GREENVILLE – Although she’s no longer a practicing member of the Greenville Church of God congregation, Bethany Wintenborn wants to share a message of kindness and tolerance in behalf of family and friends who are.
Wintenborn, 25, left the church at age 20, when she found she was questioning several tenets of the faith – questions she said leaders of the local congregation admitted they could not answer.
“I had a point blank conversation with (the pastor) and he didn’t have answers,” Wintenborn said. “He said ‘I can’t answer.’”
Most of her questions centered on the mandatory wearing of the dark, long clothing, and why children were not encouraged to develop talents in music, art or sports. She also said she wondered why, if church members were supposed to be representatives of Jesus Christ and spread the Gospel, why they weren’t allowed to mingle with those who “were of the world” and witness as she read Christ did as told in the New Testament.
“The questions may have seemed silly, but they were serious for me, to help me find who I am,” explained Wintenborn, who works as an on-site inspector for Bright Claims, an insurance company based in Georgia.
Wintenborn was born into the faith in California – where this particular Church of God movement has its roots. Her parents, who have eight children and have divorced, moved their family to Greenville to be near a larger congregation of church members.
After she graduated from the Greenville congregation’s school, located on State Route 49, Wintenborn served a couple missions with other Church of God congregations, including working in one of the church’s schools in Baja California, Mexico.
“I came back to Greenville and things came up,” she said, which led her to questioning if she wanted to spend the rest of her life as a dedicated church member.
Her parents have since left the church, she said, since divorce is not accepted, although she said her mother still believes the doctrine. Wintenborn also has siblings who remain active members.
When she left, Wintenborn said she “didn’t have a support group” to help manage new life experiences.
“I thought ‘if this isn’t the way, then what is?’” she said, explaining how she started to realize that people “on the outside” were not going to try to harm her. “They were kind and friendly. I realized they were not going to go to hell as I’d been taught.”
Wintenborn explained how this congregation of the Church of God believes in the Bible, but is not affiliated with any other denomination. According to its website, “We are the church of the living God, as we read about in the New Testament.”
Wintenborn said part of her “burden” after leaving the church was to try to make friends and have some support.
“I want decent friends,” she said. “I don’t want to resent the church, which I did in part, at first. Now I’m healing.”
This coming week is the annual International Camp Meeting, held in West Milton. Church members from across the United States as well as other countries, such as Mexico, Germany and the Philippines are expected to attend. In past years, a group of congregants visit downtown Greenville one evening to share their beliefs in song and pass out their literature, Wintenborn said.
“I want there to be kindness toward them. You don’t know what they have gone through or are going through,” she said, adding how she knows many congregants face spiritual challenges and question church leadership and doctrine. They may be afraid to leave because they haven’t been taught life skills to survive in today’s world and are afraid of what may happen to them in a spiritual sense, Winterborn said.
“I tell my sisters, ‘if you’re happy I’ll support you, but when you leave, I’m here for you. I’m really not angry” with the church, Winterborn said. “But I need to know about life. I’m just now finding out who I am.
“I think being a Christian is more about being Christ-like – being kind, not judging, being giving. Being more involved in the community, as Christ was. Being a witness.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Bethany Winterborn shares a message of tolerance to aide in her healing process.