For Emily Rosenbaum, the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe is a place for her family to celebrate joys and mourn sorrows with what has become a large, laughing extended family.
Yet, according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center, Vermont is the third least religious state in the nation, with just 34 percent of adults describing themselves as “highly religious.” In Vermont, 41 percent of adults polled said they believe in God, and only 21 percent of adults said they went to church services at least weekly.
But in Stowe, Rosenbaum and her family are not outliers. Stowe’s religious communities, despite Vermont’s lack of religiosity, are flourishing.
The Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, commonly called JCOGS, has 200 members and counting, according to Rabbi David Fainsilber.
“We’ve had about 15 new families each year for the last four years or so. There’s a lot of excitement happening at JCOGS,” Fainsilber said.
Stowe Community Church, housed in the white church on Main Street, has between 400 and 500 members, says the Rev. Will Vaus, the pastor, and drew an average of 86 people to its traditional service every Sunday morning.
On Christmas Eve and at Easter, attendance swells to between 600 and 700 people, Vaus said.
Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church boasts more than 400 members, at least 200 of whom attend Mass every Sunday, according to Monsignor Peter Routhier, who has been the parish pastor since July.
Routhier says he’s “very pleased” with Sunday attendance. Up to 40 children attend Sunday school, and four adults are currently in the church’s religious education program.
“We have a number of visitors that come as well. We have people with second homes” who make appearances at Mass, too, Routhier said.
St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church has 85 active members, according to the Rev. Rick Swanson, the church’s rector. Active membership means receiving communion at least three times a year, attending services and giving time or money for the church’s mission.
How to build attendance?
“Most of it is really about the personal connections. Ultimately, we’re trying to build relationships with people. It’s hard to build a relationship over Facebook or through a poster. It’s really about getting to know families one at a time,” Fainsilber said.
The synagogue’s religious school has drawn in several young families, he said. Rosenbaum’s children attend that school, and her oldest son, Simon, has taught there since he recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Stowe Community Church has added a Sunday afternoon contemporary service, where more modern music is played than on Sunday morning, and Vaus forgoes his traditional minister’s robes. The contemporary service is drawing in more people, Vaus said.
The church also started a book club with a discussion of C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”; he also wrote extensively about Christianity. It got a good deal of participation, and has since moved on to other shelves, Vaus said.
At St. John’s, a women’s spirituality group has about 15 members, Swanson said, and the church hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, soup suppers during the Lenten season, and has started offering shelter to the homeless.
“For a teeny-weeny little church, there’s an amazing amount of stuff going on,” Swanson said.
His church also encourages parishioners to invite their friends to services, and a lot of the time, they come.
“So much of Vermont life in general is a tight-knit community,” and “word of mouth” is key to drawing new people to JCOGS, too, Fainsilber said.
About half of St. John’s parishioners come from Stowe; the rest come from Waterbury, Hyde Park, Morrisville, Johnson and beyond.
JCOGS is a religious and cultural home for Jewish people from as far away as Montgomery and Burlington.
The Unitarian Universalists of Stowe, a nondenominational group that takes from each of the world’s major religions, has about 15 people who attend services every Sunday, held at St. John’s. There used to be 25, according to Nancy Merz, one of the leaders, but those numbers have dropped off slightly.
Several members leave for the winter, so numbers will probably go back up, Merz said.
“We are working hard to try to increase membership by having programs like the Muslim Girls Making Change and by participating in the Interfaith Coalition and the Lamoille Winter Shelter for the homeless, etc. We think we can keep going even though we are a small group by having interesting programs every Sunday to try to attract new people,” Merz said.
Grace Bible Church in the Moscow section of Stowe offers a fundamental, Bible-based ap-proach, with Pastor Doug Christy emphasizing the Word of God in both sermons and services.
In addition to offering worship, churches and synagogues are important community gathering places.
“The role, I believe, is offering a place of community that has left our society,” Swanson said about St. John’s. “The church is the last cultural community of humans that gather where more than two generations are present, more often than not.
“The second thing it can offer is another opportunity and location to engage the larger questions of life that we face. How do we engage it faithfully? How do we engage tragedy, like the Florida shootings, like the Newtown shooting, like the wars? And how do we celebrate life, through weddings, through funerals, through graduations? I think the church can play a huge part in just the way in which we engage the world.”
“Our synagogue is very diverse,” Fainsilber said. “We have people who come to synagogue because they are very religious, and they’re looking to express their religiosity. At the same time, we have people who come to connect on a social level, on a cultural level, to meet people, to make friendships. I think in 2018, being a synagogue, a community center, we need to mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.”
‘A real spirit here’
Being welcoming is key to Blessed Sacrament’s large parish, Routhier said.
“They’re a very welcoming community. The people tend to know one another quite well, and are attentive to each other. They’re quite welcoming of the visitors. Many of the people are also not natives of Stowe. They’ve moved up here. If they connect with someone who came from their state or region,” it can be a valuable connection, Routhier said.
Their faith “sustains them in their times of challenge,” and reminds them to look after their church family, Routhier said.
“I think because they’re smaller and more close-knit, there’s a real spirit here that you don’t always find in a larger church,” he said.
For Vaus, being part of a church community doesn’t necessarily mean coming to Sunday services.
When he was growing up, “regular attendance meant you went every week. Now, I don’t think young families think of regular attendance that way. I think unconsciously, they would figure, ‘If I’m there once a month, that’s really regular.’
“I totally get this, because part of my growing-up years, I didn’t go to church anywhere, so I totally understand it. I’m much more about trying to help people have a relationship with Jesus than beating them up because they’re not in church,” Vaus said.
He estimates 80 percent of people in Lamoille County don’t identify with any organized religion.
“That’s who I want our church to reach out to,” he said.
Vaus views Stowe Community Church as a gathering place for members and nonmembers. He says many of the funerals and baptisms he performs aren’t for members.
“We want to be here for the community. There’s a lot of people in the community that view this as their church, whether they come here on Sundays on any kind of regular basis or not, and we want to be here for them. … It’s an important community place.
“I’ve certainly heard the statement, a lot, almost whenever I meet somebody, ‘I’m spiritual; I’m not religious,’ to which my response is, ‘Oh, I’m not religious either,’ and they go, ‘What?’ To me, it’s about a relationship with the person of Jesus,” Vaus said, and that’s bigger than the number of people in the pews.
“JCOGS gives us community,” Rosenbaum said. “JCOGS is the place that I am most comfortable, and feel most myself, and I know that my children are loved there and valued. … I think it is important to find a community that resonates for you. I hope that what we are continually growing and building and maintaining at JCOGS is that for a lot of people.”
“Religious institutions play a very important role on the community and in our lives, and for the young and the old, it’s a good place to meet people,” said Debora Steinerman, a member of JCOGS. “It’s a good place to get social occasions, and to make friendships.
Chris Vigneau is a member of St. John’s, but he’s not able to attend services, since he’s playing music Sunday mornings at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church and Sunday afternoons at the Stowe Community Church contemporary service.
Vigneau, 27, is Christian, and says church walks the line for him between a place to worship and a place to find fellowship with others.
“For me personally, music is a very big part of my worship experience,” Vigneau said. “Yes, church is certainly to worship God, to worship Jesus, and live up to my Christian values, but for me personally, it’s partly the social atmosphere.”