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The Plymouth Brethren

Headquarters for this 40,000 member Christian sect is Neche, North Dakota.

Last Wednesday afternoon, a Winnipeg bus pulled carefully into the slippery parking lot of a red steel meeting house in Neche, N.D.

Like over a half a dozen others which arrived that day, the bus was loaded with passengers from around the world - Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Western Europe, Barbados.

The foreigners had journeyed to this tiny town near the Canadian border for one simple reason - to worship with others of their religious organization, the Plymouth Brethren.

Approximately twice a month, the 500-seat meeting house is crammed full to overflowing with Brethren from this land and others. The foreigners, perhaps 8,000 over the year, leave after the service, or are put up in the homes of Brethren members in the Neche area.

Quiet people, the local Brethren are very hesitant to talk about themselves or their strict Christian organization. Most outsiders know little about them.

But outsiders understand Neche to be the Brethren’s world headquarters, and James H. Symington, a farmer who lives in the north end of town, to be the Brethren’s "pope".

Symington, however, vehemently denies that he is the leader of the organization’s 40,000 members. In fact, he says, even calling him the head of Neche’s 80 or so members is going too far.

"I participate in leadership here," is how it was put by the heavyset man, about 60 years old, who looks very much like any other North Dakota farmer.

Dressed in a brown shirt and jeans, his grayish-white hair slicked back, Symington consented to an interview at his kitchen table Thursday morning. Sternly at first and then more kindly, he talked about the Brethren and his role in the organization.

"We are a family organization that is worldwide," Symington said. "it’s very hard to explain that. If the head of a family here asks me for advice, I will talk to him as well as I can."

But he has no power to either make or enforce rules within the Brethren, he said, and he is not the only one who leads in the Neche services.

Symington agreed, however, that he is "one of those" who has been given the ability to interpret the Scriptures and the writings of earlier Brethren ministers.

Born into the faith, Symington became more active in it when he was about 20, he said. "I heard God speaking to me then."

Now, as one of the organization’s leaders, Symington does a good bit of traveling to other Brethren communities in the Christian world.

"That’s something we’ve always done," he said. "And we have other leaders coming here - there were some here last night."

The Plymouth Brethren base their lives on Verse 19 of 2 Timothy 2: "Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his. And, let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity."

Departing from iniquity, said Symington, means "separating ourselves" and avoiding anything evil in the world.

Televisions, radio and the theater are banned. The Brethren do not vote or take part in community clubs or events; their children attend public school but do not join in any extracurricular activities.

Cars (without radios) are allowed, however, as is alcohol, the Grand Forks Herald, musical instruments and books by former organization leaders.

The Brethren live in family units, rather than communes, and the father is the head of the family.

Unlike most other Christian churches, the strict organization has no clergy, no ordination. At the services each Sunday and Wednesday, " We take a piece of Scripture and inquire about it," said Symington.

While the Brethren are by no means unfriendly with outsiders, doing business and talking with the people of Neche, they refrain from "socializing" with them.

"We don’t eat with people outside the organization," said Symington, adding that taking a meal on a plane, for instance, is allowed because it is eating "by" and not "with".

"We believe we should break bread only with those with whom we have the Lord’s Supper."

The Brethren will not "expel" someone who breaks the high moral code set, but will "withdraw" from that person and not associate with him or her, Symington said.

The organization accepts only those with a sincere desire to join for life. "We are an exclusive organization, and are not interested in curious inquirers," said Symington. "But we’ll take anyone who really wants an understanding."

The Brethren, also known as the Exclusive Brethren, was founded in 1830 by J.N. Darby, who broke away from the Anglican church in Ireland.

Darby then came to the northern United States and Canada, preaching and writing. A community of Brethren grew up in Neche, just as in Minneapolis, Vancouver and other parts of the world, Symington said.

The first "breaking of bread" in Neche took place in 1896. The Brethren community, which has met wince then in various public and private buildings, built the new windowless meeting house in 1973.

Most of the organization’s local members are livestock farmers. They all moved into town, closer to the place where services were held, about 10 years ago.

"It was not good to live where you work," said Symington’s wife. "You could think about nothing but work from morning till night."

Mrs. Symington, a very gentle woman with soft blue eyes and dark hair pulled loosely back, looked away as she spoke.

She said there was a time, when she was a teenager, that she wondered what it would be like to leave the Brethren.

"You think maybe it would be nice to have a radio," she said. "But then you think about salvation, and everything the Lord gives you, and if you don’t do anything for him...."

Sometimes people do leave, however, or are disassociated from the Brethren. A group of such people on New Zealand, said Symington, have brought controversy to the organization.

A newspaper report in The Press, the morning paper of Christchurch, N.Z., gives an account of guards and dogs protecting Symington when he visited there two weeks ago, and says Symington’s "word on the sect’s rigid rules and the Scriptures is considered infallible."

Symington, though, said the government protection was necessary because the Brethren in Christchurch have come under such fire recently from former Brethren members.

"They claim I’m insisting on new rules and edicts," he said. "I’m not - I don’t take that ground. These are wicked people."

He added that the Brethren in New Zealand plan to take legal action against those people, who accuse the organization of inflicting harsh regulations and tearing families apart.

"But we are simple people just trying to live piously," said Symington. "We just want to be left alone. We have nothing to hide, but we have nothing to parade."


Neche and the Brethren ...the best neighbors in the world...They'd do anything for you'

"They’re real thrifty, hardworking, honest people." one resident of Neche, N.D. said.

His assessment was echoed right down the line by others in the town of 500, where not a harsh word was spoken about the Plymouth Brethren.

The Brethren, who have about 80 local members, are a strict organization who live by a high moral interpretation of the Bible. They have lived in Neche since 1896, and host busloads of fellow Brethren from throughout the world every other week.

But as far as the Neche townspeople are concerned, the Brethren’s severe ways and foreign guests are just a part of life.

It’s not strange to us at all," said Yvonne Alfstad, who works at the local cafe. "It’s not a phenomenon - it’s just what we live with."

What she lives with, added Mrs. Alfstad, are "the best neighbors in the world. They’d do anything for you."

The Brethren do all their business in Neche and send their children to the public school, although they do not engage in any more than casual conversation with other citizens of the town.

Their ways are a bit mysterious, the people of Neche agree, and few know much about the Brethren services, beliefs or history.

But while the organization’s members talk little about themselves, they are friendly and clean - and the townspeople like that.

"They pay their taxes, they pay their bills," Said Earl Feick, the Neche postmaster. "I personally think they’re good for the town."

Feick said that when the Brethren moved their living quarters from the farms to town about 10 years ago, they helped raise the property values there. And Neche does a bit of business with the foreigners who come in for Brethren services, along with the organization’s local members.

"We don’t have any industry here," Feick said. "I think Neche is helped by them."

Except for the fact that the women always wear skirts, he added, "you wouldn’t be able to tell them from anyone else."

In school, also, skirts and separate food and tables are the only things that separate the Brethren children from the others.

The organization members are not allowed to eat with anyone outside the Brethren. But other than that, said one person at the school, there is no difference among the students.

The Brethren children, who make up about 30 percent of the school’s enrollment, don’t look any different, don’t learn any slower or faster, don’t horse around in class any more or less than the other children.

They take part in all academic and physical education classes, but not extracurricular activities or after school playing.

People in town have the impression that the Brethren are being watched almost constantly to see that they follow very strict rules.

One non-Brethren woman related an experience she had had with one of the organization’s members who had stopped to chat. Very abruptly in the conversation, she said, the Brethren woman had said, "They’re checking on me," and left quickly.

But the harshness of the organization is simply accepted by the Neche residents and viewed neither as something wrong nor as something to be questioned.

"They believe in their religion strongly," one man said, "and they live it."

Apparently there are no hard feelings between the Brethren and the other churches. One minister said no attempts are made to convert each other, that each group accepts the other’s faith and principles.

Acceptance is the key word to potentially hurtful family situations, too. Nellie Lupien, another cafe worker, said while her daughter had married into the Brethren, mother and daughter were not cut off from each other.

"I can go over and visit and we can talk," said Mrs. Lupien, "but we can’t sit down over a cup of coffee."

The community’s agreeable attitude to the Brethren extends to 8,000 or so members who visit Neche each year. "They don’t bother anybody," one man said. "They might take a few pictures - they’re curious. But they don’t hurt anything here."

The foreigners stay no more than a day or so, spending any nights they are in town at the homes of the local Brethren. "The Brethren just take care of their own," said one of the town’s businessmen.

And so do the people of Neche.

It’s a peaceful little town, which just happens to have two groups of people. The groups are courteous and respectful to each other, helpful when needed, living their own was and accepting the ways of others.