Serving the Amish author Jim Cates today shares the story of an Amish woman named Anne, and a special, unexpected exchange they shared during a visit at a rehabilitation facility.
They Shall Speak in Unknown Tongues
Both Amish and African-American sermons offer the congregant a message focused on God. Both also ask for a witness. Beyond these similarities, they don’t just drift apart. They separate at the speed of light. And yet I have had the privilege of hearing an Amish woman give a rousing version of an African-American sermon. Initially it may sound silly, but it remains a spiritual moment that I carry deep in my heart.
The Amish are well-known for caring for their own, but there are times when a disability requires more complex health management than can be provided by the family. And so a young Amish woman I will call “Anne” was confined for a time to a rehabilitation facility before returning to her home community. I met her there in my role as a psychologist. Despite the physical struggles she endured, she was determined to be physically independent (as the holes in her walls attested, as she attempted to leave her wheelchair and walk), and resilient in spirit. Styling herself “The Woodshop Artist,” she painted breathtaking landscapes. All portrayed a serenity that contrasted with the harsh realities of her life.
On this particular afternoon, I was making rounds and found Anne in her room, awaiting my arrival. She stood patiently behind her wheelchair, an unusual position since standing for prolonged periods was painful. Still, she was a woman on a mission.
“Sit down,” she said, and I did as instructed. “Now” she said, “I am going to preach.” This was unusual as well, for in the time I had known her she had taken the appropriate role of an Amish woman. And yet, preach she did.
We began with her instruction that we say the Lord’s Prayer in unison. As she warmed to her topic, I became “Brother Jim,” and she became “Sister Anne.” She spoke to me of the love of Jesus, and the importance of allowing him into my heart. She spoke of his sacrifice on the cross, and the need to remember that we are given a gift as his children. And she spoke of the terrible burden of sin with which we all are afflicted, and that is removed by his blood. As she warmed to her topic she developed a rhythm and cadence that belied English as a second language. Voice raised (door closed and roommate thankfully away), she did not speak as much as roll through the message of salvation.
Still, that was not all. Repeatedly, as her sermon moved forward, she would ask in a loud voice, “Can I get a witness?” I quickly realized that was my prompt to reply “Amen.” I should point out that I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and now attend the United Church of Christ. We feel awkward and obvious if someone raises their hand in praise, much less speaks out in the service. Sitting with a woman in Amish dress intoning a rousing version of an African-American sermon? Overall, this was not an auspicious way to increase the comfort level for her congregation of one.
I should also digress and explain what had occurred. Anne’s family dutifully arranged to either return her to their home community for Amish church on biweekly Sundays, or on the alternate weeks visited Sunday morning and conducted an abbreviated version of an Amish service with her. However, on Sunday evenings, a pastor from the local African Methodist-Episcopal church offered a service for those residents who wished to attend. His style was unabashedly flamboyant, and Anne had been enthralled by his sermons. After hearing him, she had decided to test this evangelical fervor on me.
And as her sermon wound down, she was clearly exhausted. We prayed to close the “service,” and I helped her back into her wheelchair. “What did you think?” she asked, tired eyes nevertheless alight.
What did I think? There was no easy answer to that question. As she had been preaching, I had thought of the saying “One light, many windows.” I had also thought, much more practically, of the reaction of her family or clergy to this evangelical bent. And in a prayerful moment of consideration, I had the inspiration to say “Anne, I think God is awesome.”
She smiled at me, and said “I think so too.”
Anne left a few weeks afterward, to continue her treatments and rehabilitation at home. Although we talked each week, she did not again preach to me, and I believe she had the foresight not to try to evangelize her family. And yet that moment in which she spoke of God’s love and gave the salvation message was important for her, in ways that I may never understand. I am just thankful I was there to hear it. Amen, Anne. Amen.
Jim Cates is the author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.