A Surprise Encounter
by Anne Linington
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We had stayed at East Dunmore, south of Waterford, Southern Ireland on Saurday night, and were planning some time at Waterford Crystal, and the city centre before catching the 9.30pm Ferry from Rosslare. Heading for Waterford, we saw a signpost for a “Christian Fellowship”, and checking the time, about 10.30 am thought there may be an opportunity to meet with some local Christians. We anticipated perhaps a Charismatic House Fellowship, but found something very different.
The cars in the car park gave us an initial clue to the priorities of this group, all of which were pretty old, one being a Classic Car, and the others fast on their way to becoming so. I guess there is possibly a good mechanic among their number.
The notice board invited us to join a group of Amish- Mennonite Christians, who according to their literature have twelve such groups worldwide. In addition to their distinctive “Plain dress” they practice non-resistance, refrain from lawsuits, military service and racial discrimination, we learned.
A smiling American young woman met us at the door and welcomed us to the service in progress. She was wearing a white triangular headscarf, as were all the women and girls, and a calf-length hand-made dress. It had a plain circular neck, long sleeves and was completely without decoration. With this she wore a cardigan and black leather shoes. With few exceptions the dresses were in shades of blue, mauve or grey. Dressed in trousers and a fleece, I felt decidedly out of place but joined the Ladies Bible Study group about to start.
As for the men, Russell fitted in a little better, as they all had beards, but worn around the chin like the strap of a Grenadier Guard’s busby. There were no moustaches and those who had hair wore it with a middle parting. The clothes for the men consisted of black suits, fastened with hooks and eyes rather than buttons and pristine white shirts. The boys were similarly dressed in black and white.
Following the segregated study groups, we returned to the main hall of the recently built Church, for a fairly lengthy sermon, after which the members were free to add comments from their own experience. I’m sure Stephen and Roger would welcome this! A time of worship had already taken place at the beginning of the service, with or without singing I wasn’t sure. There was no evidence of an organ, though there was music in the back of a pew Bible. It reminded me of early Brethren Church worship.
The sermon was in fact quite memorable and concerned Jesus’ question to Peter “What is that to you”, when Peter wanted to know about John’s future. I suppose “ Mind your own business” would be a modern equivalent”. The crux was that we were to concern ourselves with fulfilling our own calling, in Peter’s case to “Feed my sheep”, not what others may or may not be doing! What a lot of energy that would save!
The Building, like the clothes was equally simple and unadorned, the wooden roof being beautifully crafted. We later learned that this Community, like the famous Amish communities of America, had their own Woodwork shop, and some American members had come to assist in its’ renovation. They owned a local shop and Petrol Station where they sold home-made bread and cakes. The women sold their bread and cakes at the market in Waterford and also made the beautiful quilts for which they are known.
All the members had employment directly within the Community, and none claimed benefits, such as unemployment. I found this reminiscent of the early Church in Acts 2. The children were educated within the Church building – four in the particular class I saw. Rosie showed me the desk with her name on it, and confidently informed me the desk without a name, was in case of visitors. Literacy classes were offered to local people who had not learned these skills through the State education system.
As I talked with the women after the service, they happily answered my questions, telling me that theirs was the only similar community between Belgium and America. We felt privileged to have found them and been so well received. The community consisted of some Irish, a lot of Americans, a lovely German girl – the Baker and cake maker – plus a young man from Poland whose family were shortly to join him. Volunteers were being recruited for the family’s forth-coming arrival, to make short work of the unloading and settling in.
I inquired as to how much contact they had outside their own group, and was told that it was mostly through the shop and market, though the wife who later entertained us for lunch, also did some cleaning locally. My greatest concern was for the well -being of anyone who should wish to live outside the community at a later a date, particularly if for example they wished to study at University.
We were invited to join a family for lunch, or alternatively they would happily prepare us food to take with us. We gratefully accepted the opportunity to return to the home of an American Botanist, and his Irish-born wife, stepdaughter and mother-in-law. I enjoyed the home-grown food, which had been prepared in sufficient quantities so that unexpected guests could be catered for and the carrot cake was to die for. Our host had written a large quantity of books, particularly on health issues, such as the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. He suggested to me to that if I wanted Russell to live longer I should cut out the fried breakfasts, and I reluctantly admitted that any fry-ups were of his own making! The authority of the man at home and in the Church was evident in a number of small ways.
Whilst obviously not intending to embrace this life-style, I felt I could learn something from my visit. Firstly, the simplicity in which these people lived and worshipped. There was a complete absence of designer labels or ostentation in their dress.
Secondly, every member found rewarding employment within the group, often of a manual nature, such as the wonderful wooden decking and outside eating area at our host’s home.
Thirdly, I was told that the community offered a sense of security particularly for the children and young women, who probably outnumbered the men by at least two-to-one. It seemed to me that these women supported those who were raising children of their own and both groups benefited.
Happily, our host did not believe that only Mennonites would populate Heaven and we enjoyed our time of fellowship in a very different Christian culture. Their simple lifestyle, creativity and craftsmanship, together with their sense of peace impressed
my husband. For myself, I see them as raising the Church’s awareness to some possible alternatives, particularly in living a simpler, more sustainable and socially supportive life-style.
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Thanks for contacting me! My husband's family are Amish, with regular Mennonite and Conservative Mennonites mixed in. His father left the Amish as a young man but was able to maintain ties to his family. They are from the Holmes County, Ohio Amish sect. Where we live, farther north in Ohio, the Amish are much more strict and shun their family members who decide to leave the community. They are also much more likely to not know the gospel message and rely on good works to get to heaven. We're involved with a group of ex-Amish who desire to take the life-saving Gospel message to the Amish in this community. (Mission to Amish People-MAP-Joe Keim, leader.) It's all very interesting and I do enjoy my Amish and Mennonite in-laws! I'm happy to hear your experience was pleasant.
Thank you Anne for your comments. I will take them to heart. I enjoyed your article. Very well written and interesting.
This story is almost a mirror image of my experience visiting Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, USA, right down to the classic antique cars and being invited out to lunch. It was also an Amish- Mennonite church we attended and their dress was as you describe. I asked them why the church was called Amish- Mennonite and not just Mennonite and was told it was because the members were raised as Amish and decided that they no longer wanted to be Amish, so they left that community and became what is known as Plain People Mennonites. The actual Amish in Lancaster County and other areas of the USA and Canada, drive horse and buggies, have no electricity in their homes and shun all forms of modern conveniences. Their dress is also very much different than the Plain People.
A thoroughly enjoyed your account of this encounter. Succinct and clear, and told in story form, an unfolding of events which kept me, the reader, interested to the very end. I liked your willingness to sum up your own responses. It is gratifying, personally, that you were appreciative of the return to simple living. Me, too. Another example are the Oblate communities of the various Benedictine Orders. Combining realistic living in a modern world, with a return to simple values and self sustaining practices.