On Easter morning, an Old Order Mennonite friend invited me to worship with the horse-and-buggy Groffdale Mennonite Conference. But I did not need to travel to an Old Order meetinghouse. I simply dialed the phone number my friend gave me, and there I was, listening in. This unusual service was the result of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for social distancing due to COVID-19.
A recorded voice answered, “You have reached the Groffdale Conference.” After several minutes, a song leader announced the first hymn, followed by German singing from the 1804 Ein Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch (An Impartial Songbook).
Old Order singing transports me back to the Reformation and our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors’ worship.
I was told about 800 people were listening to the service, which was orchestrated by song leaders, the deacon, ministers, the bishop and their wives, gathered in a home.
There is strong interest, mixed with concern, in how Plain Anabaptist groups are responding and being affected by COVID-19. The New York Times had a major article about how the Old Order Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio, is dealing with the pandemic. The Amish, after a somewhat slow awareness and appreciation for the danger of COVID-19, did begin to respond by practicing social distancing and wearing face masks.
The Times highlighted the amazing effort by Ohio Amish to provide Personal Protection Equipment for hospitals. Through a network of relationships between Ohio Amish and the Cleveland Clinic, the hospital received thousands of PPE manufactured in Amish homes and small factories. Harnessing the ingenuity within the Amish community and the highly integrated business networks of the Plain community, the Ohio Amish produced high-quality protective masks, gowns and face shields.
Within most of the Plain Anabaptist communities, springtime holds two important events that have been disrupted by the virus.
The first spring activity is Amish weddings — large affairs that are central to the community’s life. It took a number of weeks for Amish leaders to begin to counsel their members to have smaller weddings.
Soon Amish weddings were being postponed. For some weddings, parents only have been present. This has been very disappointing to the whole church community, because weddings are a pillar of Amish life. A typical Amish wedding involves sumptuous meals, and a whole day is set aside with a focus on visiting and fellowship.
The second important event in the Hutterite, Old Order Amish and Mennonite church calendar is springtime communion — sacred time to reaffirm commitments to God and to the church community.
For Plain Anabaptists, sharing in the Lord’s Supper is a multi-week process of self-examination and group discernment leading up to the actual service.
In the Old Order Mennonite church, the first Sunday is a worship focused on Matthew 18 called the “Rule of Christ.” Members are to examine their relationships and set right any lack of peace they have with one another.
The next worship service leading up to communion, usually two weeks later, is “Council Sunday.” In this worship service each member is specifically asked if he or she is at peace with God and with others in the church.
Usually after two more weeks, on the Saturday before communion, there is a “Preparatory Service.” This worship service is focused on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. At this service the bishop reviews the covenant of shared expectations for members. It is a fasting day with limited work, so members can spend their time in spiritual reflection. Finally, the Sunday of the Lord’s Supper and foot washing arrives.
For this process to be canceled or postponed is a significant decision. The Plain Anabaptists I have talked with expressed how much they would miss the spiritual discipline of preparing for the Lord’s Supper.
An Old Order Mennonite leader said to me, “Communion is central to our spirituality. It is a time when I ask myself what the condition of my relationship with God is and with fellow church members. As we break the bread and drink the wine as the body of Christ, the whole congregation knows it is at peace. To miss that would be a hard thing.”
No common meals
For the Hutterites, who live in colonies where all possessions are held in common (based on Acts 2 and 4), the Lord’s Supper is practiced once a year in the spring. Like their other Plain sisters and brothers, Hutterites also see the Lord’s Supper as a central church event. The Lord’s Supper serves as a testimony by each member that they will continue to live according to the wisdom and teachings of their church community. All three groups have postponed or will forgo the spring Lord’s Supper.
A Hutterite elder told me that they have taken the advice of the medical community and the government seriously.
“We were told by the authorities that even though we live in colonies relatively isolated from the larger society, we should assume the very real possibility that the virus is already inside our colonies,” he said. “That was sobering information.”
Several Hutterite elders I spoke with told me that most colonies, which have up to 300 members living in very close proximity, have been practicing social distancing. One member told me, “Normally we share at least one daily common meal in our large dining hall, but now we have been going to the main kitchen, picking up our meal and taking it to our apartments to eat. We are also worshiping by using our school building. Each classroom has a speaker system, and we spread out and sit in the different rooms while the service is broadcast.”
A Hutterite elder told me they want to honor government leaders as much as possible: “It is our view that we want to obey those in authority over us as long as what they ask does not go against God’s Word. We want any decision we make, that goes against the government, to be about things that matter as Christians and followers of Jesus.”
‘Jesus is present’
In conversations with members of the Bruderhof, another Anabaptist group that practices community of goods, a leader reflected on the current situation:
“The church, in the Anabaptist understanding, doesn’t depend on a house of worship or scheduled public gatherings, valuable as these may be. Instead, Jesus assures us that he is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name. During a lockdown, this promise takes on direct practical significance, as we meet in small groups or by Skype or FaceTime.
“Whether this crisis affects us in a relatively minor way, or whether it brings us face to face with death, we are praying that we are given the bravery, energy and selflessness to fulfill the words of Jesus: Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me.”
Both the Hutterites and Bruderhof have gotten involved in helping front-line workers in the battle against the virus. The Milford Hutterite Colony in Montana has been making hospital gowns for their local ambulance service. The Bruderhof community in New York City have been volunteering with front-line care.
Making local decisions
Decision-making for Old Order Amish and Mennonites — on all significant issues — involves much prayer and discussion. While Amish are deeply communal people, each bishop district (congregation) has the final responsibility to make decisions. For the Old Order Amish there is no top-down authority. Authority is inferred by tradition, the wisdom of respected senior leaders and in mutual discernment in bishop gatherings.
For Old Order Mennonites, decision-making emerges a bit more from a central group of leaders. Congregations are expected to abide by the decisions. Hutterites and the Bruderhof are guided by senior elders who, as a group, lead and speak to issues being faced by the community.
Both the Old Order Amish and Mennonites have national and state steering committees made up of lay members who give leadership regarding issues involving federal and state governments. But the final decisions about how to respond to the virus have been made locally.
Old Order Amish are monitoring what local governments and the medical community are recommending. Old Order Mennonites mostly haven’t gathered at their meetinghouses for five or six weeks.
In Lancaster County, Pa., Amish leaders have outlined how they will start to worship together with five recommendations:
1. Only members of the congregation should attend the worship service. No visiting between district congregations.
2. If any member of a family is sick, the whole family should remain at home.
3. The meal, called the Gmeh esse, provided by the host family for the whole church, will be canceled.
4. Worship services will not be held in the hosting family’s home but in a machine shed, barn or outside if the weather permits.
5. No hand shaking.
An Amish leader told to me, “We have tried to take what the government and medical people tell us seriously. But we can only encourage and offer our advice. Our people will then need to decide case by case in this struggle against a deadly disease.”
Joe Miller works with Mennonite Central Committee’s partnerships with Plain communities across the United States and serves as a bishop in LMC, the former Lancaster Mennonite Conference.