Amid massive biker rally, Bible camp thrives
DEADWOOD, S.D. — Revving engines of Harleys, Yamahas and Kawasakis…
SPRINGFIELD, VT. — Folks in the Green Mountain State like their economy syrupy sweet.
The rural, thickly forested New England state produces 39 percent of the United States’ maple syrup.
The state’s 626,000 residents are less sweet on religion: Vermont ranks as the nation’s most secular state, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.
Just 23 percent of Vermonters characterize themselves as “very religious,” while 58 percent say they are “nonreligious.”
“As soon as you say church, people here don’t want anything to do with it,” said Gabriel Nelson, a deacon for the Springfield Church of Christ in the state’s southeast corner. “They just have this impression that Christians are these Bible-thumping crazy people.”
In one of the bluest of the blue states, believers with a theologically conservative understanding of the Bible’s teachings face a challenge converting friends and neighbors.
“It used to be, back in the ’50s and ’60s, that on Sunday afternoon we’d go door to door and give out tracts and speak about God and the life that we live,” said elder Ernest “Puggy” Lamphere, 76, a lifelong Springfield resident who served 26 years as the town’s fire chief. “Now, everybody’s afraid because it’s so liberal here … that they might be rejected or whatever.”
Despite the culture, the 72-year-old Springfield church — the state’s oldest and largest Church of Christ — has experienced a membership surge.
Minister Jay Huntley maintains “a very good balance between being able to be blunt and honest about the word of God and still be kind,” said Nelson, who grew up in a Christian family in neighboring New Hampshire.
The Springfield church does not just “preach the truth in love” but also showers visitors with kindness, said member Melina Veale, a former Episcopalian.
“People feel overwhelmed when they come to our congregation by the love and the outreach and the fact that we just say, ‘Hey, we’re so glad you’re here,’” said Veale, mother of Olivia, 12, and Madalein, 8.
In the last three years, the church has baptized nearly a dozen adults from the community, leaders said. Average Sunday attendance has jumped to the 90s, up from the 60s.
“The elders and I have prayed on a regular basis for the Lord to send us who he knows that we need to grow the church,” said Huntley, a former Marine who previously served with the Maui Church of Christ in Hawaii. “He keeps sending us all these perfect pieces.”
One of those pieces: Jim Magoon, an Iraq war veteran and nominal Roman Catholic baptized along with his wife, Kari, a teacher and guidance counselor.
“I immediately felt comfort in the congregation,” said Magoon, a father of two invited to visit the church by a family friend.
SURVIVING IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
In the new millennium, overall membership in Vermont’s small, scattered Churches of Christ has fallen 19 percent.
The number of men, women and children in the state’s 10 congregations stands at 602 — down from 741 in 2000, according to “Churches of Christ in the United States,” a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
“We’re surviving. We’re able to keep some things going, and we’re hanging in there,” said David Rivoire, minister for the South Burlington Church of Christ in western Vermont.
At the South Burlington church, Sunday attendance approached 80 in the late 1990s. Only about 35 faithful souls remain.
Children growing up and moving away contributed to the decline, as did members losing jobs and leaving town, said Rivoire, a former missionary to Europe.
The South Burlington church is using FriendSpeak, a program that helps immigrants improve their English skills by reading the Bible, to reach out to an influx of Chinese residents.
“We baptized one of those ladies,” Rivoire said. “At the peak, we had five Chinese children in our Sunday school.”
Brattleboro, Vt., made national headlines a few years ago when “sporadic outbreaks of naked bicycling, naked hula-hooping and nakedness in general,” as the Wall Street Journal described it, prompted the quaint town to enact $25 fines for public nudity.
For Lindsay Carroll, minister for the Brattleboro Church of Christ since 2003, glimpsing a bare-skinned man playing a saxophone on a street corner epitomized the challenge — and opportunity — faced by the church.
“It makes it a little more difficult because people are relatively unchurched,” Carroll said. “There doesn’t seem to be a real burning need within themselves to find anything that’s spiritual and associated with the Bible.”
The Brattleboro church averages Sunday attendance of 60 to 70, down from a high of 90 to 100.
Among the recent visitors: a woman Carroll found digging through a trash bin for bottles to sell. As a result of the encounter, the church’s food bank provided groceries for the woman, her husband and three children.
“When you have a success like that, it comes from the Holy Spirit touching their heart,” Carroll said of the family visiting the church. “It’s a good encouragement to keep going.”
In Quechee, Vt., near the New Hampshire state line, Randy Gardner has preached for the Upper Valley Church of Christ for five years.
Twenty-four baptisms in the first two years pushed average attendance to 65, the minister said. But then the recession forced many to relocate.
“All of a sudden, you’re looking at being right back down in the low 40s,” he said. “It’s a little disheartening. But the Lord is blessing us with some more Bible studies, and we just keep working.”
The native Vermonter disputes the notion that the state’s residents aren’t open to talking about faith.
“People are open, if you’re willing to open yourself up and talk and just chew the fat,” Gardner said, describing how he rode his motorcycle to the post office and struck up a conversation with a stranger about the man’s Labrador retrievers.
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Back in Springfield, the church — which meets a few miles outside of the town of 9,400 — has worked to enhance its community profile.
“For whatever reason, the Church of Christ had been kind of isolated from the rest of the community,” said elder Ed Wilkins, who has taught English at the local high school for 30 years.
The church launched a monthly community dinner that draws between 70 and 80 people. It opened its building for community showings of the faith-based movies “Fireproof” and “Courageous.”
When Hurricane Irene washed away roads, homes and bridges in 2011 — the worst deluge Vermont had endured in 84 years — the Springfield congregation played a leading role in relief efforts.
The church building served as the distribution point for truckloads of emergency food boxes, personal care kits and cleaning supplies from Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort.
“It’s a great effort and a great outreach for the church,” Lamphere told The Christian Chronicle at the time, “and God gets the glory, not us.”
In the hurricane’s aftermath, Nelson’s wife, Heather, volunteered at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. When the VFW ran out of tables, Gabriel Nelson delivered extra ones from the church.
“I was trying to find out where my wife was. There were probably 300 volunteers there,” recalled Nelson, father of Kidan, 7, and Keltyn, 6.
“Across the room, I hear someone yell, ‘Go find the Church of Christ Heather!’ because there were two Heathers spearheading the effort,” he said. “To me, that was the neatest thing to see my wife identified that way … and not in a derogatory way but in a very respectful, caring way.”
How syrupy sweet.
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