We cleansed our palate from the sour taste of Baltimore with a drive into the Pennsylvania farm country. We had hoped to see the beauty of the Lancaster countryside, to experience Amish culture as much as we could, and to have a genuine experience, to see the Amish people as people living an intentional and spiritual way of life and not as targets of tourism. But we realized as the daylight slipped from our grasp and settled on the western horizon that these hopes may not have been fulfilled. It was Saturday after all, and we had spent most of the day already driving aimlessly through the city of Lancaster looking for something interesting while simultaneously trying to track down a random $3 part for the Volkswagen. Disappointed by both, we were directed northeast and as our stomachs rumbled we realized we were getting closer. We pulled over and ate at a restaurant advertising good ol’ Dutch food. Eliot giggled with delight at his first sight of a horse drawn buggy. On our way out to the van another buggy rolled by and Eliot and Jamie gave them a wave. An arm reached out and waved back.
We piled back into the van and headed further into town, noticing window after window of CLOSED signs. The next day was Sunday and we realized that any chance we might have had to meet and connect with anyone was probably gone. Jamie was disappointed. The quiet town was falling quieter and we hadn’t even thought about where we would be staying that night in the sparsely populated Lancaster area. A soft and gentle glow spread across the road ahead, the way only the light from an ice cream shop can do. When in such a mood and in such a situation, sit and eat ice cream. So we did.
We sat on the steps out front and thought about what to do next, enjoying the peacefulness of the quiet street and fading light. Then a small Amish family, walked past into the shop, their infant daughter in hand, and we smiled at each other and said hello. On their way back out, they stopped and asked if that was our van parked around the corner. The husband said that he was looking for us after he saw it and said that they had ridden by earlier when we were at the restaurant and waved. We chatted a little more and then they invited us back up the hill to watch fireworks with them. There was a town culture festival that night and in the nearby park hundreds of youth were gathered to watch the sky light up with fire. But there we were a few minutes later on blankets in the parking lot of the town library, waiting for the show to begin. In the time that passed we all got to know each other. Elias and Linda grew up in the area, had large families all around them and a large family, themselves. We told them about our trip and where we were headed and how we lived out of our van. Then we told them about where we were thinking of staying that night.
“Wal-Mart most likely. Don’t really know.”
“Oh, well, why don’t you stay with us? We’d feel much better knowing you were parked out by our barn than in Wal-Mart.”
I didn’t see that coming. At that point I was only thinking about our family having a safe comfortable place to spend the night and I was grateful for the hospitality.
We spent the rest of the evening talking about everything from our families and our faith to our work and the state of Lancaster county.
It was nice to just sit with good people after all the traveling we had done and just enjoy the moment, wherever that was and wherever that took us.
After the show, though, that took us down the hill and into the park where Amish youth, most of them in Rumspringa, were hanging around. We picked up a few more of Elias and Linda’s children and took them back to their buggy. What struck me that night and the next day as I spoke to Elias was how incredibly Same we all are. From the madness of southern California, the fast-paced car and movie-influenced culture, to the hills and valleys of Lancaster county, rural and fertile, our children are children. Our teens are teens. And as we age and grow and adopt labels and clothe ourselves in the titles of Us or Them, beneath it all we are really the same people striving for goodness, struggling against temptation, rising above or succumbing to adversity.
As we spoke in their house the next morning, breakfast cooking in the kitchen and their girls playing with Eliot in the living room, we learned so much about how exactly Same we were. In any demonination there are expectations and rules and those that see beyond those guiding principles to what the faith really leads them toward and then there are those who substitute the path for the destination. Labels fade and clothing blurs as real connections are made between people. We were welcomed into their home and shown the warmth of a living breathing family. And that is what they were to us. A family, not a label. We were taken on a drive through the countryside, Elias showing us the points of significance in his valley, explaining Amish life and practice. We were taken next door to his brother and his brother’s family, and then one door down for his father and mother’s house. At some point during the day plans were made for a picnic down by the creek between their homes. As we walked down the narrow path we saw a sign the girls had made, “Happy Father’s Day,” and a table for food. We sat down as the whole family joined us from across the fields, there in the shade of trees by the creek, carved with the names of their children. A fire was built and by the end of the meal it was a S’more manufacturing fire. S’mores.
We couldn’t be with our own families on Father’s Day. In fact, we couldn’t be much further from them. But in the shade of those trees, with the sound of laughter, children splashing in the creek, and the smoke taking turns drifting into each person’s eyes, at least it felt a bit like home. We were privileged guests in this family’s world.
Like any chapter, though, this one was ending and as the sun slowly fell we realized we would have to move on. We said our goodbyes to people we had known for less than 24 hours but whom had become genuine friends and pulled off the dusty road back to the pavement. Our hearts were heavy and our minds were still trying to grasp what we had just been given. The road had long ago become a refuge for cloudy thoughts and unripened conclusions so it would be there we would have to let it process.