Did you know that Amish, Mennonites and related churches have a hotline that connects them 24 hours a day, 6.5 days a week?

Atlas Obscura looks at the story of the Amish and Mennonite Conference Line, which was founded in 2006 by a man named Gary (last name omitted in the article).

This is a dial-in hotline where you can hear speakers discuss different topics and get news updates. There have been singings broadcast over the line, and even services of certain churches. People call in from all around the country. The primary language used is Pennsylvania Dutch.

I had a chance to meet Gary some years ago, when the hotline had already been up and running for awhile. It sounds like it has grown even more since then. I called in and listened one time, on an English-language call. Topics I heard discussed included a report of an upcoming auction, weather, and the drowning death of a young boy in Indiana.

It makes perfect sense that this would be popular in Plain communities. Amish and Mennonites are sociable people to say the least. They have large families with many ties spanning time and space. The Conference Line helps people keep up to date on happenings and people’s lives across the country and beyond.

Here is how it works:

What Gary says started “as a hobby and as a service to the people” soon became his full-time job. The Line now operates 24 hours a day, 6.5 days a week (they’re closed Saturday night and Sunday morning, to encourage people to be properly rested for church on Sunday), and can connect more than 9,000 callers comfortably; more than 10,000 unique phone numbers have registered for “talk passwords”—unique PINs they key in to chat—and many more people have dialed in just to listen. The Line is “largely self-operating,” and conversation usually flows naturally and politely, though Gary or a designated moderator has had to step in on the rare occasion when a “nuisance caller” starts kicking up trouble or people begin talking over each other. In the beginning, Gary advertised the Line in The Budget, an Ohio-based newspaper with a large Amish and Mennonite readership, but knowledge has mostly spread via word of mouth since, to great effect.

Gary says that a majority of his callers are actually Old Order Mennonites. Given its Plain character, the conference line comes with a set of rules, as a woman explained when the article author dialed in:

polite, clean language; no proselytizing or “sheep stealing” (attempting to poach members of another church); and no “boy and girl visiting on the line” (basically, using the line as a way to chat before formal courtship is sanctioned). There is also no playing of musical instruments, as Amish and Mennonites believe that mastering an instrument might make the player feel a sense of personal pride, which could dissuade them from yielding to the collective body. Most importantly, she implored, “Please do not let the conference line take away from family time, Bible reading and prayer.”

It’s meant to be an upbuilding way to connect people and communities. Most Plain groups do not use the internet or use it in only limited ways. Face-to-face meetings, correspondence newspapers, letters, and phone calls retain their importance in Amish and Mennonite circles. The hotline fits into this communication package as an old-fashioned way to keep in touch and up to speed.

That said, some still think it is a waste of time. Historian Amos Hoover, however, does not:

Hoover, who is an Old Order Mennonite, believes the Conference Line is helping to ensure the survival of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, which is an essential part of Amish and Mennonite heritage. He also thinks it aids in bridging denominational divides by making it easier for Amish and Mennonites—and the many variations within those camps—to interact. After all, they have more in common than not. “This morning at three o’clock, I couldn’t sleep, and when I called in, sure enough, there was a Mennonite truck driver from Wisconsin heading towards Minneapolis, and we visited a little bit,” he said, chuckling. “I knew exactly who he was when he told me who his father was.”

Read the article in full at Atlas Obscura.

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