Pastor Chet Miller-Eshleman has a bad back and bum knees from a scooter cycle accident. But that is not keeping him from walking 300 miles across Ohio during Lent.
On his trek, which began March 23 near the small town of Van Wert on the Indiana-Ohio border, he is striving to spark spiritual renewal and raise funds by receiving pledges per mile and donations. His congregation, Lifebridge Community Church in Dover, wants to construct an addition to their building in the small city (population 12,000) in eastern Ohio.
The addition will be a combination coffee house, thrift store and meeting room for counseling and mediation training.
“In downtown Dover, the only places to go in the evenings to socialize are bars,” Miller-Eshleman said in early March. “So we wanted to provide healthier spaces for people to gather.
“Our interest in a thrift store is not to make money. We want to use it to interact with people who come in to buy. We want spaces where we can share Christ’s shalom.
“I hope this prayer walk inspires a new wave of repentance and evangelism and encourages our congregation to help our neighbors know Christ. Our vision at Lifebridge is to be a church-planting church. We were a church plant and now want to send out more folks to plant our second daughter church. It is a tough time for churches in America today, and we want to be part of encouraging growth.”
Ohio in late March can be cold and wet. No matter what early spring turns out to be like this year, Miller-Eshleman’s vision for fanning the fires of spiritual fervor propels him forward, step by step, prayer by prayer.
As he listens to God, he is wending his way east on secondary roads that parallel State Highway 30 on a route that goes further than the state’s 220-mile width. He carries a back pack, water, trail mix, a Bible and a journal. He left his head phones at home to quell temptation to skimp on communion with the Lord. He wears running shoes and carries a spare pair.
He is traveling solo until he reaches communities closer to home. There he will walk several miles with participants from his and several other Mennonite congregations on March 29, Palm Sunday afternoon. On April 4, his congregation is sponsoring a 5K fun run-walk in Dover. Along the route, he is stopping for supper and lodging at homes of friends and pastors and an occasional hotel. Once a week, his wife, Holly, and daughter, Mary, take him home for a good night’s sleep.
He hopes to complete the walk by mid-April, garnering donations to add to the $100,000 the church hopes to raise to help pay for the addition, estimated to cost $450,000.
Joining the vision
The vision for the walk became reality after Miller-Eshleman shared the idea with fellow pastors in Holmes and Tuscawaras counties. Jay Conn, pastor of Martins Creek Mennonite Church in Millersburg, said he and others from his congregation will join the cause March 29. Members of Berlin Mennonite Church and Walnut Creek Mennonite Church will also join the Palm Sunday event. It will conclude with a worship service at Highland High School in Berlin.
“Each of the churches involved on Palm Sunday will first do a prayer walk around their own church building before setting out for Berlin,” Conn said. “I fell in love with the idea when Chet first brought it up. I feel like this is a time in the wider Mennonite church as well as in our local congregations when we need a great deal of prayer.”
Martins Creek, soon to celebrate its 150th anniversary, has historically engaged in several church plants, including LifeBridge, Conn said. The plant began seven years ago in Miller-Eshleman’s living room with his family and a couple of others. Today, up to 150 people attend Sunday worship in the sanctuary of the church. It was built by the United Methodists and then occupied by the Salvation Army for 50 years prior to Lifebridge’s purchase.
“We can see the visible fruit of what we helped to plant years ago in the current desire for Chet and his congregation to grow beyond itself,” Conn said. “We not only walked with them in the beginning phases of the church startup, but we are literally walking with them again to help them reach the next level.”