How Bennington's Insular Mennonite Community Weathered Pandemic Isolation
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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