepticism.

"With cell phones, people are very quick to call 911 about anyone who looks suspicious," Vermilyea said, noting his beard and sweat-stained clothing. "And I look suspicious all the time."

In the 590 days of his trip, Vermilyea said, only twice, have strangers taken him in. Once he spent the night in someone's house, another time, he spent the night on the front seat of a truck.

He stayed about 260 nights in churches or with church members or friends, and 230 on his own.

"You name it I've slept there," Vermilyea said. "Under bridges, in culverts, abandoned buildings, under trees, box cars, wherever I can find a place, wherever I can set my tent up and not get into trouble."

Because he looks different -- hiking along highways -- he's often mistreated, he said.

"People are throwing stuff at me, cursing at me, yelling, or laughing and trying to run me off the road," Vermilyea said. "Dozens of times if I wasn't halfway quick on my feet I would have been run over."

But some people stop to offer cash.

When they ask if he needs money, Vermilyea says no, because in truth, he said he does not have a personal need of money. But if someone insists on giving cash to him, he accepts it, and he said, turns the money over to the church to provide food for those who are hungry.

Surprisingly, he's found more money along the roadway ($579) than passersby have given him ($496).

He hopes his visibility, in walking along the highways, speaking to reporters and preaching in churches, sends a message.

"I'm walking to wake people up," Vermilyea said. "The more we work on reaching out, the more that is multiplied out, and of course, it takes brave people to want to reach out."

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