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Written by Dagmar Pelzer on 01 Jan, 2003
At breakfast, I asked about an Amish church service. Our host made a few telephone calls and then left to follow a buggy that might be taking people to a service. Minutes later, she returned and told us to follow her, since we would never…Read More
At breakfast, I asked about an Amish church service. Our host made a few telephone calls and then left to follow a buggy that might be taking people to a service. Minutes later, she returned and told us to follow her, since we would never find the way on our own. She was right, we would never have found it! And we would never find it again either!
After 20 minutes of crossing roads and bridges, we arrived at a huge farm. About 40 or so buggies were lined up on both sides of the barnyard. All of the horses were inside the barn, moving, sighing, their hoofs stomping lightly. At least 50 boys between the ages of 7and 19 were sitting on the slope to the barn, all in black trousers with suspenders, white long-sleeved shirts, and black hats over page-cut hair, faces scrubbed and glowing, smiling and watching us curiously. What a sight, these uniformly dressed and groomed young people, what an absolutely beautiful sight.
The Amish don’t have churches; their worship services take place in their homes on a rotating basis. They meet every other Sunday! Now it made sense why the woman had said there were no services in her community this week.
After some negotiations, we were asked by the man of the house to follow him to meet the women. Chairs had been prepared for us on the side of the women and girls. Most of them wore black, though some of the girls’ dresses were dark green, blue, or gray. The dresses were long and had long sleeves. Over the dresses, they wore long aprons of very thin and starched black or white material. Scarves drawn over the shoulders and bonnets were of the same material and color.
They always matched. Either all three items were black, or all three were white. Their hair was stretched back in a simple pattern so that it looked like a tiny braid or seam over the ears, then coiled into a bun at the back of the head. The babies were dressed in the traditional clothes, too, including suspenders, aprons, and bonnets. All of the smaller children were barefoot. Teenagers and adults wore black stockings and black shoes.
The size of the living area in the previous house made sense now, too. For religious services, rooms are cleared of tables and chairs, and wooden benches are placed in rows to accommodate the congregation. Over 150 people sat on these benches, women on one side of the room facing the men on the other side of the room. In the middle, by the doorway, men sat facing one another. These were the deacons or elders. Each community has a bishop and preachers and elders. The service is led by either the bishop or one of the preachers, but all of the elders preach during the service. We were the only people who sat on chairs with backs! We were the only people who were not Amish. I looked around the room. Like in the home of the previous evening, there were no decorations except calendars, and these showed landscapes and animals, no people. I counted seven calendars in this room. Amish Ordnung forbids photographing and painting of people. Even dolls are faceless.
The service began with chanting. We couldn't understand anything. Occasionally it sounded as if words were chanted, but most of the chanting was a monotonous, slow drawing of sounds. A woman handed out songbooks. We were not included, but about 10 minutes into the service, we were given a book and shown the hymn they were chanting.
The songbook was in German. It contained an introduction to the book, then hymns clustered by time of year, occasion, or meaning, and at the end the history of the Amish people. The movement was founded in the 17th century by a man named Jakob Amman in the German part of Switzerland. The book listed names of men and their families by persecution and torture. There are no Amish left in Europe. All had emigrated to the United States.
The preaching started after the hymns. The service was in German--not Pennsylvania "deutsch," but high German. The Amish learn German in school. Several men preached, emphasizing the virtues of Demut versus Hochmut, humility vs. haughtiness, and the Ordnung, the order and rules by which Amish live. Several of the men read from a German Bible.
It was hot. The windows were open, but there were no fans, and the air seemed to stand still. Beads of perspiration appeared at the back of the women’s necks and on their foreheads. Babies were getting impatient. Men carried their small children outside, while women disappeared upstairs with babies. There were no children between 2 and 5. We wondered if they were kept with some women in the upstairs part of the house. During the age of total unrest, it would make sense.
Suddenly, everyone stood up, turned around, and knelt. Alex and I looked at each other and did the same. We were on our knees for a long time, leaning on our chairs, while the congregation leaned on their benches, heads bowed, everyone in silent prayer. Then we stood up and sat down again. The preaching continued. All the men in front were now taking their turns preaching.
It was so hot! Some of the women had closed their eyes. Over 2 hours had passed already. Alex went outside. The heat was just too much. The women stared after her, and I wondered what they were thinking! After a while, everyone stood again, turned, and knelt again in silent prayer.
Minutes later, the chanting started again, an appropriate break for me to leave, too. When I passed the barn, a boy in his teenage years greeted me and I asked him if he were the son of the house. I asked him how much longer the service would last and he responded just 10 more minutes. I told him that we had found the service very impressive and interesting and that we were able to understand everything except the singing. He said we wouldn’t disturb anyone since the service was almost over anyway. I asked him to thank his parents for the hospitality and the privilege of participating in their worship.
As were driving past the buggies, the service ended and the congregation started to leave the house. Was it good timing? We’ll never know. Maybe it was just right that we left, maybe we were considered impolite. Maybe we could have participated in the after-service activities, the sharing of conversation and food. No one, including our hosts, had ever participated in such a service before, so we’ll never know.
Written by Dagmar Pelzer on 16 Jan, 2001
Most people who travel through Amish country see the horse-drawn buggies, the beautiful hilly landscape speckled with impressive farms, hundreds of tourists and tourist shops, and sights that are created to represent something of the Amish lifestyle. And most people, like me a decade ago,…Read More
Most people who travel through Amish country see the horse-drawn buggies, the beautiful hilly landscape speckled with impressive farms, hundreds of tourists and tourist shops, and sights that are created to represent something of the Amish lifestyle. And most people, like me a decade ago, leave wondering why and how and how long it can last.
This time was different though. Alexandra and I stayed on a farm far off the beaten track. We went to sleep and woke up to the singing of birds, to fields blanketed in haze, to the sounds of hoofs pulling buggies. We ate breakfast at eight around a big table with another dozen or so adults and children -- good country breakfasts, almost too much food served by hosts who could answer all questions about their village, their county, and their Amish and Mennonite neighbors. We climbed on a wagon filled with hay and rode on country roads past cornfields, along streams, over covered bridges. The corn towered high over us and gently swayed in the breeze. Flowers, everywhere flowers. Beautiful flowers around houses, yards, along driveways, around mailboxes. Flowers in all colors. Planted in patterns, clean, the earth freshly tended. A patch of country so clean and beautiful that you could think you had arrived in heaven.
There were cats and kittens, and chickens, and goats, and a donkey. I think a sheep was there too. All the porches had swings and rocking chairs, the house was always open. Our room was on the second floor, overlooking the fields and farms that stretched many miles into the distance. Our room was Americana country with rose-patterned wallpaper, rose colored pillows, crafts and silk flowers in every inch of the room. From the bed, we could see the fields.
We must have driven along most of the country roads between Mount Joy and Intercourse. Every time we came to a road that had two fat yellow lines through the middle, we turned off onto a smaller road where we could drive at speeds of 25 miles per hour or less. We had known that the traditional Amish do not use electricity and do not want to be photographed. We learned that the Amish houses all had dark green pull-down shades and that only married men wore
beards. So we had one small point of recognition and identification. Amish people were everywhere, working in the fields, riding along the roads in their buggies, at the markets, around their houses. Hard work, helping each other, living the "Ordnung," which allows them entry into heaven.
We wanted to know what it was like to ride in a buggy. A Mennonite man, as he identified himself, offered information and answered questions during the ride along. Are young people always happy being Amish? Do they dream of owning cars? The man by the name of Stolzfus told us that many of the Amish boys secretly applied for their licenses and bought cars. Under eighteen, someone could be found to sign for them. They drove the cars until it was time to marry an Amish girl and settle down. Then they sold the cars and returned to horse and buggy.
The man told us that his family had been Amish, but one of his older brothers had convinced the father to join the slightly more modern Mennonite community where they could own cars and have telephones and electricity, and where beards were not required.
Our hosts arranged for us to have dinner in an Amish home. At 6:30pm sharp, we arrived and entered a very bright, very spacious living area consisting of a kitchen, dining area and sitting area -- a very big room. The man and woman of the house were dressed in traditional Amish clothing. She wore a bright blue dress with white apron and white bonnet. The man wore black trousers with suspenders and a white shirt. Their son, who joined us after dinner, also wore the black trousers with suspenders but a gray shirt. They had ten children, three of whom were still living at home. The others lived nearby. They didn’t farm any more, that was the job of the children. He gave buggy rides out of Intercourse, and she hosted dinners at their home up to two times per week.
Their name was Stolzfus. All the Amish people and a few Mennonites we met were Stolzfus. There was Chicken Stolzfus on the menus. The maiden name of the woman had been Stolzfus. We were told that probably 80% of the "old" people in the county were Stolzfus. I guess identification consisted of a lot more than name of town and Stolzfus!
There was another young couple in addition to Alex and me. They sat on one side of the table, the man of the house at the head, next to him the woman, then Alex and I. They were interested in what we said and thought, their reactions sometimes astonishment though. The woman was knowledgeable about many events in the world, but all that was far away and the connection to their lives wasn’t present. They were stories she had read in the paper. I wondered what paper she meant because the Amish have their own newspaper, but we didn’t find one to see how or even in what language it was written.
They were delighted to speak German with us, the language spoken in Amish families. Pennsylvania Dutch we say, Pennsylvania Deutsch they say. Many of the words were different, but easy to understand. Like in old farming communities in Germany and Switzerland, some of the farming words were different and not commonly used by non-farming communities. Though a Pferd is a horse, a Gaul is a workhorse! I think they would have loved to have an all-
German conversation, but since the other couple did not speak the language, we conversed mostly in English.
The food was heaven, absolute heaven! Everything fresh, just prepared for this meal! Chicken, sausage, rolls, string beans, corn, cabbage salad, cabbage-stuffed peppers, potatoes, noodles, applesauce, cakes and puddings and ice cream. We wanted to help clear the table and wash the dishes, but we weren’t allowed! It was really uncomfortable sitting at the table while the two entertained us and washed the dishes. I asked about their religious services. They didn’t have one this week, said the woman, but she thought that maybe in the community in which we were living, there might be one.
Soon it was dark. A beautifully carved square chest with a tall lamp was pulled next to the table. The chest held the gas tank and the light was as bright as any electric light could be. They said the only thing negative about gaslight was that the heat it produced was not so comfortable in summer! There were gaslights hanging from the ceiling. Electricity isn’t really necessary. Heat and hot water are produced by gas, so is light, and the refrigerators with their freezers are gas-operated. Some people even have gas-driven generators for fans.
Their biggest complaint about the changing world around them was the traffic, increasing with every year. It was becoming difficult and dangerous to use the buggies. "There are many taxis around and we take taxis for distances." Nine-thirty was their usual bedtime. When I realized that it was later than that already, we thanked them and bade them farewell.