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From The Bennington Banner, June 7, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

NORTH BENNINGTON — Traveling 1,000 miles at your own expense to help restore a 172-year old church building might seem like an ordeal to some or an adventure to others.

For volunteers from Arkansas, North Carolina, and Alabama, however, it is a labor of love and a form of worship. Some of these volunteers were hard at work Tuesday installing a new baptistery on the church stage and standing high atop staging restabilizing and replastering part of the inside wall of the Capstone Baptist Church.

Capstone Baptist, formerly known as the Old Stone Church, is a Water Street landmark which had been unused and deteriorating for 15 years. This is rapidly changing.

"I just want everybody to understand, as the people at Capstone already know, that we're doing this because we love the Lord. It's an honor, really, to bring us so far away from home," said volunteer Earl Cook, from Norphlet, Ark. "And it's not just work, it's worship."

This is the third summer that volunteers have been working to renovate the church. "We're hoping to open it in the fall," said Capstone Pastor Lee Williams. "The hope is to have everything done, for this to be complete and ready."

Despite the focus on the church building, the Christian message is more important, Williams said.

"The building's not the point. The building isn't the point of the church any more than a cargo ship is the point of merchandise," Williams said. "Our religion is supposed to make a difference in people's lives. It's supposed to be relevant, it's supposed to apply."

Currently, Capstone Baptist holds services at the Grace Christian School on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. The congregation started in 2005. There are just over 20 members on the church rolls, but attendance at Sunday services runs between 20 and 35. "We started with a small core group of North Bennington people and people that are from this area," Williams said. "This was actually a project by the Green Mountain Baptist Association, which is the Vermont association of the Southern Baptists. They were offered this building by a congregation that could no longer maintain the building.

"They sought out a pastor, and so this is a work of the Southern Baptists in Vermont," he said

Capstone is a Southern Baptist Congregation. "'Southern Baptist' has nothing to do with what part of the country you're from, but it has everything to do with your approach on the Bible," Williams said. "And we believe that the Bible is literally true, that all the stories recounted are absolutely true and that it has real-world relevance in our lives today."

Old Stone Church was built in 1834-1835, as a Presbyterian offshoot of the Old First Church in Bennington. It was later used as a Methodist church, and was eventually bought by a Baptist congregation in the 1920s, Williams said.

On Tuesday, slate, stone, and lumber sat on the ground outside the church near a full construction debris dumpster. Inside, Williams explained how volunteers have been modernizing the church basement, shoring up and replastering walls, and installing a full-immersion baptistery. The church electrical system will be finished by professionals. Plumbing, insulation, and flooring needs to be finished as well. The columns in the front of the church are being refurbished and will be replaced, and the church steeple will be refurbished as well.

"What we are trying to do ... is take a historic building and actually make it useful for a church," Williams said during a tour of the basement. "And what this is a testimony to is that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. None of the workers you saw upstairs are paid. They're all voluntarily giving up their vacations to come out.

"They all buy their own materials," he added. "They do this for the love of the Lord and they do this for the love of a community that none of them have seen before."

The visiting volunteer groups come from Southern Baptist congregations. The Southern Baptist Association in Vermont has a partnership with North Carolina, and a majority of the teams volunteering at the church are coming from North Carolina. However, in the last three summers groups have come from Texas, Georgia, Alabama and other places. This summer a group will be coming from Chicago.

Volunteers are not only working at Capstone, they are also working at Grace Christian School and another team is working on a Bible school at the Applegate apartments. A praise and worship band is giving concerts all week.

"When you have a good thing, when you have extra help, it's good to share it," Williams said.

Some of the groups visiting Capstone will be working at the homes of senior citizens or people with disabilities — not necessarily church members — putting in ramps for wheelchairs at their homes. "It's simply the kind of thing that God would want us to do."

Cook, the volunteer, is the project leader of the group from Norphlet, Ark., where he owns a small paint and body shop. He and his team had installed and were finishing the new baptistery. This is his second trip to Bennington. Last year his group helped excavate the basement.

He said religion motivates him to make the trip to work in North Bennington.

"Most definitely. We're not just church members. We have a very important reason that we're here. It's because these people here at Capstone Church worship the same God that we do, and our understanding is that we're to help our brothers and our neighbors," he said. "We see a need here, and that's why we're here."

Cook, whose team includes his wife, Karen, enjoys working on the church because of its age.

"Down South we don't get to see this kind of construction, this masterpiece-type construction. And that's an awesome experience for all of us.

"The other is just the spiritual aspect of it. It's an awakening. There's not a moment in the day when we're not thinking about why we're here," Cook said. "Each and every person that came here paid money to come here to work. How many times do you know somebody goes somewhere and pays to go to work?

"But I'll tell you what, we're trying to get our money's worth," he said.

Cook and his wife plan to come back up to see the church and worship at it after it is completed.

Bobby and Stella Austin are another long-term volunteer family. They bring teams up from Alabama every summer. Ed Helms is the project manager from near Charlotte, N.C. He is a successful builder in North Carolina, yet works at Capstone at least four months a year. He and his wife, Helen, are living in a trailer behind the church. This is their third summer doing this. Helms was out getting construction materials Tuesday afternoon, but Helen was out by the trailer working on a sign for a block party the church held in Shaftsbury this week.

"Blessing after blessing," she said, when asked what she gets out of coming to Bennington. "The Lord is really blessing."

Helen does whatever is needed on her visits, from picking up materials, cooking, watching children, or playing piano at local nursing homes.

"I just love it," she said. "It's a working vacation, but one that's very rewarding, very rewarding. The Lord really blesses us, and we can't serve him enough."

"What we enjoy about this is just sharing Christ with others, and just meeting the people," she said. "We just love the area and the people that we work with."

A thunderstorm was approaching, and Williams had just one more thing to add. "I can't stress it enough," he said. "There are a lot of people who like to focus on the building, but it's the message that's most important."

Williams can be reached at 442-6041 or by mail at P.O. Box 459, North Bennington, VT 05257.


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