Robert Bear, "shunned" by his wife and six children the past five years under the 400-year-old practice of a fundamentalist religious sect, sat alone in the kitchen of his farmhouse today - his 19th wedding anniversary - just hours after his home and 100 acres around it had been sold at a county sheriff's sale to satisfy the debts his outcasting had brought.
With a cold, steady rain driving at the 19th-century farmhouse, Bear, 48, reflected on his marriage - a marriage he says has been ruined by the Reformed Mennonite Church's doctrine of not allowing any of its members to speak to him or have anything to do with him.
The potato farmer has been living a virtual life of exile since he was excommunicated in June, 1972, for "raillery" - or questioning church doctrine. Since then, Bear's wife, Gale, 37, has recognized the marital avoidance doctrine. She takes care of the couple's six children in Brandtsville, a few miles from here.
Even with the sale today, Bear apparently clings to a glimmer of hope for reuniting his family.
"I don't know what it is to have a wife that's mine and doesn't come after the church. I'd like to know what it is to have a wife to call your own," Bear said, his voice cracking.
Bear, and his wife as co-owner, retained 300 acres of the farm. The sale today, bringing $130,000, was necessitated, Bear says, because of a lien of $27,000 that, Bear says, arose because his wife allegedly refused to co-sign notes to keep the family farm afloat.
In the four years since the "shunning" began, Bear has filed a civil suit against the church and two of its bishops requesting an injunction against the "shunning" practice. During the trial in Cumberland County Court last year, Gale Bear testified that her first loyalty was to God, not her marriage.
The suit alleged that the "shun" not only destroyed the idyllic life Bear had with his family, but also ruined his farming business. County Judge Clinton R. Weidner dismissed it, however, ruling that a court cannot interfere with free exercise of religious belief. That decision was reversed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year, tried and dismissed.
"Justice is for those who can afford it," Bear said bitterly. "Those people [church] can outmoney me." The Reformed Mennonite Church consists of about 500 members in the United States and Canada.
In addition to the suit, Bear launched a massive publicity campaign, hired a private detective to snoop on church elders and last year broke into his wife's house in Brandtsville with a sledgehammer. On that occasion, Bear loaded the children's clothing into a truck and took it to his farmhouse, expecting the children to come home.
He lost his visitation rights with the children after the break-in, but last Monday picked up his 12-year-old daughter and took her home. State police came to get the girl and returned her to her mother.
Bear was then taken to a hospital here, where he was voluntarily examined by psychiatrists. Bear says one of the psychiatrists "examined me for a persecution complex, couldn't find anything, and said I was truly being persecuted."
Claiming that "the only thing that can strike me down now is God," Bear says he wants to take his wife home for "deprogramming."
Bear makes it clear that he wants to be arrested and go to jail. That, he says, would give him the opportunity to expose the "shun" policy. He admitted that the break-in of his wife's house had been partly in the hope of being jailed.
"The guy wants to be a martyr," said an assistant district attorney here. "I can't tell you what we're going to do. He wants to get in jail and nobody wants to put him there."
With the farm gone, a court order prohibiting visitation with his children, and repeated failures in his apparent quest to be jailed, Bear seems committed to continue to attempt to reunite his family and prove the "shun" is not the policy of "love" the church claims.
"Here it is, 19 years ago this day I had the farm," Bear said, "and 19 years ago I had a wife."