The move from Ohio to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley merely whetted my appetite to become familiar with my new surroundings. A myriad of opportunities abound, either spontaneously or scheduled, to explore this beautiful, historic setting.
Many of my junkets have been self-started. A lazy afternoon’s drive around the rolling, scenic countryside brings new people and places into my life. The Shenandoah Valley region is rich in history, a personal favorite subject. I needed more.
I joined scores of other retirees who were also eager to still learn a few things in life. James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, offers a Lifelong Learning Institute to that end.
I just completed my second class, an overview of Mennonites in the valley.
Phil Kniss, the pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, taught the class. He is an astute student of Mennonite history, so I knew I’d learn a lot.
The first session served as a historical survey of Mennonites, tracing their beginnings to the 16th century Reformation. Because of their steadfast beliefs, many Mennonites endured persecution to the point of martyrdom.
Consequently, many moved from their European homelands to the New World, where they hoped for a new chance to live peaceably. Unfortunately, conflicts followed them right into the 18th century as they settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They tried to live in peace farming the fertile soil, but war found them again.
Armed with that information, class field trips sent us into the lives and history of the many sects of Mennonites in the valley. A small choir enthralled us with their magnificent singing at the local Mennonite high school that is celebrating its 100th year.
At the Old Order Mennonite elementary school, I flashed back to former Ohio days of living among the Amish with their own private schools. The horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites are spiritual cousins to the Amish.
At the unassuming Old Order Mennonite church, a devoted preacher succinctly explained the scriptural basis for their simple way of living. Like all other Old Order men, he was clean-shaven but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, an anomaly among his people.
At the buggy shop, we laughed and learned through the wisdom of the father-son combo that so efficiently ran the business so necessary to the Old Order way of life. The elder’s humor kept us on our toes.
In an Old Order Mennonite home, we gave thanks and feasted on a scrumptious home-cooked meal. The sparkle in our host’s eyes twinkled her delight in our contentment.
At Bank Mennonite Church, we learned of an orchestrated church split with genuine intent to agreeably disagree on specific theological applications while continuing a parallel spiritual path. Congregates dressed and lived like Conservative Mennonites in Holmes County, Ohio with an notable exception. Again, the men had no beards.
At the final class at Crossroads Heritage Center, we explored a type of living museum. Guides explained pioneer life as we wound through original, relocated old houses and various other buildings.
It was a fitting location for the last class. From high on a hill, the valley played out below us. The city bustled beneath the hot morning sunshine. Yet, the farmland’s still earthy springtime fragrances enveloped us.
From that vantage point, I imagined the struggles, the heartache, the determination and the desire to live their lives in community through productivity, and finding peace and satisfaction in weaving their daily lives together.
Strangely and marvelously, I felt right at home.