BRIGHTON, VT - The Brighton Baptist Church sits along Rt. 114's southern shoulder as it slopes into the town of Island Pond.
A railroad town with a rich history, Island Pond was once a bustling hub marking the halfway point on the Portland-Montreal railroad line. It was and still is in many circles regarded as “the gateway to the Northeast Kingdom.”
In comparison to the town and many of its residents, the Baptist Church is a relative newcomer, established in 1983. The same cannot be said of the church’s Pastor, Roland Barney, known as Butch, who has lived in Island Pond since his birth in 1947.
In a scene that might be familiar to many Vermonters, the Brighton Baptist Church first made its home in a refashioned barn in the neighboring town of Morgan. Its founder and first pastor, Alan Ovitt, was a resident of Island Pond at the time. By 1988, membership had risen to above 60 followers.
Hitting what would be its high watermark, the decision was made to move the church into a traditional building located within the town of Island Pond. In 1990, Albert Vera took over From Ovitt and assumed the role of pastor. Among his accomplishments was the building and relocation of the church in 1993 to its final incarnation where it stands today at 30 Paradis Mountain Road.
Through Pastor Vera’s tenure, the Brighton Baptist Church would continue to evolve. It would become a member of the Vermont Baptist Fellowship, a collection of 40-some independently run Baptist Churches throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. The fellowship organizes a monthly meeting that brings together pastors from the neighboring states for a discussion on doctrine, belief, and the challenges of maintaining a house of worship during a period of diminished faith.
In 1987, having a belief in God but no religious affiliation, Roland “Butch” Barney was invited to sit in on services by Pastor Ovitt.
“The first day I went to the church, it was as though I had been a part my entire life,” recalls Butch. “I fell in love with the meaning behind the message and accepted Christ as my Savior.”
Over the course of the next several years, Butch would form a deepening relationship with God, guided by the tenants of Baptist Doctrine.
Among those tenants is strict adherence to the Bible. Meanings are extracted on a literal basis, giving no license to inferred interpretation or over-active imaginations. Baptism is not practiced on infants but rather is reserved for “professing believers.” Further tenets include “soul competency,” the belief that salvation can be achieved through strict adherence to “faith alone” and “scripture alone.” The importance of autonomy on a local level is as well stressed and thus self-governance is established by Baptists to be among the loftiest and most sacred of organizing principles. In relatively short order, Butch would evolve from merely internalizing these tenets on a personal level to assuming a role as clergy member and Sunday school teacher.
For Butch, the concept of becoming pastor himself was an idea that did not exist for him in even the farthest reaches of his imagination.
“It was not until I received God’s call that I recognized my place as pastor,” he recalls. Six years ago, Butch was installed as the pastor of the Brighton Baptist Church of Island Pond. Over the years, Butch has witnessed an acceleration in the dwindling number of followers in his fellowship. A year ago, the church had between 20 and 30 members; today that number stands at 12.
“People are moving away from God and now our country, which was founded on God, is moving away from God as well.” He attributes this decline to the existence of sin in our society.
Other churches have fared similarly. Grace Brethren Church was running nearly 80 members just a few years ago and now has less than 50.
Despite these challenges, Butch has found his role as pastor to be the most rewarding experience of his life. “When I get done each Sunday I have no idea what the sermon the next week will be about. It may find me in the newspaper or even on television, but in one way or another God places a message for me, and I have the job of recognizing when and where he does.”
Vermont is not among the first of places that comes to mind when the topic of Baptist Church arises. The Southeastern region of the United States has long been considered home to the Baptist Church in this country, and the Southern Baptist Convention, with its 16 million members, is not only the largest contingent of Baptist faithful in the United States, but in the world as well.
Traditionally, in its domestic history, the Baptist Church is thought of as predominantly African American. It’s an association which, considering Vermont demographics, does little to dispel the assumption that the Baptist Church exists primarily in states far south of our own. Interestingly, however, the Baptist Church may at once seem both distant and familiar to our northern populace. It’s tradition of Independence and self-governance, along with its support for the Separation of Church and State could just as easily be characteristics associated with Vermonters.
Born from the Protestant Reformation, the Baptist Church was established in a tradition of reform and renewal. Facing what Pastor Barney sees as a crossroads for the faithful, he is confident that the Baptist tenets are relevant and well prepared to sustain and even to flourish in this time of adversity.