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At the time of this article, this was the Mennonite church in Shaftsbury. They since have moved to a church in Bennington.




From The Bennington Banner — April 21, 2007

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about religious communities in Bennington County and nearby New York. Coming next: The monks, nuns, companions and parishioners of New Skete.

SHAFTSBURY — Gentleness, serenity and a definite but understated spirit of hospitality.

These marked the welcome a reporter received when he attended a Sunday service recently at the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship. The men, most in their 20s or 30s, wore suits, all the women wore blue dresses and bonnets. Clean-cut, wide-eyed small children abounded, quiet during the two-hour service but exuberant before and after.

Conservative community

Within the past two years a small group of families has moved into the area and set up the tightly knit, conservative community that meets for worship in a one-story church along Route 7A that once housed a restaurant. The families moved here from Russell, in rural western Massachusetts.

"The church was getting full there, and we have an interest in reaching out to other communities, and decided to send six families to this area," said Brian Boll, an ordained minister in the fellowship, speaking after the service. He held his young daughter in his arms as he answered questions.

Mennonites at the Green Mountain Fellowship believe that Scripture is the infallible word of God. "We believe that that's what we'll be judged by some day," Boll said. "We don't believe that God will pull surprises on us. If we live what the Bible says, we'll be able to get to heaven."

Jacob Esh, owner of the Christian Bookstore in Bennington, was raised by Amish parents in Lancaster, Pa. He's a Christian who has belonged to a Mennonite congregation in the past but does not consider himself Amish or Mennonite. However, he does from time to time worship at the Green Mountain Fellowship.

Traditional doctrine

His overall impression of the people? "Very committed to Christianity, very committed to pure and holy living, very committed to family life and to each other, and also to a certain amount of Mennonite traditional doctrine. By doctrine, I mean teaching."

Religious scholars tend to classify Mennonites — who share many historical and doctrinal roots with the Amish — as a sort of "third way" of being Christian. They certainly are not Catholic, but are not exactly Protestant or evangelical, either.

The Sunday service seemed more of a prayer meeting in an unadorned hall than a liturgical ceremony in an ornate church. It bore no resemblance to a Catholic Mass. Yet, the gathering also displayed none of the exuberance of most evangelical worship. There was no clapping, speaking in tongues, instrumental music or intensely personal witnessing. Rather members focused on close examination of Scripture with the help of study guides and preaching that exhorted them to faithfulness, interspersed with prayer and acappella hymns.

The pews at the Green Mountain Fellowship do not have kneelers. Several times during their service the members turned and knelt on the floor for prayer, their arms supported on the pew seat where they had been sitting.

Men and women sit separately during services. The various preachers and worship leaders are men and generally direct their attention and questions toward the men. How do women fit into the life of the community?

"We believe the Bible teaches a headship order: It's God, Christ, man, and then woman. We do not believe that they're less important, but that God has established who is to lead out, who's responsible to lead out," Boll said. "Like in the home — a good husband will be open and communicate with his wife and won't do anything if she's not at rest — but the Bible has said that he is in charge.

"And so long as there's love there and congenial working together, it works really good," he added.

Yvonne Boll, Brian's wife, said that "when husbands and wives are Christians and work together as God designed, they both can enjoy many blessings."

She is thankful men take the leading role in services. "We do enjoy the privilege of teaching some of the children's' classes — it is very inspiring to see their eagerness to learn."

No greater joy

Anna Lois Hess said that life as a homemaker "is the most satisfying, happy and contented life we can live as married women." Her family's motto is from the third letter of John in the New Testament: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth."

As do Mennonites elsewhere, the members of the Green Mountain Fellowship also take literally Jesus' teachings on forgiveness and non-retaliation.

"We feel the New Testament teaches that you love your enemies. So if somebody comes and steals something from me, rather than beat him up, or take him to court and try to put him in jail ... we would try to help that person," said Jerald Reinford, a deacon who lives in Russell. "The Bible also talks about if someone hits you on one cheek, you turn the other cheek. So we're peaceloving people."

Boll said the Mennonites call it "non-resistance" and noted that it's one area where they differ from most Protestants. "If someone sues us, we're not going to sue back, if it comes right down to it, we won't be involved with war. We serve jail time instead of going to fight."

Mennonites have a long and stormy history. During the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists, the precursors to the Mennonites, fell out with the reformers over what the Anabaptists felt was the un-scriptural practice of infant baptism. They also disagreed with Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who continued to grant to political rulers the right to decide the policies and practices of the church.

The result was a long history of persecution by both Catholics and Protestants, as well as secular authorities. Their name derives from Menno Simons, one of their early leaders.

Religious freedom

"We believe that the New Testament teaches that you need to believe and then be baptized," said Reinford. "When William Penn opened up Pennsylvania for religious freedom, a lot of the people came here to escape the persecution that they faced in Europe."

Many of the members of the Shaftsbury and Russell communities were born into the faith and can trace their ancestry back to Pennsylvania, though some members have converted from other denominations.

Patricia LeBlanc, who belongs to a Mennonite fellowship in Wolcott and has family ties to the Green Mountain Fellowship, said she and her husband have been attending the Mennonite church in Wolcott for 19 years. She is a former Presbyterian; her husband a former Catholic. "We found a good, basic, Bible-believing church to raise our family in," she said.

The Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship is aligned with the conservative Nationwide Mennonite Fellowship, not a large group either locally or across the United States. As of 2005, according to the Mennonite Weekly Review, Nationwide Mennonite Fellowship Churches had 2,442 members in 52 congregations in 19 states. This compares to a total of 236,084 Mennonites in the U.S. divided among at least 20 distinct and varied conferences, alliances or other major groupings.

"Mennonites, Amish, we try not to put too much emphasis on the name, because we want to be true Bible-believing Christians," Reinford said. "It's an entire life, and that automatically forms ... a subculture, which is totally different than the culture of this world, the people who are out living after the flesh, are trying to serve themselves, living for the dollar."