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Faith, Food & Fellowship: A rare glimpse of Amish life in the north country

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DEKALB — The sweet smell of cooked apples fills the air of Verna Hershberger’s tidy Amish kitchen.

Atop a wood-fired stove, apple chunks simmer inside large metal pots, making the kitchen warm and cozy on this cool fall day.

Nearby, Mrs. Hershberger’s daughter, Fannie, 16, uses a hand-cranked metal sieve to separate seeds and peels from the mushy apple mixture. Several quart-sized canning jars line the counter behind her, ready to be filled with freshly made applesauce.

It’s a Friday, and both mother and daughter are quietly going about their morning work in traditional female Amish clothing: plain dresses, black boots, and cotton caps tied under their chins. Occasionally they speak to each other in their native Pennsylvania German language.

Mrs. Hershberger, 55, and her husband, Enos M., 58, have 14 children, including the five youngest, who still live at home.

“We used to put cinnamon in the applesauce, but decided we like it better without,” Mrs. Hershberger said.

It’s noontime, and Mrs. Hershberger has agreed to have lunch with an “English” visitor who has arrived at their 170-acre property on Old Canton Road with the makings for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

Although the Amish usually are reticent to share information with outsiders, Mrs. Hershberger on this day is willing to describe some of the traditions practiced by her Swartzentruber Amish church district, which is among the most conservative Amish groups.

Regardless of the sect, family and church membership remain the focal points of the Amish, a rapidly growing community that shuns many modern amenities.

Mr. Hershberger displays a Bible written in German that he keeps on top of the hand-crafted wooden desk in his family’s sparse living room, which is dominated by the large cast-iron wood stove that supplies heat for the two-story home.

“This is the book I live by,” he said before donning his straw hat and heading outside to work in the barn with his son.

Mr. Hershberger spends most of his days making kitchen cabinets, tables and other furniture inside his shop, which is well-kept and adjacent to the home the Hershbergers have lived in for three decades.

RISING POPULATION

The Amish population has increased markedly in North America, going from 6,000 in 1900 to 282,000 this year in the United States and the province of Ontario, Canada. Since 2008, the Amish population has increased by 20 percent, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Driven by large families and an 85 percent retention rate, the number of Amish in North America is doubling every 18 to 20 years, and the vast majority live in the United States, according to the Young Center. Ohio has the highest Amish population, followed by Pennsylvania and Indiana.

New York has one of the fastest-growing Amish populations — more than tripling from 3,900 in 1991 to 13,000 in 2011 — and the north country’s Amish population is climbing steadily, according to Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, a SUNY Potsdam anthropology professor who has researched and written extensively about the Amish.

“Our region has seen several new settlements since 2010,” she said. “All of these and long-established communities are growing.”

During the past three years, fueled by cheaper land prices than in other parts of the country, new settlements have started in Philadelphia, Jefferson County; Sommerville, St. Lawrence County; Ellenberg Center and Bombay, both Franklin County; and the towns of Ava and Lee, Oneida County.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCES

On Sundays, daylong church gatherings are closed to outsiders in order to help the Amish reinforce their identity as a group separate from the modern world, and to protect the group — especially children — from outside influences that could be harmful, Mrs. Hershberger said.

The Amish believe modern culture promotes pride, greed, immorality and materialism. Isolation from the rest of society is viewed as a way to keep them from unnecessary temptation.

Conservative Amish groups usually forbid their members to own computers, cars, cellphones and myriad other staples of the dominant society. Not having television and other modern communication devices means no adverstising and no immoral messages can enter the home.

Without electricity, there are candles and kerosene lamps to provide light when the sun goes down, and wood-fired stoves are used for cooking and heating. Like their ancestors, most Amish groups travel by horse-drawn, dark-colored buggies. They will ride in taxis, in cars with friends or with hired drivers if the destination is for medical appointments or other emergencies. It isn’t unusual for the Amish to ride on public buses and trains, but airplane travel is discouraged.

“We don’t hate the outside world,” Mr. Hershberger said. “But we don’t want the outside world to know what we’re doing. We try to keep the outside world out of our church.”

REST, PRAYER

As Christians, the Amish strictly adhere to the Bible, which advises followers to honor the Sabbath Day through rest and prayer.

In conservative Amish groups such as the Swartzentrubers, money isn’t supposed to be exchanged on Sundays, meaning business transactions and shopping are forbidden that day. Roadside stands at Amish places tell potential customers, “No Sunday Sale.”

“We do cook and wash dishes. You have to eat,” Mrs. Hershberger said with a smile.

Refraining from business dealings is part of the group’s ordnung, a German word that means order. The ordnung essentially is the code of conduct Amish church members agree to live by when, as young adults, they choose to be baptized. A group’s ordnung dictates nearly all aspects of life, from clothing and hairstyle to education, occupations, transportation and farming methods.

Details of the ordnung vary widely across church districts and settlements, including those in the north country. Although Amish groups share religious beliefs, there is no one group that represents how all of the Amish live their daily lives.

The Hershbergers’ Amish neighbor, Mose J. Yoder, said that although he still milks cows on Sundays and feeds his other animals, he’s happy to have a day off from his normal chores.

The break also allows him to spend more time with his wife and seven children.

“I work hard all week, so Sunday I’m going to rest,” said Mr. Yoder, 33. “God rested on the seventh day, and basically that’s what we do.”

Every Saturday evening, Mr. Yoder’s nephew, Noah D., takes down the “open” sign that hangs next to his roadside furniture shop on Route 11 in DeKalb Junction. Inside the spacious shop is a diesel-powered engine he uses to craft outdoor Adirondack furniture that he displays near the busy highway so that passing motorists can see it.

The 26-year-old said he doesn’t believe that closing on Sundays has hurt his business.

“I haven’t met a person yet who got upset about me not being open on Sunday. They seem to understand,” Mr. Yoder said.

‘visiting sunday’

Contrary to other Christian faiths, Amish communities don’t hold their services in church buildings. Instead, members take turns having gatherings inside their own homes, with each family usually hosting twice a year.

Each church district has about 20 families, many of which have several children, so the services might bring more than 100 people together.

Unlike other Christians, Amish church groups meet every other Sunday, rather than every week. However, services last about three hours and are followed by a traditional bean soup lunch. Also, the alternate Sunday is known as “visiting Sunday.” Instead of attending church service, members spend the day visiting relatives or friends.

Mrs. Johnson-Weiner said the Amish perceive church as a “community” of people. Congregating in private homes, rather than a church building, fosters their ability to remain separate from outsiders.

“Home worship dates to a time when the Amish were actively persecuted in Europe and needed to hide their gatherings,” Mrs. Johnson-Weiner said. “In a sense, however, the Amish are always in church. One joins the fellowship through baptism, and in baptism vows to keep the ordnung of the congregation or church community.”

Hosting church is a major undertaking for families because they provide not only the space, but all of the food for fellow church members.

“It is a lot of work, but I like doing it,” Mrs. Hershberger said. “It is a good chance to get your house all clean.”

THE ROUTINE

Preparation for church services starts at least a week in advance, because the Amish want their homes in peak shape. Windows, walls and furniture get scrubbed. Pies and bread are baked a couple of days ahead of time, with women sometimes recruiting help from their Amish neighbors or family members.

While mothers and daughters focus on getting the house in order, boys and fathers do outside work such as cleaning out barns and picking up in the yard.

“We have to get the barn ready for all of the horses that will be here,” Mr. Hershberger said.

With 22 families in their church district, the Hershbergers prepare by baking 15 loaves of bread, 60 moon-pie cookies and several pies. Before the services, living room furniture is pushed aside for long wooden benches that get transported from home to home.

Girls often wash and braid their hair on Saturdays. On church days, females wear white capes over their dresses while males wear clothes set aside for Sundays: white shirts, dark-colored vest, pants and jacket. Married women wear white caps while girls and unmarried women wear black caps.

Services usually start at 9 a.m., with many families heading out in their black, horse-drawn buggies well in advance to reach their destination on time.

As they prepare for service, men and boys enter the room first and sit together. Women and girls follow and sit opposite from the males. The service begins with about an hour of singing from German hymn books, followed by prayers and the minister’s sermon, also spoken in German. The service ends with more singing.

Following the meal, church benches get pushed together and covered with tablecloths so they can be used as tables for the noontime meal. This is the time for catching up with fellow church members.

“You always get some news when you go to church,” Mrs. Hershberger said.

After their parents leave for home, teenagers 16 and older are allowed to stay back so they can visit and sing with each other. This provides the opportunity for boys and girls to get to know each other.

Marriages are not arranged, and the majority of couples are in their 20s when they wed. Divorce is not allowed. Most Amish don’t use birth control. Children are encouraged, as they strengthen the role of family and provide needed labor for the home, farm and workshop.

Although she is willing to discuss weekend activities, Mrs. Hershberger and others in the Amish community said bringing an outsider to church service typically is not allowed.

“It would not be our way,” Mrs. Hershberger said. “People would wonder why you were there.”

Joseph E. Hostetler, an Amish bishop from DeKalb, said the Amish prefer not to “broadcast” their way of life to the rest of the world, and allowing outsiders to attend church isn’t permitted in his district.

“We wouldn’t want that,” he said. “It’s just not something we do.”


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