Humble Home

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Humble Home

photographs by Mark Troyer

I haven’t seen my cousin Marina in several months, not since my grandmother’s funeral the previous September, but we quickly fall into comfortable conversation telling stories about our favorite aunts and uncles, our children and our spouses. Marina’s husband Tim is home and joins in as well, his family and ours having known each other since before we were all born. They ask how my project is going and offer even more help than they’ve already given. As the afternoon goes on I’m reminded that there is no such thing as a quick visit with Amish family, even though I wasn’t able to photograph their house on that first visit I was there talking and laughing for several hours. Perhaps it’s absence of the television to occupy their time and their minds, but the Amish are advanced practitioners of the art of conversation, and you had better be able to keep up when you’re visiting.

Amish homes are really very much like the homes of the non-Amish. At a glance you might not think that there are any differences at all – the kitchens have appliances in them, the furniture is largely modern and comfortable. On second look you’ll start to notice things, or rather the lack of things. There are no light switches or outlets, no overhead lights. The living room is arranged for conversation, not for watching television, and will have a pair of easy chairs for mom and dad sit together, with a kerosene lamp between them. The lamp will typically have a cabinet base to hold the kerosene and will have a place on it for the couple’s books, magazines and newspapers. The floors are never carpeted and the walls are painted or paneled, not wallpapered. Some homes have lamps mounted on the walls, but they are kerosene powered, not electric. The family dinner table will usually be in the kitchen, not a dining room, and the home will be heated by a wood stove.

I pull into Allen and Marie Yoder’s driveway as Allen is coming around the barn with a team of draft horses pulling a manure spreader. I haven’t met either of them previously, but they live across the road from my aunt Mary Lou, my mother’s sister, and she talked to them and they agreed to let me come photograph their house. Allen welcomes the break from his work and puts the horses at the hitching post in front of the house, taking me in to meet the rest of the family. Their oldest son, Garold, is married and lives across the road as well, but the three younger daughters are home. We sit at the kitchen table and they offer me some coffee and cookies while I explain the project to them and we talk for awhile. When you come from an Amish family, one of the first topics of conversation when you meet other Amish people for the first time is establishing who you are and if there’s any close relation between you. Allen and Marie know my aunt and cousins who live near them, and they know my parents so that part was easy and I’m quickly established as Moe and Ruth’s oldest. We also establish that their second-to- oldest daughter is dating Eugene, who was the best man at my cousin Susan’s wedding earlier this year, and that his sister is newly married and now lives in the house that I grew up in.

Eugene’s sister Hannah married Matthew Hochstetler in May and the couple now live in the house that I grew up in. My grandparents built the house and lived there for a few years before selling it to my parents and building another house next door. That happened the year I turned 8, that summer my father had the house wired and connected to the electrical grid and we moved in. I knocked on the door and introduced myself to Matthew and after hearing who I was he invited me in to meet Hannah and to look at the house. Being back there was an almost surreal experience; I’d lived there for more than ten years and parts of it still looked the same, but they’d also pulled up all the carpeting and taken out the room divider between the dining room and living room so going into that part of the house was really like stepping back in time to when I would visit my grandparents there. They had even left the original linoleum that my grandfather put in. The most notable difference was the addition of a large wood stove for heat. We talked about the house and I told them stories about when I lived there and how things looked then. Unlike at most of the other houses I photographed, Hannah wanted to see what I was doing and we talked some more while I photographed in the house.

The Amish don’t have church buildings, services are held in homes of the members. Each church is geographically-based, where you live determines which church you are in and the churches are referred to by the name of their presiding bishop, thus my step-grandmother lives in Tob’s church. There is no central organization for the Amish church, so each individual church is presided over by a bishop and the bishop makes the rules for that church. Allen and Marie, for example, are allowed to have battery-powered lights in their home but Matthew and Hannah live in a different church and are not. Amish clergy is chosen from within the church, by nomination and drawing of lots. The leadership of the church are called Diener, which means servants, and are made up of the bishop (Vellicherdiener), the minister or preacher (Breddicher) and the deacon (Armediener). The bishop is the authority in the church and presides over the rites of the church, supervises the choosing of ministers, performs ordinations and also takes a turn preaching at church. The ministers are expected to be able to preach at the church services without the aid of notes or books, and assist the bishop during the communion services. The deacon is charged with taking care of the needy and widows in the congregation and becomes a behind-the-scenes worker for the church, assisting at church services, baptisms and communion, and is responsible for the cup, wine and bread of communion as well as setting up the foot- washing service that accompanies it. The deacons acts as an arbiter in case of disagreements between members, but his most important function is that of the Schtecklimann, the go-between in the arrangement of marriages. A couple who wishes to be married must inform the deacon first, and he will inquire whether the bride’s parents approve. If he finds that nothing stands in the way, he informs the bishop who announces the upcoming wedding about two Sundays before it is to take place. Each church will ideally have a bishop, two ministers and a deacon. (Hostetler, 106-108)

Amish leaders do not attend seminary or otherwise prepare themselves for the position, nor for that matter do they seek these positions. The Amish seek humility and good family management in their leaders, and displays of desire to lead are viewed as worldly and a loss of humility and a disqualification for any position. (Hostetler, 105-106) All leaders are chosen from within the community, never brought in from the outside, and their calling is given through the voice of the church and the drawing of lots. When a new minister or deacon is needed, the bishop prepares the congregation and the first part of the process is held following a communion ceremony. The ordained men of the church gather in a room and the deacon sits at the door, holding it slightly open. The members of the church file past single-file and whisper the name of their vote for minister, choosing from among any of the married men of the congregation. The deacon relays the name to the bishop, who records it and counts votes. Should one man receive all the votes, he becomes the new minister, otherwise the nominated men are gathered and the minister is chosen by the drawing of lots. The bishop gathers a hymnbook for each nominee and places a slip of paper with a Bible verse written on it in one of them. The books are placed on a table and after prayer the nominees each select a book. The bishop then examines the books until he finds the one with the slip of paper in it, and its holder becomes the new minister. Should a congregation need a new bishop, that person is chosen from among the ordained men. (Hostetler, 109-110)

I meet Violet Hochstedler and her family on a Saturday afternoon as they are preparing to hold the church service the following day. The Hochstedlers own a dairy farm with a very modern milking operation, and Violet’s husband Tim is busy with the cows and isn’t able to come into the house to meet me. They are also one of the few remaining families to hold the service in the house rather than in an outbuilding, and the preparations for the day are underway. Furniture is moved out of their large front room and the benches are arranged, and the house is cleaned from top to bottom. Saturdays are usually house cleaning day, but for a church weekend that takes on another level of intensity. I take a tour of the house and promise to stay out of the way of their cleaning as I photograph. When they’re ready for me to be in the kitchen, Violet offers me a freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie and milk from their cows. I grew up on a small farm with a cow, and real, fresh milk like that is a rare treat for me now, how could I say no? As I finish and pack up my equipment, they are popping popcorn for the after-church lunch they’ll serve and they hand me a bag for the drive home.

John and Clara Wenger are a young family that moved to Michigan from an Amish community in Iowa, and have lived here for almost two years. They are renting a house owned by Johnny and Rosemary Bontrager’s son Nathan, a house that also happens to be the one I lived in until I was seven and we moved next door to my grandparents. None of my family have been in the house for years, so I bring my mother with me as my assistant so that she can see how the house looks now. It’s Saturday, and Clara takes a momentary break from her cleaning to give us a tour of the house and to introduce us to her husband John, who is on his way back outside to work on the barn, her 8-year-old daughter Annie and Sarah, their new baby. Annie informs us that their family rhymes – “Johnny and Clara, Annie and Sarah.” My mother turns out to not be the best choice of assistant as she’s much more interested in looking at the house and talking to Clara and Annie than in holding equipment, but I’m happy to be able to fulfill her wish to see her old house again. The coal-burning stove is doing a fine job of heating the first floor of the house, but the door to the stairs is closed off so when I go upstairs to photograph the rooms there, including my childhood bedroom, it’s much cooler. My memory of the house isn’t as clear as my mother’s as I was young when we moved, but I do remember some things about it and it was nice to see the things that were the same and to talk with my mother and Clara about the things that were different. We also discover that they have lived in both of our houses, having rented Matthew Hochstetler’s house when they first moved to Michigan, moving to this house when Matthew and Hannah married and needed their house.

The family is the central unit of the Amish community, and the home reflects that. They are configured for gathering and visiting, conversation not isolation. Amish families eat their meals together, and the tables are large so that everyone has a seat, father at one end, mother at the other and all the children along the sides between them. My Amish heritage has given me entrance into their homes, familiarity with my family gives them a way to place me. The families who have invited me into their homes and have allowed me to photograph have been unfailingly welcoming and generous, and I appreciate their willingness to be inconvenienced by me and my camera for a couple of hours. As for me, I have enjoyed reconnecting with my Amish background and some family members that I don’t see nearly often enough.

Works Cited:
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. 4th Ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. 105-110. Print.

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