(Kari Barlow for AWF Conference) - Julia Stinson and Carlann Scott weren’t sure what they might find when they pedaled up to First United Methodist Church of Pensacola last week.
But the two cyclists, on the last leg of a Baltimore-to-New Orleans trek, weren’t choosy, just worn out and needing a place to crash. What they got—a comfy couch, warm showers, tasty snacks, and privacy in the church’s youth building—had them recommending FUMC Pensacola to fellow cyclists before they even left town.
“It felt really homey, and it was nice to have our space,” says Scott, a 26-year-old nurse from Surrey, British Columbia. They especially liked being able to come and go with ease.
“It was really cool,” says Stinson, a 25-year-old wildland firefighter and urban farmer from Calgary, Alberta. “That was a huge thing—to know we could leave our stuff and it’s safe.”
The women are two of the most recent touring cyclists to experience a new kind of sanctuary at FUMC Pensacola. Since 2013, the downtown church, which sits at the corner of Wright and Palafox streets, has provided overnight shelter to more than 400 travelers pedaling their way across the southern United States.
“I never anticipated that this would be a ministry … but God is doing something beautiful with it,” says Jeb Hunt, an avid cyclist who started the outreach and who works as the creative director at FUMC Pensacola. “So many conversations of faith have come up, and it’s become a really beautiful ministry that is reaching people from all over the world.”
Most of the cyclists are tackling the Adventure Cycling Association’s official Southern Tier route, which stretches from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida. Hunt, who coordinates the overnight stays, has met cyclists of all ages and walks of life and from six of the seven continents.
He first approached the church about hosting cyclists after he completed the ACA’s TransAmerica Trail—riding from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia—in the fall of 2013. Near the end of that trek, he stayed at a tiny Baptist church outside of Troutville, Virginia, that offers shelter to cyclists as well as hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
“It had such an impact on me,” Hunt recalls. “There was no one there. They were so trusting, and it was such a beautiful, warm, safe haven on a cold night. … I realized I needed to find a way to give back for all the hospitality that was shown to me.”
The first year, FUMC Pensacola welcomed 75 to 100 cyclists, with most of them sleeping on Hunt’s office floor. The church has since upgraded those accommodations, hosting the weary travelers in its youth building while also adhering to safe sanctuary guidelines and keeping cyclists off the premises when youth functions are underway.
“Many are individuals who have never been to a church in their life or it’s been years since they went to a church,” says Hunt, who often takes the cyclists out to breakfast and has them sign a guestbook. “They’re surprised that we would just open our doors … and some of them are surprised we aren’t preaching at them.”
Listed on ACA’s official maps—and the popular cycling website warmshowers.com— FUMC Pensacola has become well known for hospitality and flexibility.
“This time of year, I get two to three calls a day from strangers,” Hunt says. “I’ve been in that situation, and when you hear, ‘Come and stay,’ it’s such a relief. … And it’s just very biblical to welcome the traveling stranger.”