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Meet Trail Life USA
7/28/2015 by: Staff

Trail Life USA’s national campground is in rural South Carolina on the grounds of a 127-acre former home for orphans, which was donated to the organization shortly after its inception.

Last fall, I attended their first national training weekend for troop leaders. After a freak autumn storm, the place is snowbound, but that doesn’t blunt the spirits of the men, who are swaddled in an assortment of camouflage, facial hair, and baseball hats. By mid-morning, we’ve sat through a few chilly classes on knot-tying and orienteering, as well as one on how to incorporate Christianity into troop meetings. One example: Put a $10 bill on a rat trap and ask the boys if they’d like to attempt to grab it. The lesson: Satan will tempt you, but there are dangerous repercussions to sin.

Trail Life’s program is broadly similar to the Boy Scouts’. As one member told me: “The Boy Scouts may own the trademark of ‘scouting,’ but they don’t own the idea.” Here, “Trailmen” replace “Boy Scouts”; instead of a second-grader earning the Wolf badge as a Cub Scout, he’s a Hawk in Trail Life. The oaths have strong overlap (see above) as do many of the skills, including a focus on survival, first aid, and being a good citizen. Trail Life also says it’s less badge-focused than BSA and more interested in adventures like caving and climbing. The summer 2015 national gathering for the boys was a paintball competition, an activity that has long been banned by the Boy Scouts.

Around 10 a.m., a volunteer escorts me to a small house up the hill for an interview with Mark Hancock, the group’s CEO. We trudge our way through the snow, past a chapel and a pond with a large white cross at the far end. Hancock greets us at the door wearing a red T-shirt, black jeans, and gray sneakers, and leads us into the living room. He looks a bit like a dark-haired cousin of William H. Macy and exudes the slightly saccharine nature of a youth pastor and family counselor, which he once was. His sons had been involved with the Boy Scouts, and the 2013 decision to allow gay boys to join upset him. “We just couldn’t figure out how that was going to work for our family,” he tells me.

In June 2013, Hancock and a handful of dissident groups gathered for a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, where they began pounding out the guiding principles of a new organization. Two months later, the newly minted Trail Life USA held a national convention in Nashville, featuring a keynote by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. More than 1,200 men (and a few women) showed up, many of whom felt betrayed by the BSA’s decision. “There were stories of men who had left their troops—many had served for 30 years, and their fathers had been involved before them—and they were the only ones from the troop that stepped away,” Hancock says. “And then to show up and find a brotherhood who had also chosen to stand alone, to stand on their own convictions? It was pretty powerful.”

At the convention, Trail Life outlined its values, which were centered around evangelical Christianity. “At our core, we are unapologetically Christian,” Hancock says. “It is absolutely in our foundation—irretrievable, irreplaceable, irremovable.” All adults are required to take a vow asserting their Christianity, but boys of all faiths (or none) are accepted. The non-Christian among them, though, ought to be prepared for evangelism. As Stuart Michelson, a Trail Life board member, puts it,

“If a boy goes through our program and he doesn’t realize that he’s a sinner and that Christ is the Savior, we’ve failed.”

Read more from the original story at The Backpacker.

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