As I arrive near the appointed dinner hour, I see Dan and other men gathered outside the makeshift dining hall/common room. As guests arrive, they personally extend a hand in welcome, inviting the visitors to join them for the evening meal and fellowship.Inside a line has already formed down two sides of a long table filled with food. Other tables extend the length of the large room, people filling the benches, conversing, and sharing the meal. Women in white bonnets, and simple, handmade dresses covered with aprons, hurry about, refilling bowls and replenishing dinnerware.
Since a week after the storm more than 1,000 volunteers have come from Amish communities centered around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to offer their skills and their fellowship to Hancock County.Coffee and an array of deserts fill another table. The meal itself may consist of meat loaf, meatballs, or other main dishes, both potatoes and egg noodles with cheese, and salad. Despite the large amount of desserts and two starchy dishes, none of our hosts appear to be overweight.
That could be because of all the exercise that these Amish volunteers get every day, helping to rebuild house after house, some from the ground up. They do not have to wait for heavy equipment or special tools. They accomplish their tasks as they would do at home, by cooperation and hard work. They work cheerfully and respectfully, sharing the true meaning of Christianity through their actions every day.
For the past several weeks I have had the good fortune to spend a small, but precious amount of time with the three groups who have passed through the base camp set up for volunteers in Waveland. They come to Hancock County through the Community Aid Relief Effort (C.A.R.E.), a nonprofit group formed after Katrina, in the Amish community centered in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The more than 1,000 volunteers who have come to the coast since the first week after the storm, come from throughout the Amish/Mennonite community.
An average of 50 volunteers of all ages make the long journey back and forth each week, with a few staying behind to coordinate relief efforts. The group has made a long-term commitment to help, likely five years or more. It is a big step outside the tightly-knit community life that most of the volunteers are used to, where houses are lit by lamplight and travel is by horse and buggy. Because the Amish do not drive, they travel here by train or bus or hitch a ride with a kindly soul heading this way.
Dan and his wife of 17 years Ruth, have been here for a good deal of the time since April. The couple will go home this week to spend time with family, attend a special wedding, and resume the running of their construction business. This is a busy time back home, the traditional time for weddings, held either on a Tuesday or a Thursday, all day affairs, with two large meals served to an average of 300 to 400 guests. Instead of a honeymoon, new couples will spend the days after the wedding helping the bride's parents clean up after the celebration. The bride will wear a dark colored dress and a white apron and the groom will wear a black suit.They likely met in the same way as Dan and Ruth, years ago, through the youth group activities sponsored by their communities. The couple came to the area for the first time in January, their first time as volunteers.
"As we traveled the streets it gave us a hopeless feeling," said Ruth. "So the need brought us back."
"It is," Dan says simply. "The plan God has for us."
The experience has been 100 percent positive, Dan says, and both he and Ruth are torn between their need to return home and their need to stay and help. They have grown close to many people in the area.
"The southern hospitality is awesome," says Ruth. "It is such a reward to see the smiles and gratitude-it means so much."
Once a week, the group holds a community social, the dinner, and afterward, what is called sharing, followed by hymn singing, a favorite social activity in their own communities. By the time the crowd finishes dinner, a hum of conversation is underway throughout the hall.
In these conversations I learn that these humble people have a very simple outlook on life. They school their children in small private schools through the eighth grade and then train them in a vocation. Each child is bi-lingual, speaking both Pennsylvania Dutch in the home and English at school.
Though they carry on the traditions of those who have come before them, each is different in the way he or she chooses to honor those traditions. Most of the Amish traditions are meant to keep life centered on family and community, Dan says, but the way the individual interprets those traditions is more of a matter of the heart. Their culture teaches self-sufficiency, and living a life that glorifies God, but like us all, each person I speak with stresses, they are just people, with many of the same struggles we all face.
"Some homes are more spiritual than others," says one young mother. "Some marriages happier."
But for the most part, the Amish community stays close. Divorce is virtually non-existent and children rarely follow another path, evident in the growing number of Amish. To remain is a clear decision, with Baptism into the church taking place after the age of 16 years. Once a member, young men's names join a lottery. Ministers are chosen by lottery, rather than a call to serve, and those chosen serve for life.
It is time for the sharing. To gain everyone's attention, Dan, who leads the sharing, flicks the electric light, a luxury not available at home. Conversations quiet and the crowd of volunteers and visitors take their places back at the tables. Dan speaks a little about the day's work and opens the floor for anyone who wishes to tell a story, give thanks, or share in some other way. In a minute, someone stands and begins to tell a story, likely about their experience during and after Katrina, ending with a thanks to the volunteers. A volunteer stands and gives thanks to the outpouring of sympathy and help given after the tragic shooting at the Nickel Mines school. Another marvels at the positive attitude among the locals they have met. No matter how small the sharing, it is treasured, given undivided attention, and followed by applause throughout the room. Sharing ends when everyone who wishes to speak has, at 9 p.m. or later, then an hour of hymn singing begins.
The next day it is business as usual, with Dan dispensing work crews of men dressed in black pants, suspenders and colorful shirts, those married sporting a beard, those not, clean shaven.
The women, if not needed on the work site, remain behind to the tasks of cleaning, laundry, and preparing the noon meal. A woman may help her husband with his business, like Ruth, or even take an outside job such as cleaning a home, but for the most part, where families are large and chores are numerous, there is little time for such pursuits, another young mother says. She makes all the clothes for each of her seven children, her husband, and herself, as most Amish women do, and with the additional work of keeping a home and a farm, life is busy.