Vermont village accepts church once under fire

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday, July 20, 1989
By William Cockerham

ISLAND POND, Vt.-Five years after state trooper raided a controversial church settlement in this remote village near the Canadian border and took more than 100 children into protective custody, church members have gained acceptance by longtime residents.

No longer are there rumors of child abuse, boycotts of church members' businesses or rocks being hurled through their windows,

In fact, many of the town's 1,643 residents, a good number of them elderly and of Irish and French descent, regard the Northeast Kingdom Community Church as the lifeblood of this once-prosperous railroad town that served as a refueling and icing station before the Civil War. The 400 church member are all relatively young and have done much to upgrade the old homes they live in.

"If they packed up and left here, we'd be in terrible shape," said Theodore Lefevbre, 83, the village's auditor.

"I respect them. They are hardworking, honest and don't ask the town for anything. They're the type of people who share everything they have. Quite frankly, they're better than most of the people here."

He also said the group member are self-reliant, growing and canning their own vegetables and baking their own bread. He said they all work in about a half dozen church-owned businesses in town, or care for their young children.

Church members, although they still keep to themselves, said they felt accepted.

"I think relationships are pretty good," said one church member who gave his name only as Amats.

About complaints five years ago that church members beat their children with sticks for such things as asking for more food or not acknowledging adults they pass on the street, Lefevbre called them ridiculous.

"I've never seen a mark on any one of these kids," he said. "They are well-behaved and smart as whips. I saw a 6-year-old tie a knot like he'd been out at sea for 10 years."

The raid, authorized by Vermont's attorney general, later was called an illegal "fishing expedition" by a slate judge, and the children were ordered returned to their parents within a few days. None of the complaints of child abuse, some of which were brought by church defectors, ever was proven in court.

The Vermont state children and youth services agency said it has received no reports of abuse by church members since the June 1984 raid.

Despite general acceptance, some residents still are suspicious of the group, which started coming to Island Pond from Tennessee during the late 1970s, buying and renovating run-down properties.

Bernard Henault, who runs an anti-poverty agency in the village, said he thinks church member simply changed their tactics to avoid scrutiny by the state and the media.

"'They are playing a game right, now. They are not as aggressive as they used to be. They've certainly stopped soliciting member from the area," he said.

In terms of education, Henault said, the church "is disenfranchising a whole generation of their children They certainly don't teach them a lot."

Church members have been educating their own children since they first arrived in town, a practice that is being looked at by Vermont officials. A spokesman for the state education department said the group has agreed to comply with all requirements.

"They've invited education officials up to their school, but I think it's just show and tell " Henault said. "It's kind of like an Army inspection. If you know it's going to happen, you can always pass muster."

Henault said, however, that it has been almost a year since he has heard any complains about the group. He said he has helped scores of disenchanted church members leave Vermont through the years, people he said were just "left out in the cold," with no money or means of transportation. ·

Although church members, who are easily identifiable by their dress and manner, are friendly, they do not like to talk about their lifestyle. The women wear long dresses and cover their hair with kerchiefs. The men keep their hair long and grow beards.

The church was founded by Eugene Spriggs Jr. in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1972, but he and his follower left in 1976 after publicity about the group's purported brainwashing techniques.

He visited the Island Pond community a few times during the early 1980s, but no one in town has seen him since. He could not be reached for comment and Island Pond church members would not say where he was living nor answer any questions about him.

The Church of God, as the group is known in other places practices a fundamental Christianity, but refers to Jesus by his Hebrew name, Yahshua.

Although relationships between church member and other townspeople have improved greatly through the years, the group is still an enigma in this isolated and poor area of Vermont. Until recently, church member had refused to give the town information on births and' deaths. It was only two years ago that they invited outsiders to weddings and other activities within their small settlement.

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