Middlebury

Once Pastor Philip Yoder finished his Christmas Day sermon and the worship music quieted down, members of the Forks Mennonite Church congregation lingered in the aisles longer than usual as they hugged and reminisced about days gone by.

The church was closing its doors forever after 159 years.

Middlebury resident Mike Miller was one of those who was lingering following the service. He shared one of his earliest memories of the church with Pastor Yoder.

“I was walking in with my mom and we were greeting the then pastor — his name was Don Yoder,” Miller recalled. “He was a very loud, fiery and outspoken preacher and when he greeted me he shook my hand vigorously and said ‘how are you, Mr. Miller?’ and I said, ‘Fine, are you going to yell again this morning?’”

Miller was about 4-years-old at the time. Both men got a big laugh out of the story.

Despite the humorous recollection, Miller said he felt sadness about the Church’s final service.

“I have very many memories in this church,” Miller said. “My children had their first experiences here. I was married here along with a lot of friends. It’s sad.”

“I came back because it’s the last service,” Miller said. “It was important to put an end to my memories here at Forks. It was important to my life, too.”

The church is nestled in the rural area along the east side of C.R. 1150 West, south of U.S. 20. The Little Elkhart River flows by just to the north.

Ninety-two-year-old Phyllis Frey, of Greencroft, who has been attending the church since she was 3, also shared hugs and memories.

“It’s as special as it can get,” Frey said of the church. “The music was always good and we had so many people who have been missionaries.”

Frey, who said her grandfather, Christian Miller, was the first preacher of the church, found it difficult to express her emotions about the final service.

“I feel sad about it,” Frey said. “I don’t know just where I’ll be going to church.”

Pastor Yoder urged his congregation to not be sad about the church’s closing, but instead to treat the day as a celebration.

“I feel really energized and really positive,” Yoder said after giving his final sermon at the church. “There were a lot of people here that have not been here at church for a long time and they came to be a part of it. There was something here, something special to them in the past that drew them back today.”

Why it’s closing

Former pastor Eugene Bontrager explained the decision to close the church. “It came to a point where we’ve prayed about it and we just need to accept where we’re at.”

“A recommendation was passed on by the elders and the congregation responded to it,” Bontrager said. “The blessing is that next Sunday there will be a new church plant here with a different kind of spark.”

Yoder cited several reasons that influenced the decision, including the changing community and the loss of youth in the church.

“Almost everybody who comes here drives in, they’re not really from this community anymore,” Yoder said. “The age of the people in the congregation was another factor.”

“The loss of young people was a big issue,” Yoder continued. “Some GO to college and don’t come back. Some people have friends in other churches and want to worship with them. There simply were a lot of reasons.”

Despite the closing, Yoder plans to keep in contact with his congregation. “The people who said goodbye to each other today,” Yoder said. “They will continue to keep in contact. Like meeting once a month just for a time of fellowship and to share a meal together.”

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