I had come to meet together with some Russian acquaintances of mine, together with whom I serve on the board of an internet based seminary. Our meetings had been hosted by some wonderfully hospitable (and thoroughly “central PA conservative”) people, who had made the arrangements with our Amish hosts.
There we were, two dozen or more, around a long single table that ran the length the wall of the side of the farmhouse, with its other side backed by an entryway, a stairway up to the bedrooms, a small living area and the doorway to the back porch. The father sat at the head of the table, around which were seated some of his seven children, a dozen largely grey-haired suburban evangelicals, a couple Russians who spoke great English and a couple that didn’t at all. And me. Around us the mom and the older kids delivered plate after plate of hearty and delectable fare. I was seated next to Mahlon, the young father of seven who was hosting us, as plates of peas and carrots shifted to trays of shoo-fly pie (which the Russians were assured contained neither shoes nor flies). While enjoying their warm hospitality I was able to converse about the spiritual implications of simplicity, ask about the things we’re doing down at The Mill, and get a feel for what it was like to, well, be Amish.
I was interpreting for my non-English speaking colleagues, which gave me a front-row seat to what I thought would be an epically strange interaction: these Amish people were, literally and metaphorically, “off the grid” of these white-bread Americans who had stretched across the world to bring in these Russkies – born in central Asia, for goodness sakes – to sit at the same table with them.
The father spoke in only slightly accented English, responding to many interested questions from the Russians. As the interlocution continued, interspersed with words to the children in German, I saw some correspondences coming up. ‘Oh, your church services last three hours? So do ours!’ ‘So that means we have four preachers each time. Hey, we do too!’
As the plates were gathered toward the end of the meal and the children gathered in the shadowy living area behind the table and began leafing through songbooks which contained words but no musical notation I began to recall the Church History classes I’d prepared back in Kyiv. I wanted people to know where their own Christian roots are… but most of the books that I’d found only dealt with the provenance of American denominations. I’ve always had a weak spot for the Radical Reformation, and had done a lot of study into the roots of the Evangelical Baptist movement in Russia and Ukraine. A lot of their roots go back to the era of Catherine the Great, when she extended extremely attractive terms to central European farmers to move in and farm great tracts of the still largely unharnessed and underdeveloped agricultural bonanza of Ukraine. Many of them were Mennonites, and other Anabaptists, a great number of which were having a rough time at the hands of both Roman and Reformation “establishments,” to whom the wide open spaces of the wild, wild East must have seemed might attractive. They came, speaking a particular type of German, many literally with a plow in one hand and Bible in the other. They came with faith and vision. And a lot of suspicion. They shared their faith in the Lord, and the words of their Scriptures, with the peasants whom they employed by the hundreds. Traditionally, a farmer might gather his workers for an hour to read the Bible before work. This Stunde (German for hour) gave rise to the Stundisti, from whom many Slavic evangelical-baptists claim descent.
The girls began singing: only one of the five could really hold a tune, but that didn’t matter. There was something chillingly soothing in their voices as their unrefined voices gave quavering affirmation to their firm belief in the simplicity of the goodness and grace of their God.
As the girls sang one of their last numbers – this one in German – the Russians began to hum along… By the time the third verse was over, the Russians, one of whom was clearly deeply moved, began to sing their version… I’d learned it before, so I joined in with them, “Na nebyesnoi pereklichkye… tam po milosti Gospodniu budu ya!” My colleague managed to pull his voice together to explain: “That was my father’s favorite song. He loved it because he learned it from my grandfather. My grandfather was sent to the Gulag during Soviet times because he refused to renounce his evangelical faith. He died there, after which our family was resettled to central Asia, as were many such troublemakers.” It was a song of hope in the face of despair and faith in spite of deadly opposition.
And, we all realized, my Russian friend’s great-great grandfather would have learned it from the great-great grandfather of Mahlon. That their two families were two twigs on the same branch of Jesus’ family tree. And now these two families were singing the song – their song – together again. The Americans joined in, since the older folks remembered the song “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder…” As we finished our mixed-language version of the old classic hymn, a silence quickly enveloped the room. The young mother, sitting on a stool beside her daughters, sighed and stated almost blankly, “I imagine tha’ heaven will be something like tha’… You know with all of us who have never met and have never understood or even heard each other all singing the same song.”