Vermont village accepts church once under fire

The Philadelphia Inquirer
William Cockerham
July 20, 1989
Island Pond, Vt. – Five years after state troopers 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 residents hurling rocks 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 station before the Civil War.  The 400 church members 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 members 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.
Vermont’s attorney general authorized the raid which a slate judge later called an illegal “fishing expedition.”  The children were returned to their parents a few days later.  None of the complaints of child abuse, some of which church defectors brought, 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 members simply changed their tactics to avoid scrutiny from 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 members 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 Vermont officials are looking at.  A spokesman 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 complaints about the group.  He said he has helped scores of disenchanted church member 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 in shoulder length ponytails and grow beards.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs Jr. founded the church in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1972, but he and his followers left in 1976 after publicity about the group’s purported brainwashing techniques.
Spriggs 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 refers to Jesus by His Hebrew name, Yahshua.
Although relationships between church members 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 members 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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