This Sunday, my “Mennonite History, Life, and Thought” class had the opportunity to visit an Amish congregation in Yoder, Kansas. The service started at 9:00, so we had to leave at 8:00am. Add in time to get ready and the time change and it was a pretty early morning. The Amish hold their services on the property of congregants, often in homes, but sometimes in barns or sheds. This particular one was held in a church member’s basement. When we arrived, all the men were standing in the barn talking, all of the children were staring at us from the windows of the house, and all the women were sitting and talking on the benches in the basement. The basement was set up so that men and women sat separately on backless wooden benches, with youngest boys in the front, oldest women in folding chairs in front, gender-separated families in the middle, and young women and men in the backs of their respective sections.
We started the service with 2 hymns sung in Pennsylvania Dutch, the 18th century dialect brought from Europe by immigrants. The hymns were sung very slowly in the Gregorian Chanting style. Each one took over fifteen minutes to sing, though there were only four verses each! Following the hymns, one of the ministers rose and spoke for about half an hour. His sermon was mostly in Pennsylvania Dutch, with perhaps 15% of the content taught in English (in deference to the English-speaking visitors!). I could follow the basic gist of his teaching, but since I don’t know German, I missed most of it. Following that was a kneeling prayer, then another minister rose and spoke for an hour. His sermon was almost completely in Dutch. The only English words were a few key phrases and terms for which Pennsylvania Dutch does not have an equivalent (such as “Ethiopian” and “chariot” from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8). Then there was another kneeling prayer (it was a relief to change position!), and a few responses and corrections to the sermon from the men’s side of the room. Next, a man stood and read scripture (again, in Pennsylvania Dutch), a liturgy of sorts was recited, and a final hymn was sung.
Following the service, the benches were stacked together to create tables and a meal was provided (more of a snack, I thought). Homemade bread, jelly, peanut butter, pickles, and beets, along with meat and cheese were provided. Since we were guests, we ate in the first shift, along with some Amish visitors from Shipshewana and Nappanee Indiana who were helping remodel a house in Hutchinson. During the meal, we chatted with the women about Amish culture and some of the particular aspects of the worship service while the guys did the same with the men across the room.
It is very rare that outsiders would be invited into an Amish worship service. But because our professor, Mark Jantzen, has connections with the Amish bishop, and because of the Mennonite denomination’s shared history and culture with the Amish, we were able to experience a very unique part of Anabaptist tradition and culture. It’s certainly not something that I would have been likely to encounter had I not attended Bethel College, and something that I am very happy to have experienced. I must say though, after 3 solid hours on backless wooden benches, my bottom is just a little bit glad that it’s over!