A Shunned Mennonite's Trials with His Wife and Church Take a Bizarre New Turn
Under different circumstances, it might have been a moment for wandering toward the sunset in an affectionate fade-out. Instead it was merely the latest episode in the bizarre marital saga of Robert L. Bear, a man shunned by his own family and cast out by his church. His hands tremble and his eyes brim over as Bear recalls how he drove to the Lemoyne, Pa. farmers' market where his wife was working last summer and tried desperately to persuade her to return home with him. For his effort, he now stands accused of assault, disorderly conduct, unlawful restraint and false imprisonment—charges that could bring him 10 years in prison.
Bear's troubles began seven years ago, when he criticized his wife's brother, Glenn Gross, a bishop of the 500-member Reformed Mennonite Church, for administering communion to a woman accused of adultery. Although threatened with excommunication, Bear, now 50, refused to keep silent. "I'm hard-headed. I didn't believe what he did was right," Bear explains. "I didn't know what I was getting into."
To punish him, he says, the ultraconservative church elders ordered him "shunned," invoking an ostracism so total that it was practiced by his wife, Gale, now 40, and their six children, 9 through 18. "A Reformed Mennonite woman is on call 24 hours a day to the church," Bear maintains. "The church has firsts on her and her husband has seconds." As part of what Bear calls "the lash of the ban," he says she refused to cook for him or share his bed. "They even teach your children there's something wrong with your mind," he says. "My own son told me I was crazy. My little girl called me a bastard."
After two months of such treatment, Bear moved out of the family farmhouse near Carlisle, Pa. He says his father, a Reformed Mennonite minister, "had a nervous breakdown because of what happened. It really helped kill him. Just before the end, he sent word to me that he believed the lash was wrong, but he died before he could do anything about it." Bear's request for an injunction against the shunning was turned down by a Pennsylvania court on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction in matters of religion. Finally, last August, Bear took matters into his own hands, holding his wife in the cab of his truck for 30 minutes before releasing her unharmed. Though offers of help came in from all over the U.S., Bear stubbornly spent 15 days in jail before posting a $50,000 bond. His case is scheduled to come to trial next month.
Bishop Gross, meanwhile, denies virtually all of Bear's charges, while admitting that "the ban" does exist. "We have never treated Robert with anything but kindness," he insists, "and we don't shun people, we excommunicate them. Robert sought excommunication long before we gave it to him, and he refused to allow church issues that had been resolved to die away." Gross says the church has never interfered in Bear's marriage. "My sister has a mind of her own," says the bishop. "There was trouble between them for more than two years before she finally moved out."
Though Bear admits that his marriage was shaky, he claims his brother-in-law has offered to return his family if Bear recants. "Most people think I'm stubborn, but repentance means I would vow to uphold this very thing that's happening to me," Bear objects. Rather than give in, he has lived alone for seven years in a sparsely furnished house trailer on 300 acres. Once, his potato crop grossed $150,000 in a good year. Today he earns less than $10,000 for pumpkins and corn, and has sold much of his land for taxes. He says that two outcast Mennonites like himself took their own lives in frustration, and that one church member has suggested he do likewise. "But I will never kill myself," he vows. "That would be what they want. And I'm always curious to see what will happen tomorrow."