Some Old Order Mennonites feel called to return to church

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"We feel at this point we should move ahead," says Bishop Marvin of the Old Order Stauffer Mennonite Church a day before his more than 200 members traveled by horse-drawn buggy to their first in-person service in nearly two months due to the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. – For the first time in weeks, kids played in the church cemetery. Nearby, a group of men in their 20s reflected on what it meant to gather again during the pandemic.

“Human health is important,” one of them said. “But ultimately, spiritual health is more important.”

Their order — one that shuns technology, cars and electricity — never missed Sunday services in more than 100 years, when the deadly 1918 flu pandemic interrupted worship.

Then, a different virus intruded in this world apart.

For nearly two months, the Old Order Stauffer Mennonite Church followed Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order and guidelines that discouraged gatherings in houses of worship. COVID-19 forced the postponement of weddings, funerals and their bi-annual communion, a high point. While some more modern Mennonite orders in Lancaster County held services by video, the Stauffers did not.

But now, it was “time to get back to work,” their bishop said. “And more so ... in the spiritual sense.” It was time to resume worship, he said — though he wondered how many worshippers would come, and he still felt concerns about “offending the public and the government.”

News spread fast: first service together in weeks; not mandatory, only for those who felt safe.

That morning, dozens arrived: men in wide brimmed straw hats, women in bonnets and dark dresses; their children in suspenders. Some greeted each other without face masks. Others walked into the bathroom to apply hand sanitizer before they filled the long, creaky wooden church pews in silence and sang hymns in German and the dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch.