Saloma Miller Furlong's Blog
A Day Among Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley
Spring has arrived in all her glory and what a splendid day it was here in the Shenandoah Valley!
David and I are both taking a class called Mennonites in the Valley through the Lifelong Learning Institute of James Madison University, and taught by the pastor of our church, Phil Kniss. Today we took a tour bus out into Old Order Mennonite country. First we visited a school in an idyllic setting. It was like I was visiting my former self, first as a student, and then as an Amish school teacher in Burton, Ohio. It brought back such a feeling of what that was like. During my teaching days, I always longed to be a student instead of a teacher. However, to be in a learning environment, I had to be a teacher. It made me appreciate once again that I’ve had the opportunity of earning a college education, and it made me wonder how many of the children in this school would chose to further their education beyond the eighth grade if they were given that choice.
Below are a few photos of the children playing at recess.
Our next stop was a church. In case you can’t guess the name of the church, it’s Pleasant View.
This church is in view of Mole Hill, which is an important geological formation in this area. It can be seen for miles around. I posted a photo from up on Mole Hill last year. Here it is from down in the valley, outside Pleasant View Church.
A minister from the community met us at the church to talk about their church and community practices. He explained what a typical church service is like, and about the ordination of church leaders. He answered audience questions. David asked if they practice foot washing, and he said they did. I was struck by the way men are nominated to be in the “lot” for ordination. The church leaders are in a room by themselves, and they invite anyone who feels so moved to enter the room and nominate someone. This is so different from my original community. There every adult — man and woman — were expected to nominate who we thought would be a good leader in the community. We did that by filing past an open window and whispering the name to an elder who recorded it. Any man in the community who received two or more votes was then placed in the lot. From here, the ordination process he described is much like the one we practiced. If there are six men in the lot, then six books are set out. Only one of those has a slip of paper in it. Whoever picks up that book is now an elder for life.
I know why the difference is important in the way potential elders are nominated. Putting myself in the shoes of an Old Order Mennonite woman, I cannot imagine voluntarily getting up from my seat and walking into the room where all the elders are gathered to nominate a man in the community. I would find that intimidating, and I’ve been living outside the community for more than 35 years. My hunch is that this “voluntary” arrangement largely excludes women from that process.
After everyone had left the building, I went out to take pictures. David and I found ourselves in conversation with this minister. David told him I grew up Amish in Ohio and right away we had a conversation about Ohio, which is where this elder was born and raised. I discovered that he actually can speak Pennsylvania German. This is highly unusual for the Old Order Mennonites here in the Valley. They decided to preach in English nearly a hundred years ago because there were those who were marrying into the community who could not speak it.
A few minutes after David told the minister that I’d grown up Amish, he came up to me and said, “Now, I have a personal question for you, since you’ve told me what you did.” I knew what was coming. His mannerisms and his hushed tone, and everything about the way he set himself up to ask was much like those of an Amish elder wanting to know, “Have you ever regretted your decision to leave?”
The Amish preachers often used the regrets of those who had left as a cautionary tale to admonish their flock. Like them, I felt like this preacher wanted a particular answer. He seemed to be waiting eagerly for my answer. I chose my words carefully. I said, “No I don’t. I have enjoyed the freedom of going on to get an education, and I was able to marry David, who grew up Catholic, which I would not have been able to do had I stayed. He is the love of my life. But I make a distinction between regretting leaving and missing aspects of Amish community life.” He began listing off all the reasons why it’s good to stay in such a community, including how people come together in times of need, and how everyone knows what to do when there is a funeral.
I agreed. I said, “When I returned for each of my parents’ funerals, I was moved to tears by the way everyone came together.”
“As well you should have been!” he said emphatically. I’m still not sure how to take that statement. Then he asked me where we go to church now, and I told him we attend Parkview Mennonite, where Phil Kniss is the pastor. I did not have time to stay around to find out if this answer satisfied him because it was time to get on the bus.
Our next stop was a buggy shop. The person who used to be the proprietor has become the employee of his son, who has taken over the business. When asked if his son is now bossing him around, he replied, “He’s certainly taking a whack at it!” With his sense of humor, he showed us around the buggy shop. This is actually something I never did back in my Amish days is visit a buggy shop, so I found this tour fascinating.
Here is a photo of Phil Kniss talking with the new proprietor by one of the buggies being built:
And a few photos of the farm and area around:
In this photo, that sorrel horse seemed curious about me taking photos:
Then I took a photo of this spring wagon inside the barn:
I looked over into the barn, and look who is looking back at me:
We ended our tour by eating at the home of Janet Shank, who cooks out of her home for groups. This is the same place where I ate last year when I posted photos of a dinner with a group of women friends.
Shall I make your mouth water? We ate ham, macaroni and cheese, lima beans from Janet’s garden, sweet corn, lime pickles that tasted just like Mem’s, and homemade rolls with butter and strawberry jam. And we weren’t done yet. We then had cherry pie, blueberry cobbler, and homemade ice cream for dessert. No wonder we looked fat and happy afterwards.
Going on this tour and glimpsing Old Order Mennonite life from my perspective was interesting. In some ways it was like visiting my past, and yet there are some distinct differences between their traditions and ways of life from those of my original community. I am grateful to be living near them, but not actually living with all the restrictions that comes with that life and for having found Parkview Mennonite Church. I feel like I am in the right place at the right time.
I am also grateful for the Beauty of Spring. Happy May Day to all of you!