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Man rejected by Mennonite sect crusades against the denomination

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) -- It's been more than three decades since he was excommunicated by a small, conservative Mennonite sect -- effectively severing his relationship with his wife and six children -- and Robert Bear continues his fight against the denomination.

He has been arrested repeatedly in what he calls a strategy to discredit the Reformed Mennonite Church and undo the excommunication, called ''shunning.''

Once, he even picked up his wife in his arms at a market and carried her to his truck before he was arrested on assault and kidnapping charges. Some fear him, and a former lawyer for Bear says the retired potato farmer is obsessed with the church for breaking the bond with his family.

Bear, a strapping, 73-year-old man who lives alone in a small, cedar-sided cabin amid eastern Pennsylvania's farm fields, insists he is not threatening. He says he just won't repent to undo the shunning, which was sparked by a disagreement about the Scriptures.

''I wish I had never gotten into (the sect),'' said Bear, who claims 300 years of Mennonite ancestors. ''But you get into it and the only way you get out is to die.''

Bear avoided jail time this month on a trespassing charge by promising a Cumberland County judge that he would no longer stage protests against the church at a produce market primarily owned by one of its elders.

Neither the employees nor their attorney, Michael Bangs, were relieved. They said Bear went into a tirade at the market, shouting through a bullhorn.

Messages left for the church elder, Glenn Gross, who is also Bear's brother-in-law, were not returned. In the past, Gross has said that Bear earned the shunning by refusing to change his interpretation of the Scriptures.

Bear was first shunned in 1964 when he questioned church doctrine, but was accepted back. In 1972, he was shunned a second time, and decided not to repent on principle. A few years later, he sued to try to get a judge to issue an injunction against the shunning, but lost the case.

He now calls the church a ''cult'' that controls its members through shunning and depriving men of their wives.

Shunning, a practice designed to shame a member into repenting, has been dropped by most Mennonite sects, said Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at Elizabethtown College.

As Mennonite groups assimilated into mainstream American culture over the years, many began to see the practice of shunning as ''too punitive and not accepting or loving or forgiving enough,'' Kraybill said.

The Reformed Mennonite Church, which formed in 1812 out of the Lancaster Mennonite Church, has had trouble keeping younger members and has withered to just 275 members in the United States, Kraybill said.

Bear's life since his shunning has been a litany of arrests and court hearings, a strategy that Bear uses to draw attention to his fight against the church. Since the 1970s, he has sent rambling, vitriolic letters to many people connected to his cases, prompting some to fear him.

The last time he tried to talk to his wife, about six or seven years ago, she told him to ''go to hell'' and his oldest son, whose house is within view of Bear's cabin, thinks he is mentally ill, Bear said.

''I think everyone would like to prove that I'm mentally ill,'' Bear said.

Telephone numbers could not be confirmed for Bear's son or his wife and they could not be reached for comment.

An attorney who assisted Bear when he successfully represented himself in 1979 against the kidnapping and assault charges said he wishes that Bear could have moved past the church.

''He's been obsessed,'' said the attorney, Taylor Andrews. ''His obsession to bring down the church and just be so preoccupied with those that have acted against him I think has deprived him of what could be the joys of life.''

Andrews described Bear as a ''very decent, respectful, genteel individual'' who does not present a physical threat, but acknowledges that many have seen him as being dangerous.

Bear said he still loves his wife and never remarried because he does not believe in divorce. His children are no longer members of the church, he said, but he describes his bond with them as ''broken.''

Over the years, Bear sometimes has pledged to give up his fight against the church. But he has always reconsidered, saying that he wanted to fight for others who were also shunned ''as I wished someone would have done for me.''

''When you see what it does to marriages and families,'' Bear said, ''who would want to have it done to someone else?''



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