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How Bennington's Insular Mennonite Community Weathered Pandemic Isolation

Two parents and three children in a field. The women are wearing long dresses and white head coverings.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
The Boll family harvests potatoes at their Hoosick Falls, N.Y. farm in Oct. 2018. The Bolls are among the close-knit congregants at the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship in Bennington, Vt. who experienced an unexpected amount of isolation this spring.

Just south of where Shaftsbury gives way to Bennington, a low, wood-paneled building sits along a gentle curve on Route 7A. Out front is the sign that says Market Wagon, painted with a picture of an old-fashioned cart and the motto, “Food for the Multitude.” 

Inside, hymns play quietly from a CD player. Women in head coverings and long dresses and lately, cloth face masks, bustle behind a sandwich counter. The shelves and deli case carry groceries from small suppliers — cheese from Maplebrook Farm in North Bennington, jars of peaches and pickled eggs from Amish Weddings in Ohio. Above a display of maple syrup, two sayings are stamped across blocks of wood: “Coffee: It’s always a good idea” and “With God all things are possible.”

Two images, one of a young woman making sandwiches in a white covering, another of a box inviting people to request prayers
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The Market Wagon, the Mennonite-run specialty food store in Bennington, pictured here in February of 2019. Owners Heidi and Steve Eshbach make efforts to reach out to the public there, including through their prayer request box.

Shopping here is perhaps the most likely way for the public to interact with members of generally insular and close-knit Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship, and it’s where I went to find someone to talk to when I started reporting on this 85-person community in 2018. Heidi Eshbach owns the store with her husband, Steve, and she said they have always been interested in getting to know their non-Mennonite customers better. They have a box to collect prayer requests by the cash register, for instance, to “show love to people that way.” 

Heidi observed that especially at the beginning of this year’s COVID crisis, people outside their congregation seemed to suddenly enjoy any extra human contact while shopping at the store. (They also seemed to suddenly feel the need to make bread from scratch: ”It was very incredible — we could not keep flour on the shelf, we could not keep yeast on the shelf,” Heidi said. It got to the point, she added, where some Mennonite women, who usually keep these items in their kitchen as a rule, began to panic).

“I think we felt that people were more open,” Heidi said. “You could get into some very interesting conversations … being able to communicate with people who normally, we all mind our own business. I think people felt it was a huge opportunity to spread hope and just be there for people in ways that people are closed to in other times.”

A bread rack with a sign reading give us this day our daily bread
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
While ingredients like flour and yeast don't usually fly off the shelves at the Market Wagon, they did during the beginning of the pandemic as a lot of people suddenly felt the need to make bread from scratch.

If she interacted with more customers during the start of the pandemic, Heidi said it was the opposite with fellow church members. They went from having a week of nightly revival meetings and meals together to practically not seeing each other at all. 

“We didn’t have the constant communication with other people,” Heidi said. “It made me stop and think, the Lord is in control of the things we think we’re entitled to... So now’s the time where you’re very responsible, personally, to live out all the things we’ve heard, learned.”

To be a Mennonite

In pre-pandemic times, I began learning what it meant to live as a Mennonite from Yvonne Boll, who is married to Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship Bishop Brian Boll. The Bolls, their kids and another five families moved to the Bennington area in 2005, relocating from western Massachusetts after the church and school there became overcrowded. 

Yvonne said that since some visitors to the Russell, Massachusetts church were coming down from Vermont, the consensus in the congregation was to move north. They became the fourth Mennonite church in Vermont — the first has been in Bridgewater Corners for nearly 70 years. For their church and school, the new congregation bought the formerly Pentecostal Church of God, a gable-roofed building on Chapel Road at the edge of Bennington’s town forest. 

People scattered in a yard next to a gable-roofed building
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Students and their teachers take a recess break during the school day at the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship in Bennington in October of 2018.

The members of the Bennington church are among the 2 million or so Mennonites worldwide. Yvonne says the model of creating new churches instead of expanding existing ones is practical for keeping Mennonite communities at a “working size.” It also allows congregations to spread their message.

“We ask the Lord where He wants us to share the gospel next,” Yvonne said. “It does take effort — to do a move like that is not financially advantageous. It takes awhile to start over.”  

It is both “a burden and a desire,” she added, to live life according to the instructions she finds in the Bible. In addition to upping and moving somewhere new, those instructions also translate into: Yvonne wearing a covering on her head and modest, plain clothing, avoiding information from sources like television, the radio and the internet, sending her nine children to the church-run school until they’re 16, attending church where she is to listen silently during the services run by men, and, aside from paying taxes, having very little to do with the government. The Bolls, for instance, won’t vote in next week's election — Yvonne said Mennonites vote “on our knees, praying about the elections rather than casting ballots.”

Two images, one of a woman in a head covering pouring a pitcher into a jar of pears with children looking on, another of a hymn printed on paper titled I Believe In God
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
In these photos from the fall of 2018, Yvonne Boll and her family preserve pears and sing a hymn together at dinner.

“We strive to keep our lives pure and holy,” she said. “In that surrender, of my will to His will, comes a peace that is not understood until you’ve experienced it.”

To live this way, Yvonne describes the choices she and others make as maintaining a “separation from the styles and the fads of the world.”

The Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship does reach out in different ways to non-Mennonite neighbors. They work in public-facing places like the Market Wagon. Before the coronavirus, they sang hymns in the homes of others during Christmas time. These days, they write greeting cards for Meals on Wheels recipients.

A group of people in long dresses, head coverings and white shirts and black pants sit in a line to eat.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Members of the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship share a meal together after church on Dec. 2, 2018.

But in any time, pandemic or no, members of the congregation are not attending local concerts, friending new people on Facebook or signing their kids up for Little League. Instead, they are gathering for fellowship meals. They’re harvesting potatoes and raising puppies at home with the family. And they’re traveling to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Alberta to see siblings, parents and adult children.

Isolation in an insular community

This past spring, nearly all socializing stopped. Following the March 25 state-mandated shutdown, the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship initially canceled its services before moving them to a conference call line. Out-of-state family visits weren’t possible. And for weeks, church members like Nica Witmer saw only her husband, Harlan, their four kids and the occasional neighbor out walking by their hilltop property in Arlington.

A boy feeds a goat from a bottle while a little girl runs in front of him
Credit Nica Witmer, Courtesy
Logan and Kassidy Witmer help feed the goats their family bought to milk and sell cheese from this past spring.

Harlan, a contractor, couldn’t work, so the Witmers bought some goats to milk and make cheese to sell for food money. And at first, Nica enjoyed having family time at home with no schedules and no travel plans, and with their own small pond to kayak in. They had fun starting their small farm, though it could get tiring, too, juggling the goats and the cheesemaking while also teaching children and cooking larger meals with everyone home during the day. After about a month, Nica started feeling depressed about not seeing anyone else — since her husband did the grocery shopping, she didn’t even get to the store. 

“We lived kind of far away from the rest of the people,” Nica said. “For like, two months, I didn’t see any of the ladies from church.”

While the Witmers made good connections with the non-Mennonite people in their neighborhood — they’d take turns dropping off groceries for one another — by the end of the two months, Nica was desperate to see others from the congregation. Finally, the Witmers and a couple other church families got together for an outdoor picnic.

A silhouette of a woman in a head covering
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
While she enjoyed having more time with her family, Nica Witmer said as the pandemic stretched into its second month, she started feeling depressed about not seeing the other women from church.

“We’re just so used to having each other’s support,” Nica said. “That really stuck out to my husband and me, how much the church means to us, and how much we need the church.”

Back together again

The Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship’s in-person services resumed after Gov. Phil Scott announced on May 22 that houses of worship could reopen with certain restrictions in place. The mandate allows only 50% of the building’s capacity to sit inside, and requires family units to sit apart from others, and for everyone to wear facial coverings. The church’s school also returned to in-person classes this fall. 

When I continued reporting this story in September, it’d been about a year and a half since I’d last visited any church members. But when I asked to return to the church and the Market Wagon to photograph everyone getting together, those who had previously welcomed me were reluctant. No one wanted the publicity. 

While the Witmers were more willing, they were worried about our initial plans to meet outside the school as they picked up their children — they didn’t want to make other parents uncomfortable. Instead, I photographed Nica hosting an outdoor lunch for family and friends visiting from Pennsylvania on a foliage tour. Before I did so, Nica asked me whether this scene — an unmasked gathering with people from out-of-state — would be controversial. And honestly, I said it might be. But I also said it’s no different than what other people I know are doing now, too. 

Women in white head coverings laughing outside
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Nica Witmer recently hosted an outdoor lunch for her sister, Rose, and Rose's two friends Kathy Kreider and Melissa Mack, all of whom were visiting Arlington, Vt. from Pennsylvania for a foliage tour.

According to the Vermont Health Department, state health officials have not done any outreach to the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship. Bennington’s health officer said in an email he has been in touch with church’s deacon about how many people could sit inside their building. While multiple church members I talked to said families were grouped as units and apart from other households during services, they noted there were people not wearing masks.

They also said following the return of a family traveling from out-of-state — and around the same time as a group of coronavirus cases in Manchester — others in the congregation began to feel ill, and the church canceled a couple services in response. No one has been sick enough to be hospitalized, two church members told me, though no one has gotten tested for COVID-19, either.

Bridging a culture gap

To get the latest on COVID-19 and other news, the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship mostly relies on word-of-mouth and a phone “church chat” app. Some receive emails or printed information compiled by a third-party service for those who don’t use the internet. Others subscribe to newspapers. But the congregation’s disinterest in getting tested appears to be partly due to rumors circulating about it being expensive, even though in Vermont, testing is free at the state’s pop-up sites, and both New York and Massachusetts offer similar options.

Church member Glenda Harwood told me about that rumor, and that she’s now thinking about subscribing to a newspaper, “just to have an outside source.”

Women in white head coverings sit in church pews.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
A women's Sunday school session at Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship in December of 2018. During regular Sunday services, Mennonite women follow the Biblical instruction in I Timothy to be silent as men speak. But once a month, the congregation breaks into men's and women's sessions, and that's when women do teach.

Glenda is previously from the “outside” — while she’s lived in Shaftsbury for almost half a century, she grew interested in the Mennonite church about a decade ago. She said she became a Christian back in the 1970’s, but it wasn’t until her husband Junior died in 2010, and she was feeling out of place in a church with “a lot of personal politics,” that Glenda asked God where she should be. The answer: Mennonites.

“I said, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” she said.

While Glenda listened to that message, she said joining the Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship meant she had to adapt to a whole new culture, and some parts were more accessible than others. When she asked other women for a plain dress pattern, for example, she was met by blank faces. Glenda, who is 73, was also at a different life-stage than the church’s many young married couples. And without a husband, she was initially left out of the communications about church goings-on between the congregation’s men.

A framed saying of never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
A reminder on Glenda Harwood's wall.

Despite this, Glenda said she still wanted to become a Mennonite: It meant continuing practicing Christian tenets she already valued, but now with a group.

“As a Christian, we’re supposed to be part of a group — the idea is to be part of a group so we can support one another,” she said. “Jesus first, yourself last and others in-between — that’s basically how they live their lives.”

Years later, Glenda said she has “no inclinations whatsoever of changing” what she’s begun. She now wears plain dresses and a covering on her head, she’s invited to fellowship meals, she receives help with things like hauling her wood from other church members, and she’s in the loop on the women’s church chat line.

“That’s very helpful, because what other people are talking about, I know too,” she said. 

A woman in a long dress and white head covering lets a dog in from outside
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Glenda Harwood, pictured here with Jasper the dog in March of 2019, grew interested in joining Green Mountain Mennonite Fellowship about a decade ago when, much to her surprise, she felt drawn to the congregation.

While Glenda said there was a phase during the pandemic in which she stayed far away from others in the congregation and left immediately after church services, that began to feel “ridiculous” when she was working shifts with the same people at Market Wagon — albeit where everyone is wearing masks on the job — during the week. 

“I’m very at peace that I am where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

Correction 11:50 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect there are four Mennonite congregations in Vermont, not two.

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