Pennsylvania Dutch Country was my destination right after leaving my friend’s show in Astoria, Queens. I plowed through New Jersey and a good part of Pennsylvania until midnight, when I started to get tired. I found a Waffle House where I decided to have a late night “dinner”. There was a busy inn next door, so I discretely parked in their lot for the night.
The next morning, I finally made it into town. Lancaster is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to! Sprawling farms with bright green mounds of grass at almost every turn. There were cows and finely bred horses basking in the pastures. I visited this area once before, as a child, but there’s a difference between seeing it from a crowded chartered tour bus and your own RV.
I had set my navigation to a beacon location (any national chain that can offer free camping, wi-fi, or some other gypsy necessity), a Super Walmart to camp. I was surprised that, their main roads were hectic and busy. I guess that’s expected when you’re in the middle of a huge tourist destination. The Amish community is the center of it. They live on their farms, separate from the modern world, but you randomly see them as you move about town. They are riding on their horse buggies along the roads, selling baked and handmade goods at stands on their property, I’ve even seen Amish men and women shopping at Walmart!
The Amish way of life is simple, full of contentment, and God-centered… and it shows! I’ve noticed that when I am around Amish women, in particular, I sense what I can only describe as ”Purity of Presence”. Plainly dressed, silent, and detached from everyone around them, I’m compelled to have a deep respect for them. It’s almost like how I feel being around a nun (as someone who never attended Catholic school).
During my visit, I ate… a lot! I went to the lunch buffet at Bird in Hand Restaurant, owned by the Smucker Family (distant relatives of the folks who make jam). Their food, had traditional Dutch fare such as fried chicken, buttered noodles, apple dumplings and shoofly pie which was amazing. Their meat, fish and produce all came from local farms and hatcheries, if not their own. How did I know this? My waitress, Leisa actually started a pleasant, full-length conversation with me! Folks are genuinely friendly here. Let me list what usually passes as friendly service where I’m from: 1. Saying “hello”. 2. Smiling (real or plastic). 3. Refraining from spitting in your food. I also, remember another waitress, Stacy at the second Waffle House I visited in Pennsylvania. I was sitting at the counter and we had a conversation about the unexpected paths that God has us take in life. It’s been two weeks now and I still remember their names and it’s not because I wrote them down somewhere. In contrast, I can’t remember the names of any of the servers I’ve had in living in Connecticut. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a stranger about God either.
Speaking of God, I had noticed right away that the culture here skews religious. Two DJ’s on the classic rock station casually quoted The Bible in a humorous conversation about an argument one of them had with a friend. On the community board at Dunkin’ Donuts, there were a few business cards that included Bible passages as their tag line. Some of you reading this may be puzzled about why I’m pointing this out, but I was raised in a place that is very much secular in spirit.
There were many good and free (and close to free) things to do in Lancaster. I took a tour at Mascot Roller Mills and Ressler Family Home, a completely water-powered grain mill that was run by three generations of the Ressler family. Though the mill is still fully functional, it’s preserved as a museum. The tour started off with a ten minute video interview with the last Ressler to run the mill (who has passed on in the early 90’s). During the tour, the guide turned the mill machines on and demonstrated how the grains were processed. I’m embarrassed to say that before I had taken this tour, I had no understanding of how flour was made. Now I can tell you the different processes of making whole wheat flour, white flour, pastry flour, and which part of the wheat plant makes bran, and wheat germ!
Next stop was the Mennonite information Center, where I took a guided tour of The Biblical Tabernacle, a beautifully designed reproduction of the tabernacle in the Old Testament. A Baptist minister in Florida originally built the exhibit in the 1940’s. The Mennonites later purchased it for public display and for students of Biblical and cultural studies. The tour guide (who I can only guess is a minister) gave such a gentle, plain, and impassioned presentation, that some of the visitors (me included) were moved to tears. What touched me the most was when she explained a common ritual practiced by the Hebrews exiled in the desert, outside the Tabernacle. Once a year, they would pray all their sins unto an unblemished lamb before sacrificing it since only the shedding of blood could atone for wrong doings against God. She went on to artfully weave this into the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ. I was pleasantly surprised by poignancy of this experience.
After the tour, I watch two short films in their screening room, “Who are the Amish?”, a documentary about the Amish way of life and “Postcards from a Heritage of Faith”, a documentary about Mennonites faith, history and how they differ from the Amish. Though a little dated, they were well made, entertaining and informative. Though the Amish film was beautiful and quaint, I feel that I got the most out of watching the Mennonite film. In the late 1600’s a group split from the Mennonites because they felt they were being too worldly and receptive to change. Those folks who split are whom we know as the Amish. The Mennonites see change as inevitable, live modern and actively reach out to other communities and countries to spread their faith. The split must’ve been for the best. The film featured Mellinger Church located in town. Seeing several brown faces in the pews aroused my curiosity. In Dutch Country, the Amish get all the attention, but the Mennonites are way cooler! I planned to pay that church a visit!
I arrived bright and early Sunday morning for their 8:30AM coffee and fellowship. There was a greeter at the door who asked me if I’d be attending Sunday School. “Isn’t that for children?” I asked. She told me that in this church, they have it for all age groups then handed me information pamphlets. I took three steps into the lobby before I was approached by a well-dressed, sweet-faced elderly woman named Maye* who introduced herself and asked if I was just visiting or looking for a new church home. I told her that I was only passing through and wanted to visit before leaving Lancaster County.
Maye brought me downstairs to the kitchen and banquet area where parishioners were having coffee before class started. The room was large with round covered tables and a kitchen window towards the back where refreshments were served. She enthusiastically introduced me to everyone who crossed our path on the way to the kitchen. The counter had a full spread of coffee, teas, and condiments. The group of men behind the counter was friendly and jovial. I helped myself to some lemon-ginger tea and sat down with Maye and five of her friends. It was then that I noticed that the men and women sat at separate tables. I didn’t see this as a bad thing. If you’re retiree who spends most of your time with your spouse, “girl and guy talk” should be taken at every opportunity! Maye’s friends were pleasant to chat with and made an effort to make me feel welcomed… Which I did.
A good-looking man with dark features in his late thirties approached our table and Maye introduced us. Dave* is a Deacon at the church and she told me that I’ll be going to his Sunday School class across the hall (classes are divided by age groups). “Don’t worry, he’s safe… He’s married!”, Maye chuckled… half jokingly. Dave laughed as a blush washed over his face, “Of, course I’m safe!” Maye’s words struck me as quaint. It allowed me to imagine a time when women were more protected from wolves, cads and humiliation. An electronic bell chimed and everyone went to class.
In Dave’s class they discussed the book, “Just Walk Across the Room”. It’s a guide about evangelizing the people you come across by simply connecting to them. Dave handed me his copy to follow along. There were seven of us in all, sitting in a circle, including Dave’s wife, Melony* who was sitting next to me. Everyone was attractive, wholesome and fashionable in a J.C. Penny sort of way. There was some small talk about what I thought of my visit and the sights around town, etc. Everyone seemed a little surprised about my solo RV trip. “You’re doing this alone?!”, Dave asked. I couldn’t help but feel that the men in the group were hoping their wives wouldn’t get any funny ideas! They were warm and friendly enough, but I did feel low-grade tension and I couldn’t place the reason. I don’t think it was because I was black (that’s a totally different vibe). Maybe, they’re not used to uppity women. Maybe they rarely have visitors under 65… I don’t know. At the end of class, they prayed for me to have a safe trip.
Dave and Melony invited me to sit with them during the service and Dave let me keep his book. Their beautiful daughters, aged 8 and 10, sat in the pew behind us. I was a little surprised to see that the Mennonite style of worship was no different than a white Baptist service. There was a band that played contemporary Christian music as parishioners followed the lyrics on a large screen. Some people, Dave included, raised their hands up in the air as they sang to receive the Holy Spirit. The older folks dressed more formal. Some of the older women wore traditional white bonnets on their heads. The younger people dressed casual. Since I was wearing my long summer skirt and Teva sandals, I did not feel out of place. One thing disappointed me. I didn’t see any black faces as shown in the documentary… Where the hell did they go???
As the service came to a close, I wondered if I would be invited to go out somewhere afterwards as church folks often do for newcomers. I quickly started going through a list of excuses to give because I was in a hurry to move on to my next spot. Also, Melony didn’t seem comfortable sitting next to me; she had her arms folded the whole time. At the end of the benediction, everyone stood up to leave. Melony turn to me and said, “It was really nice meeting you, have a safe journey.” I thanked her and extended my hand. She reached out to give me a hug…. Seriously? Dave, who was sitting on the other side of her reached over to shake my hand. “It was really nice meeting you. Thank you for visiting us.” I felt his sincerity.
I rushed out to the lobby and briefly scanned the room for Maye, but did not see her so I quickly left. Feelings of guilt lingered as I sped down the highway for not waiting around to say goodbye to her. She was so nice and welcoming to me, but I felt compelled to leave right away. My guilt has since subsided. I’ve decided that since my gut told me to leave, it was simply the right thing to do.
Up next… Gettysburg!
Side Note: It’s been a month since liftoff! With writing, I have a lot of catching up to do!
*Names changed to protect the innocent and infamous.