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!

Photo by Saloma Furlong

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.

Photo by Saloma Furlong

 

Photo by Saloma Furlong

Our next stop was a church. In case you can’t guess the name of the church, it’s Pleasant View.

Photo by Saloma Furlong

 

Photo by Saloma Furlong

 

Photo by Saloma Furlong

 

Photo by Saloma Furlong

 

Photo by Saloma Furlong

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.

Photo by Saloma Furlong

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:

Photo by Saloma Furlong

And a few photos of the farm and area around:

Photo by Saloma Furlong

In this photo, that sorrel horse seemed curious about me taking photos:

Photo by Saloma Furlong

Then I took a photo of this spring wagon inside the barn:

Photo by Saloma Furlong

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!

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38 thoughts on “A Day Among Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley”

  1. Saloma,

    The graveyard by the church at Pleasant View has graves of Harley’s Grandparents and some Uncles and Aunts. His mother grew up in that community. Your pictures caught the beauty of the area so well!

  2. Rebecca Downey

    Thank you for capturing the beauty and a glimpse into lives of our Old Order Mennonite neighbors.

  3. Hi Saloma, it does seem like you are in the right place at the right time. A beautiful mix of your past and present. I so much enjoyed this post. The horse gave a pleasant humor, too :-)

    Do the Old Order Mennonites go without electricity like the Amish?

    1. Denise, it’s great to hear from you. I loved adding the horse into the photos. I chuckled as I took that photo.

      The Old Order Mennonites here do have electricity. I noticed, though, that the lights were bare bulbs coming out of the ceiling. I don’t know if there are restrictions about what kind of lights they may have.

      Happy Spring to you.

  4. Lovely pictures and a grand day! I thought it was very special to have a view into the lives of our neighbors here in this area.

  5. Saloma, I ordered your first book on Kindle. This is a view from someone I actually know who was Amish and left the faith. My one question to you is: How were you treated by your Amish brethren when you went home to your family’s funerals?

  6. Ruth Williams

    Saloma, thank you so much for your wonderful photography and descriptions. I didn’t take pictures so I am thrilled to have these with your splendid writings.

  7. Katie Troyer

    I have met here in Florida Mennonites from the Dayton area. I love their Pennsylvania Dutch speech with a southern drawl. So when I visit with them I asked lots of questions just to hear them talk in Pennsylvania Dutch.

    1. Katie, you certainly are doing better than me… I cannot find anyone who speaks PA German, except for the minister yesterday, and he was from Ohio, so no southern drawl there. I wish I could be a bird in the tree to hear you talk to them in PA German.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing a bit of yourself, your descriptions and pictures. It,was a wonderful day.

  9. Pamela lakits

    Beautiful photo’s as always. What a peaceful, seemingly timeless looking place to explore and experience. Looks like spring has arrived! I have a question, when the minister began asking the questions about you leaving your Amish faith was there a moment of feeling intimidated? Was there still an Amish part of you that felt yourself wanting to conform to answering the way you would have been expected to answer any question from an elder of the church?

    1. Pamela, as usual, you ask insightful questions. The funny thing is, I was almost observing my own reaction, as if I was standing back and watching it all happen. I was really surprised that I didn’t feel intimidated, and that I felt a certain amount of satisfaction in NOT answering the way he wanted me to. I’ve known for years that the Amish ministers are afraid of a good example. By that I mean an example of someone who leaves and does well and is willing to articulate that. I’m sure no Amish or Old Order Mennonite preachers will be relating my answer to their congregations… or else they will only tell of the things I miss and skip the rest.

      I know that cultures all have a way of surviving. I just find it sad when one of those ways is intimidating those who have a desire to leave and explore a wider world.

  10. Pamela lakits

    I’m so glad for your sake that you were able to remove yourself from the old ways of your childhood. I don’t know if I could have been as brave. Funny, I was thinking as I read your answers that he will probably use what you said you have missed and ignore the rest. It is sad. They allow there teenagers to have their “running Around” years and say they must then choose. However choosing wisely in their eyes is the Amish way. I don’t mean to speak badly of the Amish faith. I’m sure their are many (my friend Lydia included) who love the Amish way of life and have no desire to be anything else. But for those who simply do not fit into their mold should be able to go out into the world with their family and communities blessing.

    1. Thank you, Pamela. I am glad too.

      The one thing I must say is that I don’t know the dating traditions here in this community, but I’m guessing there are distinct differences.

      Remember though, that rumspringa is not as the mainstream media has been portraying it. No Amish parents or elders actually say, “Go out and taste of the world and decide if you want to become a member of the Amish church.” There is always the expectation that every young person will eventually join the community. When I was Amish, the thought “should I stay or leave?” did not occur to me in that form. Only when I began making plans to leave did I feel like I was actually making a conscious choice. Before then it was following the path that was set out for me.

      The other thing I would say is the mainstream culture values personal choice. The Amish (and I think this is also true of the Old Order Mennonites) place much more value on community cohesion. So giving up personal choice is actually considered a virtue. I have to be careful not to project my values of personal choice onto the culture I left. Like you said, there are many who are content (and perhaps even happier than they would be in the mainstream culture) to follow in the footsteps of their parents and ancestors, from the cradle to the grave. Anna comes to mind. She was paralyzed by the choices she was being called to make in the outside culture.

      I don’t think there are any easy answers for the conflicts that arise between personal freedom and community cohesion and survival. I am happy with the life path I chose, but each person must ultimately do so for him or herself. In some cases it’s more of an unconscious choice than a conscious one.

  11. Pamela lakits

    It amazes me how the more I delve into trying to understand the Amish culture the more complex it becomes. The roots are deep and never ending,but then that is also what makes them so intriguing! Anna, she was the young girl from “Shunned” right? Did you ever here from her, a letter? I know you can’t go into detail to protect her privacy. If that’s who you meant, she often comes to mind. She was so excited when she got her social security card. I hope she has found contentment and happiness in the life she chose.

    1. Pamela, I know. There is still a lot for me to learn about the Amish culture, especially how it has changed in the years since I left it. And then of course, there are the differences in each community, and each district within those communities.

      Yes, Anna is the person in “Shunned” who I am referring to. I heard from her only a few times after she went back. Last I heard, she was moving around among the siblings who were having babies and teaching school. I, too, hope she lives a fulfilling life.

  12. Alice Julias

    Saloma — thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and experiences of the day. Even though I know many old order Mennonites I truly enjoyed being immersed in their culture for the day and especially reading your story of separation from the Amish way of life. There is a path for us to follow and it seems you chose the right one for you.

    Alice Julias

    1. Alice, thank you for your comments. Yes, I also believe there is a path for all of us to follow. It’s a wonderful thing when you find the right one.

      Have a wonderful week!

  13. Rosanne Shea

    Saloma, thank you for your pictures, I have wondered what that area of the country looked like nd to hear of the people. What a wonnderful like you have, our Lord was leading you.

  14. mary Maarsen

    Saloma, Thanks so much for sharing your special day visiting all the special places. It was especially good hearing your personal reactions to the different things. You have seen it from the inside. I guess it is hard for some people to think that by leaving the “faith” that you could find peace and happiness outside of the group you grew up with. I am glad you could leave and now have a happy and full filled life. I feel sorry for the ones who would like to get out but can’t and they aren’t able to feel good where they are.
    take care, mary M.

    1. Thank you, Mary. I enjoyed sharing my thoughts and photos. As mentioned above, I believe we all have a rightful path to follow. The more struggle involved in finding that path, the more courage it takes. What one gains in the end is well worth it.

      Happy Spring!

  15. Denise Ann Shea

    Thank you so much for sharing your visit to the Old Order Mennonites. The photos are beautiful, the day looked perfect. The only Amish or Old Order groups I’ve seen were on visits to Lancaster–I guess they never got as far north as New England. It is nice to learn from someone who has had a personal experience living in the group. The dinner sounded like yummy comfort food–and the pies! It sounds like you had a wonderful day.

  16. Saloma! I had no idea you were living in my home area! That is the church where I grew up, the school where I taught a few terms, some of my former students (the upper grade school teacher and the young buggy shop owner), and our especially beloved preacher, who is a wonderful speaker and known for his kind geniality and humble manner of living. It’s intriguing that he asked you that question as he was not heavy handed like that at all. Perhaps it was something he really wanted to know for his own self.

    There are no restrictions on light fixtures and bare bulbs are not common in main living areas. People might have them in hallways or above sinks, but that would be more about simplicity, economy, or the age of the house. However, there is no electricity in the churches at all.

    So interesting to read your observations! Cultures everywhere are a complex mix of beauty and weaknesses. Like humans in general.

    1. Ava, what a small world! I may have known that you came from this area, but I obviously forgot. Interesting that my take on the minister is not your experience with him. It sounds like it might have been my own “stuff” in what I took away from that conversation.

      Thank you for letting us know about electricity usage in the community.

      Yes, cultures (like people) have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. I admire a lot about their way of life, as I do the Amish.

      It occurs to me that interviewing you for my blog would be very interesting. Would you be willing? I’ll be emailing you about it.

      Many, many thanks for your contributions here.

      1. Yes, I would be willing to be interviewed for your blog. Bruce Stambaugh suggested that you and I might have things in common. I’m currently living in Ohio, so you and I sort of reversed states. :)

        About the bare bulbs: they may be more common than I first thought, because we did have bare bulbs in some of the rooms of the house I grew up in. Other older houses probably do too. I’ll have to take note of this the next time I’m home. Also there are three Old Older Mennonite congregations in the Valley now. One of these just allowed electricity in the homes within the past decade or so.

        I’ll look forward to receiving an email from you.

  17. Read last two blogs of you. Glad to hear you found a house! It’s a beauty!!
    Is there much difference between the Amish and the Old Order Mennonite?
    Interesting how they choose elders. How do they choose a minister?
    Always so interesting people and their way of living.
    Greetings from AB .
    Wilma

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