Presbyterian pastor walks nearly 150 miles to raise awareness and compassion around issues of ‘houselessness’ and extreme poverty in West Virginia
May 18, 2021
With a 30-pound pack on his back and a mission in his heart, the Rev. Zachary Morton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, West Virginia, set out in September on an eight-day, nearly 150-mile walk to the state capitol in Charleston.
Although Morton’s #Walk4WV was primarily a solo trip, he welcomed supporters to follow along on social media or to meet up along the route and walk with him. Several people, ages 8 to 84, took him up on his invitation to walk alongside during part of the trip, including Nikki Byrne-Hoffman, a deacon at First Presbyterian-Morgantown and a board member of the Presbyterian Child Development Center, who walked 14 miles, and Morton’s mom, Kim Morton, who joined him for part of the last four miles.
“The road systems we were walking on were not meant for walking,” Morton said. Most of the time there wasn’t a sidewalk or enough room. “It put me in a headspace of it’s not just the effort of walking, but the effort of listening for cars, dodging from one side of the road to the other to make sure that I’m not going to get hit and I’m not going to be in any more of a dangerous situation than I’m already in. That drains you, psychologically, to always be alert and always have that anxiety in the back of your mind.” That’s what unsheltered people in extreme poverty face on a daily basis as they try to navigate a system that is not built for them, Morton said.
The first day, Morton walked 26 miles, including a lot of hills. He slept in a tent on the porch of a home in Grafton that first night. About 3 a.m., someone walked up on the porch, startling him, and reminding him of the emotional toll it must take on folks who do not have the safety, security and comfort of shelter on a daily, and especially nightly, basis.
The impetus for Morton’s #Walk4WV campaign may have grown from seeds planted during a mission trip to Atlanta when he was a middle school student.
“We were going through an area where we were serving folks in a little soup kitchen, and there were a lot of houseless folks who were there,” he said. “And what was said to us, whenever we walked through a main area, ‘Put your head down and just keep walking.’ Even though those were the people we were going to serve.”
He recounted the mission trip story not to shame his middle school chaperones, he said. “I get when you are a middle school chaperone, chaperoning youth, you want to err on the side of protection, but I think it illustrates a larger point that, in general, we’re conditioned somewhere socially to just keep walking by folks when we see them on the street and it looks like they are experiencing poverty or it looks like they’re houseless.”
Morton uses the term “houseless,” rather than “homeless,” because, especially when he thinks about folks in Morgantown — they have a home. “Morgantown is their home.” In our society, he said, we judge people so much on what we have or don’t have. “So, the term ‘houseless,’ it’s the house, a roof over their head — the shelter — that they don’t have,” Morton said.
Since walking is the primary mode of transportation for people in extreme poverty, that’s another reason Morton decided to make the trip from Morgantown to Charleston on foot. “I’m doing this for those folks I’ve gotten to know,” he said. “There are many folks who are a part of this community, and they belong. They are a part of Morgantown just as much as anybody else.”
The #Walk4WV campaign had a fundraising aspect with Morton and supporters raising over $6,500 that will go directly to helping houseless citizens in Morgantown secure stable housing. The funds will be used for things like rent, security deposits and application fees for persons trying to make the transition off the street.
Morton created a series of short videos, several each day, to shed light on intersecting issues that may be keeping people trapped in extreme poverty and houselessness. See all the videos here.
Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Houselessness’ and Extreme Poverty
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
God of abundance, fill our hearts and our souls. Open our eyes to see those around us who are hungry, whether for spiritual or physical food. Equip us to be your hands, bringing both spiritual and physical sustenance to your children and our siblings all around us. Fill us with your peace and love to overflowing. Amen.