Tag Archives: Bethany

Congregational Profile: Bethany Mennonite Church

by Brandon Bergey, Bethany Mennonite Church

Photo by Gwen Groff

Bethany Mennonite Church was planted in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont  in 1952 as an initiative by the Franconia Conference. Conference representatives wanted to find a secular location to plant a Mennonite church. Fast forward to 2019 when Vermont is the most secular state in the nation.

We recently finished a sermon series on Anabaptist history and theology. That kind of exploration is so useful in our congregation because we are made up of former Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, and “Nones.” Some of us are strongly drawn to Eastern religions, including Christianity’s Eastern Orthodox stream. Having this sort of diversity among 50 or 60 people can be very interesting! It feels necessary to be inclusive. How else would we do ministry in a secular, post-Christian environment? In our adult Christian Education class, we are currently discussing Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ. Many of us are finding that Christ’s presence permeates the whole world.

Bethany members and friends help their neighbors by stacking wood. Photo by Tom Smith.

In our Membership Covenant, which we renew annually, we commit ourselves to welcoming “everyone, without exception.” We affirm that “we embrace our differences as well as our similarities, and we respect and learn from other faith traditions and values.” These commitments have become increasingly important for many of us. On the days I find myself in deep disagreement with a fellow member, I am invited to love my neighbor as myself. A diverse church is one of the hardest places to practice the love Jesus taught!

Bethany has a strong emphasis on lay leadership. We have only one paid staff position and have never had a full-time pastor. Congregants are deeply involved in planning and leading worship, doing pastoral care, working on committees, and connecting with the community.

At times, this was constrained by size and financial limitations, but at times when we could have afforded more professional staff time, we chose not to, in order to retain our lay-led culture and structure.

At the annual outdoor service, members walk the labyrinth together in silence. Photo by Tom Smith.

We have a fairly laid-back worship service. People wear flannel shirts and snow boots. A 2-year-old wanders among the pews, hoping for an unblocked route to the piano or a guitar. An infant quietly nurses. The congregation sings familiar and new songs. The relaxed attitude is especially obvious in the sharing time that follows the sermon. The person bringing the message is understood to be giving only the first half of the message. Our congregational response time is the second half. Our small size and commitment to vulnerability means we are able to weave a shared narrative. Each Sunday that sharing time elicits additional wisdom, truth, and insight that reflects our diverse community.

I am so thankful for that group who studied church planting in the middle of the last century. I am so thankful to be a part of this resulting diverse group, age 2 months to 85 years old. I am so thankful my young family is warmly welcomed in the worship service and Sunday School, even though we currently make the most noise.

Pray with me that we will see Jesus in our relationships, even when, especially when, our honesty about our differences causes tensions. Pray with me that we will embody God’s Spirit in a way that touches all of our neighbors. Pray with me for a family who attends church with us who are attempting a seemingly impossible project to which they feel called. Join me in giving thanks for our pastor who has been a deep source of wisdom for many of us and many beyond our walls in the community.

Life Together Gets More Interesting

Since 2011, Franconia and Eastern District Conferences have come together for an annual fall Assembly holding separate business sessions, yet enjoying joint times of worship on Friday evening and Saturday morning, sharing in the recognition of newly credentialed leaders, and lunch. This year on November 3 and 4, 2017 they gathered at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pennsylvania to do the same. However, new this year, a time of joint meeting was held on Saturday afternoon that focused on reviewing recommendations from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team that the two Conferences voted to commission at the 2016 Assembly.

The Assembly was centered on Psalm 133:1,3b, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” The theme was Life Together, as the focus of the Assembly was that while these two conference may have split 170 years ago, they continue to do life together.  A large part of the Assembly business this year was to look at whether these conferences would take the next step in their relationship, to look even more intentionally at reconciliation and what it would look like if they were to merge into one conference.

The weekend began with Friday night worship led by Tami Good of Swamp Mennonite Church, which included a worship team of folks whose first languages were Indonesian, Spanish and English and who came from congregations in South Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Upper Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The opening prayer was given in Indonesian, Spanish, English and even Pennsylvania Dutch. Videos were shown that highlighted  Souderton Mennonite Church’s Vocation as Mission internship program, “for young adults actively pursuing God’s kingdom in local communities.” Highlighted were the fact that the interns come from congregations across both conferences — most not even realizing there were two conferences — and the relationships built between the interns through Bible study, leadership and social issues trainings, as they worked side by side with local non-profits, businesses and ministries. The other video shown was about the ministries of Deep Run East and Deep Run West — one Franconia Conference church and one Eastern District church that happen to be across the street from one another. Their pastors, Ken Burkholder of Deep Run East and Rodger Schmell of Deep Run West, shared about how their congregations do ministry in such close proximity and how their relationship has changed over the years since their initial split. The worship time was followed by the annual ice cream social provided by Longacres Dairy.

Saturday morning, delegates began their day in separate Eastern District and Franconia Conference business sessions. This was a historic day for Franconia Conference as they became bi-coastal and accepted four new congregations as members, one from Flushing, New York and three from the Los Angeles, California area. Bethany Elshaddai Creative Community in New York is pastored by Hendy Stevans and has been connecting with Franconia Conference for about two years. Hendy is currently a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, attending classes at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus. The congregations in the Los Angeles area consist of Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah (JKIA) pastored by Virgo Handoyo, Indonesian Community Christian Fellowship pastored by Makmur Halim, and International Worship Church pastored by Buddy Hannarto. All three have had relationships with Franconia Conference for over a decade. The four congregations’ members are largely from Indonesia and joined with Franconia Conference pastors Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center and Beny Krisbianto of Nations Worship Center to share in a song. To learn more about these congregations check out their congregational profiles here. Following the 98% vote of affirmation to welcome these congregations, the delegates joined in singing songs in both English and Indonesian as a welcome.

The joint Franconia and Eastern District Conference Saturday worship was a time of song, remembering those who have passed on in the last year, and anointing 15 newly credentialed leaders. Following the anointing of the newly credentialed leaders, the leaders were dispersed throughout the auditorium and those in attendance were invited to be prayed over by them. It was truly a time of commissioning and sending forth. There was also a time of recognition of the Centennial of Mennonite Women USA and a video celebrating Eastern District and Franconia Conference’s shared Sistering Committee, a local chapter of Mennonite Women USA.

Following lunch by Landis’ Market, the delegates from Eastern District and Franconia Conferences joined one another around tables to hear from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. The team reviewed their report that had been previously sent to the delegates, which can be accessed here. They also highlighted their recommendations. At their tables, the delegates were then invited to discuss any affirmations, concerns or questions they had regarding the report or the recommendations put forth. These were recorded on sheets of paper and submitted to be compiled and shared with those tasked at carrying out the recommendations, should the delegates vote to move forward with them.

The core recommendation from the team is that Eastern District and Franconia Conference “enter a formal engagement process for the purposes of healing and reconciliation and with the intention of becoming a single, unified conference by November 2019.” In order to do this, the team recommended the forming of two teams: one to work intentionally at addressing the “spiritual and emotional components of reconciliation,” known as the “Healing and Reconciliation Team”, and the other being the “Identity Development and Structural Implementation Team,” tasked with managing “the process of forming a single unified conference, with particular attention to the structure, staffing, financial, and cultural realities of creating a single conference from the two existing conferences.”

Nancy Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Denominational Minister for the two Conferences, closed the joint time in prayer.

After a short break, the conferences gathered in separate rooms where their delegates recorded on flip chart paper their largest affirmations and concerns regarding moving forward with the recommendations. Present were David Brubaker and Roxy Allen Kioko, consultants from Eastern Mennonite University who had been hired in 2016 and were working with the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. Following this and some open microphone time for questions and answers, the delegates voted. With a 90% affirmation from Franconia Conference and a 99% affirmation from Eastern District Conference, both agreed to move forward with working at reconciliation and exploring more formally what a merged conference will look like.

This means that over the next few weeks, both Conference Boards will be looking for nominations for the two teams presented in the recommendations. The goal will be to have these teams appointed no later than the end of the calendar year. According to the recommendations, there is a goal for the Healing and Reconciliation Team to hold a Reconciliation service at a Spring 2018 Assembly, and planning will therefore need to begin quickly. The Identity and Structural Development Team will, over the next two years, work to develop a shared mission and vision, a new organization chart and budget to be presented to the delegates in 2019. Therefore, a decision on whether or not these two conferences will merge will not come until 2019. Over the next few weeks, leaders of both conferences will work to address questions raised about the process. Keep your eye out for more information on that. To find out more about what is expected of these two teams and to nominate yourself or someone else for either team, click here. Nominations are due by Friday, December 1 at midnight.

To close this historic day, the two conferences joined together in song as they continue to look forward to Life Together.

For podcasts of the various business sessions and to view the videos shown at assembly, visit the Assembly page at: edc-fmc.org/assembly.

CLICK HERE to see a recap video of Conference Assembly.


Conference Welcomes Gwen Groff to the Board

by Barbie Fischer, communication manager and administration coordinator

Gwen Groff
Gwen Groff

The Franconia Conference board welcomed Gwen Groff as a new board member at their May 11 meeting. Gwen has served as pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont since 1999.

During that time, she has been very active in the conference, in spite of the distance. She has served as a Franconia Conference delegate or congregational delegate at Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) conventions and has attended most Franconia Conference assemblies. Gwen’s encouragement also prompted Franconia Conference to start recording pastors and leaders events, so that those who could not attend would still be able to access that resource.

Gwen grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and completed her undergraduate work at Eastern Mennonite College and Franklin & Marshall College. She later received a master’s degree in Theology and Pastoral Counseling from Lancaster Theological Seminary. While in seminary, Gwen interned with and then served part-time at Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster.

Prior to pastoral ministry, Gwen held several roles with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), including working in peace education in the Akron, Pennsylvania office, and at the London Mennonite Center in the United Kingdom. She also served as MCC’s director of women’s concerns.

While in London, Gwen met her husband, Robert Buchan. They have two children, Lilly, 18, and Andrew, 16.

Gwen said what she loves about Vermont is the landscape “summers, springs, and falls, in that order.”

She also loves the people in her congregation, and how they do things with integrity and a lot of intention. Says Gwen, “You don’t accidentally wind up in a Mennonite Church in Vermont. The church had to planted.” (Bethany is one of only two MCUSA churches in Vermont.) What seems to draw Vermonters to Bethany and the Mennonite tradition is the peace witness, the opportunity to sing together, and the community, as the congregation is active in one another’s lives throughout the week.

Gwen brings many strengths to her role as a board member with Franconia Conference: a willingness to listen, to learn from others, and an enthusiasm for the work of the conference. She is most excited about the mission, “Equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.”

Stephen Kriss, LEADership minister for Bethany, says, “Gwen is an experienced pastor and trusted leader.  She’ll bring deep wisdom and love for the church with a Vermonter perspective yet as someone who has grown up in Pennsylvania Mennonite contexts and with a connection with Anabaptism in the UK.  Her insights, questions along with her poetic and prophetic voice will help us to keep navigating while listening for God’s in-breaking.”

In her spare time Gwen enjoys walking in the woods, singing in various acapella groups, playing piano, patch work quilting, and “the fascinating role of parenting teenagers.” What energizes her is making connections, storytelling and seeing how pieces connect “to my story and to God’s story.”


Holding joy and sadness in tension: The Lord’s Supper

by Gwen Groff, Bethany

Gwen GroffAt Bethany we share communion at least three times each year. Our first communion service is in January when we renew our annual membership covenant with each other. Our system of membership at Bethany is an odd hybrid. We can become members by taking a membership class and being baptized or by transferring a letter of membership from another congregation, and we can become members by annually affirming our covenant with this congregation. When we renew our membership covenant each January, affirming that we intend to walk with this particular group of people and uphold our commitments to what we state in our covenant, we mark this by celebrating communion together.

This is one of the times that I most feel the difference between the Mennonite congregation in which I grew up and the Mennonite congregation of which I am now a part. I grew up seeing communion as a very somber service in which people wore dark clothes and often wept. I recall preparatory services the week before the communion services in which members filed into a small anteroom and shook hands with the bishop and declared that we were “at peace with God and our fellow men.” Members were warned not to eat and drink “unworthily,” thereby eating and drinking “damnation unto himself.”

By comparison, our communion services at Bethany feel very open, perhaps even lax. I invite people to come forward to receive the bread and cup with the words, “This is the Lord’s table and all are welcome.” I do not ask if someone has been baptized or is a church member. This seems not very Anabaptist. It does however seem to be in keeping with what Jesus did in sharing the table with anyone who wanted to eat with him.

The Bethany communion service that I most enjoy is part of our annual outdoor service. Each summer I mow a labyrinth into the grass in the back lawn and at our outdoor service we take the bread and cup just before we begin walking the the labyrinth together. We walk into the middle of the labyrinth in silence, pause in the center circle, and come back out again. Some people look into the faces of others they pass going the opposite direction, some look down, some are chewing the bread, many are barefoot. Some children are held in their parents’ arms. Most of the children enter the labyrinth at the front of the line and run to the center ahead of the adults. There they receive a spoken blessing from one of the servers, “You are known and loved by God,” and are given grapes and crackers. They run or walk back out, passing the adults who are still on their way in. The adults walk more slowly and contemplatively.

I usually take the bread and cup to the older people who are unable to walk the labyrinth and are seated on the grass that is slightly higher than the labyrinth. I love to look out across the people walking and see our congregation moving as one, like a giant organism on the grass. Sometimes we are a little crowded as we walk but we have not outgrown the practical limits of this ritual. The service is full of laughter and reflection, movement and epiphanies. If the labyrinth symbolizes our spiritual path, the bread and cup represent nourishment for the journey.

Our other communion celebration is part of our Good Friday service. This communion meal seems to be most in the spirit of the first Last Supper. It holds together the joy of the Passover celebration, remembering liberation from slavery, with the grief of the looming death of Jesus.  It focuses on the stated purpose of communion — doing this in remembrance of Jesus — reminding us of his life, death and resurrection. The service is virtually the same every year. We eat a simple meal together in the church basement on Good Friday evening. We read aloud the Passion account from one of the gospels, we sing, we serve one another the bread and cup, and we leave in silence.

I value something about each of these three services. In the January communion service, I appreciate the emphasis on our covenanted commitment to God and one another. I appreciate the symbolism of nourishment for our faith journeys that is part of the summer communion service. And I appreciate the remembrance of the first Lord’s supper that is part of our Good Friday service. What I love about all of them is the way the communion ritual holds in tension joy and sadness. Words can’t make sense of that paradox, “proclaiming the Lord’s death.” But ritual does.

Introducing Bethany Mennonite Church

This mosaic hangs at the front of Bethany’s auditorium and is made from slips of paper that members wrote on as part of one Sunday’s sermon.

Bethany is an intimate ecumenical gathering in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. We began as a small group of five families who followed a call to move here from PA in the early 1950’s. We are currently led by Gwen Groff.

We foster a healthy awareness of the broader Christian faith as it relates to our global community. We are excited about Jesus Christ. We celebrate the transcendence of his birth. We marvel at the complex grace of his time on Earth. We rejoice in the solemn beauty of his death and resurrection. We are excited about continuing His story of a deep love for the women and men around him, as we live and work here in a quiet corner of the world being the hands, feet, body and blood of the Word-made-Flesh.

We come from all walks of life. We come from all political persuasions. We come from all economic backgrounds. Our common theme is our deep love of the way of Jesus. We love to sing together. We love to eat together. We love to camp together. Our children are important to us. That they have a safe place to seek out their Creator is tantamount to our existence as a body of faith.

In light of all of this, we see ourselves as good soil- no more and no less. Good things grow here.

A Franconia Conference Summer

We asked for stories from summer activities from around the Conference and got this jewel from Kim Moyer, Blooming Glen congregation:

The theme for our Summer Bible School was “Be Bold! God is with You!” The children learned through songs, dramas, stories, crafts, and games, that God is with them, even when they are scared. 

One mother told me a story about her 5 year old son who has always been afraid to go into the basement of their home by himself.  The week after SBS, he asked his mom to go with him to the basement so that he could get his blanket.  His mom couldn’t go with him at the moment, so he decided he would try to go by himself.  When he returned to his mom with his blanket, he told her, “I was able to go down in the basement because I kept telling myself, God is always with us, God is always with us.”

A piece of SBS that caused a lot of excitement among the children was an offering project competition between the girls and the boys.  The children were raising money for a Mennonite Mission Network project, which sends children in South Africa to Bethany Bible School, a camp that teaches the children about Jesus.  It costs $20 to send one child to the camp, and the boys and girls at SBS were competing against each other to send the most children to camp.  If the boys won, then the Children’s Ministry Director (me) would get a pie in her face, and if the girl’s won, then the Lead Pastor would get the pie in his face. 

The children took this competition seriously and were bringing in their piggy banks, doing extra chores to raise money, and asking grandparents to write out checks.  By the end of the week, the 70 children at SBS collectively raised $1,162.53, sending 58 children to Bethany Bible School!  Although the boys won, and I got a pie in the face, it was decided that the real winners were the 58 children that would now be able to attend the Bible Camp.

Thanks, Kim, and everyone else who shared their photos and stories this summer!  And if you haven’t already read them, check out these stories about Peace Camps, Bethany’s anniversary celebration, a special service at Plains, Salford’s listening project, Kingdom Builders construction in Philly, Germantown Historic Trust’s painting project … and this is just some of what has been happening in our Conference this summer.

Enjoy these fun photos that were taken at camps, picnics, outdoor services, Bible Schools, and more.  If you’d like to add photos from your congregation’s summer to this gallery, send them to Emily with captions and photo credits.

View the photo album

Bethany celebrates 60 years with stories

On August 12, Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater, Vermont, celebrated their 60th anniversary.  As part of their celebration, people from the church, community, and the conference shared their memories from the last sixty years.  The following article is adapted from those stories.

Bethany 60th
Izzy Jenne, Anna Hepler, Annabel Hershey Lapp enjoying themselves at Bethany’s 60th anniversary celebration. Photo by Karen Hawkes.

Sixty years ago, it became a congregation. Three of the four families that came from Franconia Conference to start the mission church gathered for “The Picture.” We all looked so excited and full of energy. This is the look that people get when they don’t have a clue what the future will bring.

I remember some things from those early years, the 50s: sliding down the old stair railing (adults didn’t seem to realize God meant it to be part of the children’s playground); multigenerational church socials in the damp and dark church basement; sitting in the hay wagons every fall eating crisp Macs on hayrides through those dark back roads of Vermont. I learned to keep an eye out for the tree branches that might sweep down and get you.

I remember growing up in two worlds, the church world and the Vermont secular world. They seemed very different.  We all kind of learned the hard way, as individuals, families, and a congregation, that transplanting ethnic Mennonites into a “foreign culture” was probably not the best way to plant a church.  Hard lessons were learned, maybe too hard sometimes. I saw my parents having to learn and relearn and still remain faithful to their call.

I remember once when we had a “breaking of bread service.” It wasn’t a regular communion service. Each person was given a small bread roll, and we went around and broke off a piece of our roll and gave it to someone else until our roll was gone. That service felt like a great big pair of arms was holding the whole congregation in a big hug.

Summer Vacation Bible School was a BIG, two-week affair. I went door to door asking if families would like to send their children and we drove them every day in a vehicle owned by the church and then the town school bus. When we grew to over a hundred children, teachers came from the other churches in Bridgewater and from the community as well as Bethany.

One year, I had a class of 4-year-olds with six girls and one boy. That boy could swear up a storm. He never had pennies for the offering. One morning he had a jingly pocket. I asked him what that was. He said, “Pennies.” I asked why he hadn’t put them in the box. He said he didn’t have them then. I asked where he got them. He said out of the box. I asked him why he had done that. He said it was because he never had any pennies. “Well,” I said thoughtfully, “you will from now on.”

Bethany worked closely with the other churches in the area, especially with the Congregational Church in Bridgewater. When [Pastor] Nevin had a brain aneurysm, the Bridgewater church was very supportive of this congregation in many ways. They held a fund raiser for Nevin by having a community potluck meal that brought many, many people together.

I saw God’s face in the early morning walks and talks through many back roads with other women through the years. We would gather at the church with our flashlights before our day of work began. We valued friendship, faith, and health.

I saw God’s presence in families from the village who brought their young children to the parsonage for childcare. Conversations relevant to life happened at daily drop-off and pick-up times. I felt joy watching my children play among many others in the field in a safe, open environment.

The first thing that struck me when I came to Bethany for the first time was the beautiful singing with everyone doing harmony and no choir. We were all the choir!

There are many more stories to share.  Sixty years of them.  And it makes me wonder, “What if?”

What if a group of church leaders from Franconia Conference in the middle of the 20th century hadn’t decided there was a need to start a church in Vermont called Bethany Mennonite…?

Walking together on the road to Easter

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

It’s a familiar story, especially for those who have grown up in the church.  So how do we retell the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection year after year in ways that open us up, once again, to the pain, the beauty, and the wonder of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death?

dove scripture picture
Members at Souderton congregation contributed artwork made of scripture. Photo provided.

The season of Lent, celebrated for the forty days leading up to Easter, marks Christ’s journey to Jerusalem.  It invites those who follow Jesus to walk with him by remembering his life, practicing disciplines of fasting and sacrifice, and engaging in deeper commitment to their brothers and sisters in the church.

Souderton (Pa.) congregation began Lent by diving deeper into Mennonite Church USA’s “Year of the Bible” with an art project.  Members of the congregation were invited to choose a word or phrase from scripture on which they wanted to meditate and to write it over and over on a panel using colors to create images.  These panels became banners that hung in the front of their sanctuary during the Lenten season.

Souderton wasn’t the only congregation to celebrate the imaginative Spirit.  Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.) spent Lent exploring God as creator, “littering” the steps of their platform with items created by members of the congregation, symbols of God’s unique creative work in them.  Their children memorized Psalm 139, which they recited on Palm Sunday after leading the entire congregation in a procession, joyfully waving palm branches.

Plains maps
Plains congregation used maps to illustrate their prayers for their region, country, and world. Photo by Dawn Ranck.

Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week and was the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowds.  The week soon turned more somber, however, as Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, washing their feet, and predicting his betrayal.  These events are remembered on Maundy Thursday.

Conference congregations reenacted Christ’s humility with their own experiences of footwashing.  Traditionally, Mennonites have practiced footwashing in groups divided by gender.  At Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation this year, footwashing was one of several stations that members could visit, which, for the first time, allowed married couples or family members to wash each other’s feet.

Good Friday vigil
Franconia Conference members joined Christians from all over the Philadelphia region for a Good Friday vigil outside a gun shop. Photo by Jim McIntire.

In addition to footwashing, Plains (Hatfield, Pa.) congregation acted out Christ’s care and humility by setting up prayer stations with large maps of the world, the country, and their region.  Members could pray for and mark areas on each map with a dot or a heart.

Compassion for the community continued to spread into Good Friday, the day when followers of Jesus remember his death on the cross.  Members of churches all over the Philadelphia region gathered outside a gun shop in the city for a Good Friday vigil.  As these believers stood against violence in the city, others gathered in Good Friday services to remember that Jesus’ death made peace and reconciliation with God, and one another, possible.

Salford power outage
Salford congregation spent part of its Good Friday service in the dark, thanks to an unexpected power outage. Photo by Emily Ralph

Just when Good Friday seemed like it couldn’t get any darker, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation’s evening service was suddenly interrupted by a power outage.  For just a few, brief moments the congregation was surprised by the darkness and powerless to do anything but sit in the shadow of the cross.

There was a hush in Franconia Conference on the Saturday of Holy Week, as though the Church was holding its breath, waiting for the joy they knew was coming on Easter morning.

And the joy did come—in colors and flowers, in song and story, in food and hope and promise.  Crosses were draped in white and lilies and hyacinths and forsythia decorated sanctuaries.  Congregations met as the sun rose, around breakfast tables, and in their morning services to celebrate an empty tomb.

Philadelphia Praise Center viewed a video in which church members took to the city streets to ask people about the significance of Easter.  Blooming Glen (Pa.) congregation acted out the resurrection story in a chilly sunrise service and a member at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.) built a custom tomb to display on Easter morning. In Vermont, members of Bethany congregation participated in an ecumenical sunrise service on the side of Mt Killington and then, after brunch, were led in worship by a new generation of storytellers–their children.

It’s a familiar story, and yet it’s born fresh each year as we once again walk with Jesus through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season.  In this story, we recognize what theologian H.S. Bender once wrote: we live on the resurrection side of the cross.  May we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by living our lives as a resurrected people.

He is risen: He is risen indeed!

View the photo gallery

Pastoring after the Storm

by Gwen Groff, Bethany, bethanym@vermontel.net

Hurricane Irene
Route 100 in Plymouth, Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene tore through the region. Photo by Brandon Bergey.

A friend told me a story about a minister who went down to the train station every morning to watch the trains pass. Finally someone asked why he did this. Was he considering throwing himself in front of one of them? Was he wishing he could hop on one and get out of town? Was he praying for the people as they passed through? The minister said, “I just love to see something moving that I don’t have to push.”

Although I’m not much of a pusher, I can sometimes identify with the desire to see movement for which I’m not responsible. But the community response to Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Vermont on Sunday, August 28, 2011, was a moving train I was not pushing. Instead I felt I was running to catch up with what was already on the move.

I was out of town when the storm hit. My husband Robert and I were at the beach in Maine celebrating our 20th anniversary when Irene poured eight inches of rain on our town and washed away roads, bridges, power lines, homes and land.

In Maine the seas were high but we saw little rain or storm damage. We were oblivious to Irene’s impact until we happened to meet some other Vermonters on the beach who told us that our governor had declared a state of emergency. We started paying attention to the news and trying to phone home. We couldn’t reach the friends who were keeping our kids but our neighbors told us not to bother trying to come home early. The roads to our house were closed and the road between us and our children was washed away.

I called our neighbors to ask how they were doing. When I talked with one member of the family she said, “It’s like a war zone here. No power, boulders in the middle of lawns, houses washed under the bridge up the road . . .” When I talked with her husband, he said, “It’s like a big party here. There’s no power so we’ve got the grill going, there’s lots of stuff thawing in the freezer we need to eat up . . .”

When we got home on Tuesday, we started seeing the damage in our neighborhood and hearing the extent of the damage in our small state. Five people drowned, 1400 were driven from their homes. Two hundred bridges were damaged and 530 miles of roads shut down.

With power still out and roads around us yet closed, we had little to do but walk around to our neighbors and see what needed to be done. Some people immediately got busy coordinating relief supplies and equipment. We were asked if we could use the church vestibule as a distribution point, but it soon became clear we’d need a bigger space, and the Grange (town) hall next door became the local hub of activity.

I was slow to catch up with what my role should be in this situation. I mostly listened a lot as people shared their stories. When electricity was restored I baked bread and took it to neighbors who had been evacuated and people who were cleaning mud out of their basements. Many were sorting and drying out their possessions.

Several people suggested Bethany have a special service. Vermont is a notoriously secular state, and only one other time—after 9/11—did people in this community ask for a worship service. But the week after Irene several people said they would like time to come together and pray. One person from the community suggested that we have a Eucharist but use water instead of the usual elements. Water is what caused us so much trauma. But water is also what we most needed, clean water to drink, water to wash our hands and shower and flush, water to cleanse the contaminated soil.

So we gathered and sang and prayed and had a water ritual. I had planned several readings and songs to follow the ritual, but sharing the water was the start of people sharing stories, and that went on for more than an hour. People didn’t want to leave.

Mennonites are used to being the experts in relief and disaster services. Motivated by our faith, we are good at helping. But after Irene we saw everyone helping their neighbors. Who knew so many Vermonters had heavy equipment stashed in their sheds? People in our town joyfully brought out whatever big rig they had and repaired roads, built makeshift bridges, refortified river banks, and removed debris. One neighbor said, “They’re like boys playing in a sandbox.”

People became more expressive of their compassion. Neighbors who normally barely waved at each other had conversations and came into each other’s houses and helped sort through one another’s chaos. Neighbors in isolated pockets shared meals and water, sump pumps and generators. In this community of independent, self-sufficient Vermonters, people gave and accepted help.

For some, fear lingers. The sound of water brings anxiety. And many people are exhausted by the process of haggling with insurance companies and FEMA. But the community has become more kind and connected, and there is no turning around that train.

Tropical storm damage in Vermont is a ‘disaster’

By Sheldon C. Good, sheldon@mennoweekly.org
Mennonite Weekly Review

What is usually a small brook washed out this section of Route 100 in Plymouth, Vt., home of Bethany Birches Camp. — Photo by Brandon Bergey

Flood waters due to Tropical Storm Irene were subsiding by Sept. 6, but extensive devastation remained as cleanup and repairs began for Mennonites across Vermont, including some who were isolated for days.

The storm weakened as it made its way along the Atlantic sea­board the last weekend of August but dropped several inches of rain in just a few hours in many places.

In Vermont, raging rivers washed out hundreds of roads and damaged dozens of bridges.

More than a dozen Vermont towns, including Plymouth, home to the Mennonite-affiliated Bethany Birches Camp, became virtual islands.

“We are in the midst of a disaster,” said Randy Good, pastor of Taftsville Chapel Mennonite Fellowship, on Sept. 1, after the storm had pased. “Close by, people have lost their homes and businesses. We are continuing to become aware of the magnitude of things, and as we do, it is getting worse.”

Good and Gwen Groff, pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church, accounted for all of their members, though some evacuated their homes. Both meetinghouses as well as Bethany Birches Camp sustained little damage.

More than 60 percent of the 450 miles of Vermont state roads that were closed have reopened, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 5.

Still, some roads remained closed. According to Google Crisis Response, parts of the main road that runs between the camp and the Bethany congregation were only open to authorized vehicles.

“Franconia Conference communities in?Vermont seem to be at the center of some of the most extensive damage,” said Stephen Kriss, director of communication for Franconia Mennonite Conference.

On Aug. 30, National Guard helicopters airlifted food, water and supplies to isolated towns, including Plymouth.The storm killed three people in Vermont and at least 55 total. Preliminary estimates put total losses along the East Coast at about $7 billion.

Brandon Bergey, executive director of Bethany Birches Camp, was using his motorcycle to get around.

He said most towns were setting up relief stations where people could get gas, food and water.

The local community, Bergey said, is drawing closer together.

“In a rural area like ours, it’s not always easy to connect with neighbors; now it’s easier,” he said.

“The destruction that will cost us a lot of work and discomfort — and for some, homes and most possessions — is helping us build relationships.”

Groff, pastor of the Bethany congregation, lives with her family in a parsonage next to the church. Though it sits along the Ottauquechee River, which overflowed its banks, the Groffs’ home received minimal damage.

Route 4, the main road between the Bethany and Taftsville congregations, will be closed for months, Good said.

“Some roadways that seemed passable have been found to have caves washed out underneath the roadway, and some have collapsed,” he said.

Dennis Bricker of Chambersburg, Pa., removes debris at Lennard DeWolfe’s home in Forkston, Pa. — Photo by Wilmer Martin

Six people from Franconia Conference congregations volunteered with MDS in Vermont Sept. 5-8. They removed debris and sorted through damaged buildings.

“The primary effort right now is simply getting wet materials out of homes,” said volunteer Ted Houser of Lancaster, Pa.

Houser noted the timeliness of their service: Mennonites worked on storm cleanup on Labor Day in Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York.

MDS executive director Kevin King said the organization is conducting assesments for long-term needs.?He said relief work in Vermont is “a challenge because of all the infrastructure that’s been destroyed.”

In other storm damage, the basement of New Beginnings Community Church of Bristol, Pa., a Franconia Conference congregation, flooded due to the recent storm.

Ertell Whigham, executive minister of Franconia Conference, said the church lost all of its educational resources, including computers.

Originally posted in Mennonite Weekly Review, September 1, 2011 and updated on September 6.  Reposted by permission.