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Shunned man runs crusade against sect

Sunday, January 19, 2003

By The Associated Press

CARLISLE, Pa. -- For more than three decades since he was excommunicated by a small, conservative Mennonite sect, effectively severing his relationship with his wife and six children, Robert Bear has tried a lot of things to get his family back.

He has brought a civil lawsuit and gotten arrested repeatedly in what he says is 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.

But Bear, a strapping 73-year-old who lives alone in a small, cedar-sided cabin amid Cumberland County's farm fields, has never repented to the church to undo the shunning, and said he did not regret his actions.

"I wish I had never gotten into [the sect]," said Bear, a retired potato farmer who claims 300 years of Mennonite ancestors. "But you get into it, and the only way you get out is to die."

Despite saying repeatedly in the past that he would end his struggle, he has continued: Earlier this month, Bear avoided jail time on a trespassing charge by promising a Cumberland County judge that he would no longer stage protests of the church at a produce market primarily owned by a church elder.

Neither the employees nor their attorney, Michael Bangs, were relieved. They described a threatening situation in which Bear went into a tirade, shouting through a bullhorn. Bear, who has protested there repeatedly, denied being threatening or using a bullhorn.

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

Bear was 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.

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.

The Reformed Mennonite Church, which formed in 1812 out of the Lancaster Mennonite Church, has had trouble keeping younger members and has withered to 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, "and [sanity's] the only thing I have left."

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

A lawyer who assisted Bear when he successfully represented himself in 1979 against kidnapping and assault charges said he wished Bear could have moved past the church.

"He's been obsessed," said the lawyer, 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 loved 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 has pledged to give up his fight against the church. He later reconsidered, saying that he wanted to fight for others who also were shunned, "as I wished someone would have done for me."

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