Note: Reuben Shelter, a nuCamp team member, shares insight into the Amish way of life. Many of nuCamp’s team members are part of the Amish community. nuCamp’s core values and history are also deeply rooted in the Amish culture. These posts are written to help the nuCamp community connect with our Amish roots. We hope you enjoy this tale of what church is like for an Amish family.
The porch window squeaks open. Carefully, Dad drapes an old carpet over the sill. “I’m ready!” he calls out.
Our hired hand, Vernon, appears and hoists an eight-foot bench up to the window. Dad pulls it through. I scramble out of the way as Dad lugs the bench into the kitchen. He sets it along the far wall by the cupboard. Then he returns to the window for the next one.
I watch, fascinated, as bench after bench is carried from the bench wagon to the house. Dad sets them against each other in rows in the kitchen, and then in the living room. He even sets several rows in the bedroom. The house is being transformed from a place of everyday living to a holy place. Tomorrow we will have church here.
Preparing the home for church
Earlier in the day, Vernon had brought the bench wagon from the neighbor who had hosted church the Sunday before. A team of tawny workhorses pulled the wagon in the lane, dust billowing out from underneath their thundering hooves. Vernon sat atop the wagon, one hand holding the reins and the other holding his straw hat to keep it from blowing off.
Dad and Mom were scurrying through the house, moving furniture. They piled couches, recliners, easy chairs, and the kitchen table against one wall in the living room. The rooms that had been full were suddenly empty. We children pattered through them in our bare feet, giggling with glee as our footsteps echoed off the empty corners. Then, the bench setting commenced. From time to time, Dad consulted a crudely drawn blueprint lying on top of the sewing machine. My grandpa had created it the first time benches were set in the house. The benches come in different lengths; four feet, five, six, seven, eight, and ten. Dad used the blueprint to figure out how to most efficiently get the maximum amount of seating in the house.
Now the rooms are full again. We children run on top of the benches, shrieking at the top of our lungs. This isn’t a holy place yet.
We do the milking in record time that evening. Then comes one of the highlights of hosting church services, the meal the evening before. To spare Mom from cooking a meal and doing dishes, we always order pizza the evening before. We sit on benches in the kitchen, munching pizza and sipping soda pop. Then we’re off to bed.
On the morning of church, we’re up earlier than any other morning of the year. I groggily stagger down the stairs and get dressed in my parents’ bedroom. A kerosene lamp flickers on a small, wooden nightstand beside the bed. My mom stands in front of the mirror, dressed in her Sunday best. She puckers her lips as she pins on her cape and apron. She must hurry because there is still so much to do before the first people arrive. The younger children must be dressed, breakfast must be served and the dishes done, and the house must be in tip-top condition. The church members would be appalled if they spotted an untidy corner.
Dad hurries in from the barn. It doesn’t take long for him to be transformed from a farmer to an elegant church brother, in black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt and black vest.
After breakfast, Dad and my two elder brothers and I hustle outside. The morning sun, still hidden, has painted the eastern horizon a brilliant hue of pink, red, and blue. Vernon marches in the lane, a black woolen hat replacing his straw hat from the day before. He will assist with the unhitching.
The first buggy rattles in the lane at 7 a.m. Dad has barely finished unhitching the horse when another buggy comes up the road, then another.
By 7:30, a steady stream of buggies is lined up on the lane. We unhitch as fast as we can. Each buggy contains occupants that are dressed exactly like the others. The men in black pants, vests, and long-sleeved white shirts; the women in dresses covered with a cape and apron and head coverings.
A morning of worship, fellowship
The church service begins at 8:30 sharp. Our house is packed. The song leaders sit at the end of the center row. They are two grizzled old men, with white beards that spawl unruly down their chests. They announce the page numbers of the songs, which are sung in High German, then they select random men to lead the songs. Slow, mournful singing rises in praise to God. The service is underway.
An Amish church service consists of about 45 minutes of singing, then a 30-minute sermon, then kneeling for prayer. Then there’s a 15-minute scripture reading. Now comes the main sermon, which lasts about an hour. Next, some preachers who had not stood for a sermon are given the opportunity to say a few words, and they usually verify if the sermons were Biblically sound. Then there’s kneeling for prayer again. Last, a closing song is sung. The bishop officiates the whole thing.
In all, the service lasts about three hours. For the most part, the children sit on the wooden benches quietly. The host provides pretzels in baggies for them to munch on. Most families bring a small bag of toys and books along for the younger children. The older children chew gum and fidget from time to time. After the second hour is past, a definite restlessness rustles among the children.
As soon as the last note from the last song dies away, the children rush outside to play. I watch, intrigued, as the men transform several rows of eight-foot benches into tables. Sets of wooden legs come with the bench wagon and are used for the tables to sit upon. Once spread with a white tablecloth, there’s no way to tell there are actually benches underneath.
The meal consists of cold ham, several kinds of sliced cheese, homemade bread slathered with peanut butter, pickles, red beets, and pie, pie, pie. I’m dazzled by all the different kinds. There’s blueberry, peach, raspberry, rhubarb, chocolate, and custard. Dad gives me a half piece of both peach and custard, and I savor the crunchy sweetness.
An hour or so of visiting follows the meal. Old men yell into each other’s ears, young men stroke their beards and animatedly discuss the latest farm and work news, and the women bustle about, taking care of the young children and talking up a storm as they do the dishes.
Then suddenly, buggies are trickling out the lane. Too soon, only our family remains. Vernon puts on his hat and bids us goodbye, promising to be back tomorrow to help load the bench wagon.
We sit in the kitchen the rest of the afternoon, just talking. The house teeters on the verge of being a mess. There are gum wrappers on the floor, tracks everywhere, the benches are no longer in neat rows, and the soiled tablecloths are bunched into balls on the center of the tables.
But we’re happy. For one day, our house was a temple. There’s a sweet satisfaction that comes with hosting church services, a satisfaction of being a part of a community where the church is not a place you go. Church is not a building with a bell and a spire. Church is the people.