Berne - Pastor's letter warning of a battle for souls provokes discussion in town of faith, tolerance
By KATE GURNETT
A proposed Buddhist retreat has prompted a religious query previously unexplored in town planning: What would Jesus do?
The question arose after an international Tibetan group chose 350 acres here as a place to teach meditation and caregiving for the terminally ill. The beauty of Berne, a remote Hilltown of 2,846 residents with no industry, drew Rigpa, which has centers in 11 countries, project manager Judith Brown said. The group hopes to complete approvals in April and begin revamping the former New School University's camp on Game Farm Road. Rigpa looked at 40 sites throughout New England and the Catskills.
"Everyone has just been so gracious and welcoming and kind, it sort of seems like it's really meant to be here," Brown said.
Town leaders agreed. "We are very lucky to have been chosen," said Supervisor Kevin Crosier, who thinks the center will stimulate the local economy.
Then came the letters.
"The foundation of our heritage in the Hilltowns is based on Christian beliefs and values," Pastor Jay T. Francis of the Rock Road Chapel in Berne wrote in The Altamont Enterprise, a local weekly, on Nov. 6. "The spiritual environment of our area and more importantly the destiny of our souls is at stake."
The special-use permit didn't cover souls.
Residents shot back, penning four letters backing Buddha that ran in the next week's Enterprise.
"Would Pastor Francis have all of us who currently live in the Hilltowns who don't accept Jesus as our savior leave?" wrote Collie Goldstein of nearby Knox. "I would like to remind Pastor Francis that our country was founded upon the principle of religious freedom."
The hallmark of a well-adjusted community is a tolerance for other beliefs, Berne Planning Board member Gerry Chartier noted in his letter.
By Nov. 20, the Rev. C.W. Davis of Altamont had written a three-column editorial in which he blamed Eastern religions for leading him deeper into drug abuse in the 1960s. "I have seen our God heal cancers, broken bones, all sorts of illnesses and mental afflictions. I don't recall Buddha claiming that ability."
People who prefer traditional Christian churches to Buddhist centers have a right to speak out, said Jonathan Francis, the pastor's son and a failed Knox town justice candidate who also wrote to the editor. The comments aren't meant to be intolerant, he said.
But they were, said Richard Ronconi, a retired guidance counselor who wound up writing his own letter. "It was a totally un-Christian thing to do," he said last week.
Pastor Francis said he's glad he provoked the conversation. "I feel God himself is bringing the Hilltowns to a decision-time: Is Jesus the way or is he not?"
He would greet anyone as a neighbor, even if he disagrees with their theology, said Francis, who began his 100-member congregation as a Bible study group in the 1960s. A fifth-generation Berne farmer, Francis, 58, also runs an international missionary group and a prayer center/health clinic on upper Clinton Avenue in Albany.
Buddhists, on the other hand, don't proselytize, Brown said. Rigpa doesn't plan on being a "big, splashy organization and attract a lot of attention to ourselves."
The proposed Center of Wisdom and Compassion, off County Route 1, would feature small signs and ground lights that meet the International Dark-Sky Association anti-light-pollution standards, Brown said. It would contain its own waste-water treatment plant, a refurbished residence and dining hall, a small monastery and temple and 40 tent sites.
A Planning Board hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8 at Town Hall.
Rigpa founder Sogyal Rinpoche was born in Tibet and wrote the "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," which has been printed in 27 languages and is used by health care professionals. Rinpoche gave the name "Rigpa" (the innermost essence of the mind) to his international network, which reaches from Australia to Canada.
Buddha (a Sanskrit word meaning "the awakened one") was born Siddhartha Gautama around 560 B.C. in Nepal and was raised a prince before leaving his kingdom to attain enlightenment. Buddhism, which uses meditation and mindfulness to reach inner purity, flourished throughout Asia and has gained millions of followers in the West in the past century.
"No matter what you do, you're not going to have everybody in agreement," Supervisor Crosier said. "Residents (here) have a strong sense of community. That's why we were chosen. We hold the same values as (Rigpa). We're open. Neighbors are free to share their views."
Berne was settled by people from many different walks of life, Crosier added. "Today that ancestry still carries on."
Joanna Bull of Rensselaerville, who is a student of Rinpoche and helped locate the Berne site for Rigpa, says Buddhism and Christianity have many common beliefs.
"I think once (opponents) get to know the community of people who are coming, they'll be really delighted to have us and will see us as people who will only improve the land ... and enrich the community.
Rigpa plans to "buy locally" when it needs furniture, cushions, food and other goods. Like its predecessor, the New School, Rigpa is a not-for-profit organization and as such will not pay property taxes.
Rigpa will open its meditation and training classes to the public, Brown said.
Whether Jesus would attend remains open to discussion.