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story.lead_photo.caption In this Sunday, May 17, 2020, photo, bicycles line the side of a shed near the Old Order Stauffer Mennonite Church as in-person service resumes for the first time in nearly two months, in New Holland, Pa. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. -- 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.

Now, 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."

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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.

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 one another without 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.

Gallery: Mennonites return to church

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"It has been many weeks since we gathered here. Are we thankful to be here again?" Bishop Marvin asked. "Aren't we thankful for health to go about our life?"

During Sunday worship, Bishop Marvin said their time apart from one another gave parents a chance to read Scripture with their children at home. But he acknowledged challenges. His mother died at age 95 on April 2, and the community couldn't gather for a large funeral service.

Rules on houses of worship have varied from state to state. Gov. Tom Wolf's stay-at-home order in Pennsylvania effectively exempted religious activity, although it strongly discouraged gatherings.

The guidance said religious leaders were "encouraged to find alternatives to in-person gatherings and to avoid endangering their congregants."

Other congregations adapted. The Groffdale Conference Old Order Mennonites used landline phones as an alternative to their in-person worship, canceled for the first time in more than a century.

"I can remember my great-grandparents talking about the 1918 flu, the Spanish flu, when the churches were closed for three months. There were no funerals, and a lot of people died," said Aaron Hurst, a congregant who owns a hardware store.

The conference call worship was launched with the help of Elvin Hoover. From his home office overlooking the Conestoga River, he receives faxes offering farm products, masks and other services. He then announces the news in Pennsylvania Dutch through a phone line that reaches hundreds in his community. Church service became so popular, he said, that on a Sunday, it jammed the local phone exchange.

"The sheep were hungry!" he said. "We miss church. Oh, do we miss church."

Information for this article was contributed by Marc Levy of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/31/2020

Print Headline: Mennonite order feels called back to work


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