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THE CHALLENGE: IN THE WORLD, BUT NOT OF IT

From The Bennington Banner - April 21, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

SHAFTSBURY — Beyond the walls of the Green Mountain Fellowship, members of this Mennonite community face the challenge of being in the world but not of it.

On the one hand, they drive their families around in SUVs, use cell phones, and have e-mail accounts. On the other, they believe in total discipleship in a world more attuned to the superficial and the disposable. So they don't own televisions, radios, or surf the Web. It's not because they're against the technology but because of unsuitable content that they avoid these media, including not advertising their businesses through them.

"It's a constant challenge. Jesus, in one of his prayers ... prayed that God would take his people out of the world, that he would keep them from evil," said Brian Boll, an ordained pastor in the fellowship. "He knew that we were going to be here, we were going to have things to deal with. So it's a constant challenge to keep ourselves separate and yet live."

One way for these Mennonites to make a living in an environment conducive to their faith is to start their own businesses. The Countryside Woodcraft shops and stores in Russell, Mass., and on Route 7 in Hoosick, N.Y., are prime examples of this approach. Boll emphasized, however, that the business is not a church-run project, even though some of the Mennonites work there.

Boll and Jason Reinford are the two major partners in the Hoosick store.

"We like to work in places that are a good environment for our people, and especially young people," Boll said. "So that's kind of the burden of the business, that we can provide a good environment for our people, and it's not easy to find out there. So not everyone has their own business in our church, but a lot of people do for that reason."

Despite what one would think, there is nothing specifically Mennonite about the furniture made and sold at the Countryside shops. "We copy styles that people like, and right now it's Shaker-style. New England people like cherry wood and they like simple Shaker furniture," he said. "But as far as it being strictly a Mennonite thing, we just do what people want."

Earning a good living is necessary in part because big families are another counter-cultural mark of the Green Mountain Fellowship.

"I think one reason that society has gotten away from (big families) is that they don't follow the Bible instruction for teaching their children." Boll said. "Let them run wild, and then they're a bother. And people pursue sports and everything else other than caring for their family, and so children are in the way. And we see children as a blessing."

As is common in groups aligned with Nationwide Fellowship Churches, members of the Shaftsbury and Russell congregations do not rely on insurance or government programs but on mutual aid. They help each other with medical expenses, financial crises, and in running a school.

"We don't have health insurance and so on. If somebody goes to the hospital, we all work together to pay that need," said Jerald Reinford, a deacon who takes care of finances in Russell. "We think it's important to help each other. If my house burns down, I can expect everybody to show up and help out, rebuild."

Despite their radical commitment to a separate way based on the Bible and discipleship, the Mennonites also believe in reaching out to others. Visitors are welcome to their services. By the front door of the Countryside Woodcraft showroom in Hoosick are free tracts about the faith and free music CDs from an Ohio-based Mennonite choir.

Their emphasis on evangelization is also biblically based — on Christ's command to "make disciples of all the nations."

"We believe quite a bit in evangelizing, making the teachings of Christ practical seven days a week, and with that we invite everyone to come," Reinford said. "We try to reach out to people and not just try to be a closed community."

"What we want to do is reach out to others," Boll said. "It seems there are always people who are interested in following the Bible the whole way."

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