Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
When I boarded the Greyhound bus in Kane, Pennsylvania, I was headed home to Syracuse after visiting friends. I took one of the few remaining seats up front. On both sides of the aisle the bus was a sea of Amish people, the men in their homespun black coats, white shirts, and suspenders; and, the women wearing gray or blue cotton work dresses and starched white caps with the ties hanging loosely about their necks. From the chatter of the young men seated all around me, I soon learned that they were heading home to upstate New York from a barn raising in Ohio. In spite of their austere Amish clothing and bowl-cut hair, they were typical teenagers. They tossed bags of Doritos at each other, and mocked their peers. A boy with a bandaged hand was teased mercilessly for not being able to handle a hammer.
“I got stung by a bee!” he protested as a bag of chips bounced off his head.
One of the older boys was apparently getting married soon. “This time next year,” his brother teased, “Jacob will be spending more time on his father-in-law’s farm than with his bride!”
A few rows back, the men sat together, some dozing while others conversed quietly, holding their brimmed straw hats on their laps. The women chatted as some pulled garments up from bags at their feet and proceeded to sew. Even from a distance, I could see that they were taking small, precise stitches despite the rocking of the coach.
As we approached our first stop of several on this route, a number of Amish men got up and asked other passengers if they could borrow their cell phones. They explained that they needed to call friends with cars who would meet them and drive them out to their farms. Owing to my limited exposure to Amish culture, I was surprised that they even knew how to use cell phones, and I had never even considered that being Amish would probably not prevent them from having helpful non-Amish friends.
We were rolling along on schedule when the driver’s microphone crackled and we heard him take a deep breath, “Um, ladies and gentleman, we are going to make an unscheduled stop. We have a flat tire we need to change. I’ll drop you off at a nice place to have lunch on us while I take the bus to a service center. Then, I’ll swing back, and we’ll be on our way.” Immediately, the Amish were lining up to use the cell phones again. I called my husband to let him know, “If all goes as planned, I’ll still make my connection in Buffalo and be home on time.”
At lunch, I sat with a young Amish couple I will call John and Rebecca. John told me about how barn raising is not only neighborly but also a way to pass on to the next generation the fundamental skills of traditional construction. Rebecca explained that while the men worked outside, the women were occupied in the kitchen. She gave me her recipe for Chicken Fricassee for fifty.
“You must have horses,” I remember saying. “I volunteer with a sanctuary for retired Standardbred race horses.”
John’s eyes lit up, “Yes, Standardbreds make good buggy horses. We have one and also a draft horse for plowing and pulling.”
He studied me before continuing, “You probably like to ride horses?”
“To you, they are more like pets, but it’s different with us. They are important tools like maybe your automobile. You take care of it to keep it going. We take good care of our horses, so they keep working. I know some English think we are cruel to horses, but our laws forbid it.”
“How do you feel about your horses?” I asked.
John leaned in and said, “How do you think I feel? Without the horse, there is no farm.”
We finished lunch and went outside to wait for the bus in the afternoon sunshine. A half hour ticked by. Then another. People began to get anxious about delayed arrivals and missing connections. Finally, the bus appeared, with the bus driver clearly frazzled and apologetic. When we got to Buffalo, I went up to the ticket counter to ask when exactly I should tell my family I’d be arriving in Syracuse. I stepped aside to call my family, and the young couple I had met at lunch stepped up. It was clear that they were frantic because they were going to miss their connection in Syracuse, and there would be no other bus to their remote part of Northern New York near the St. Lawrence River until the next day.
“We need to get home to our children,” Rebecca said urgently.
“Don’t you have any friends in Syracuse? Maybe go to a shelter?” the ticket agent offered.
“Are you joking?” John asked.
“Well, you can stay in the bus station, but you’ll have to sit up in chairs,” the agent added unhelpfully.
Now, as bus stations go, the Syracuse station and its furnishings are clean and contemporary, but not what anyone would call “comfortable.” These people had already been traveling all day after a weekend of heavy construction and cooking for a crowd. John turned to his wife and shrugged, “There’s nothing we can do. We have to call and let them know.”
“You can come to my house,” I said as though I was part of their conversation.
“You would do this?” Rebecca asked, “your family won’t mind?”
“Not at all,” I assured them, “you can stay with us, and we’ll drive you to the station in the morning so you can catch your bus.”
They looked at each other, and I turned away to let them talk it over.
“Okay,” John said seconds later.
Rebecca smiled warmly, “Thank you. Can we use your cell phone?”
“Okay!” I said, handing it over.
I don’t remember deciding not to call home about this development. I guess I just knew I didn’t need to. As we got off the bus in Syracuse, John told me that they had stuff in the baggage compartment, so they got into a line, and I went to meet my family inside. My husband and our teenaged daughter greeted me with hugs and kisses as soon as I walked through the door, and tried to whisk me out to the car.
“I’ve got an Amish couple with me,” I blurted, “We have to wait.”
Pleasantly perplexed, they listened as I explained about my new friends who needed a place to stay for the night.
“I just couldn’t let them sleep here,” I concluded. As I expected, my family was glad I had offered our hospitality to strangers in need.
“Here they come,” I said as John and Rebecca came into the station. They were a handsome couple, but they looked like characters in a play. Amish women wear long, solid-colored dresses and head-coverings, and men have beards and wear suspenders rather than belts. Their pants are not closed by a fly, but rather by four buttons across the top of a large panel. John and Rebecca carried ancient suitcases that looked like props from an old movie, and each balanced a box of potted tomato plants on one arm. After quick introductions, John seemed embarrassed about the tomato plants.
“You may wonder why we carry tomato plants on a bus, but they’re a gift from my father who is dying,” he said, turning to Rebecca, who continued, “On the way to the barn raising, we stopped to see him in Pennsylvania.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
John shook his head, “He is ready. He has had the cancer for a long time. We hadn’t been home for a few years, and he wanted to see us. He gave Rebecca the tomatoes for the garden.”
As we piled into the car, everyone became more talkative. Questions flew back and forth. They asked us about our children and our work. We asked about their farm and their children.
Rebecca began listing the kids, occasionally looking to John for confirmation on the pairing of names and ages, “Hannah is 18. Rachel is 17. Caleb is 15. Jonah is almost 14. Elizabeth is 11. Susannah is 9, Aaron is 8, Michael is 6, and Sarah is 3.”
“What a family,” I said earnestly.
When Rebecca entered my home she went straight to one of the oldest things in it—an antique treadle sewing machine that belonged to my husband’s grandmother, “Oh! What a beautiful sewing machine! Do you sew?”
“Not on that machine, but it is beautiful,” I said.
“It’s nice you appreciate the old things,” she said, and I was glad we had that in common.
We discussed what to have for dinner. They were very tired, so I suggested take-out. I described what was available from Panera, and to my surprise they were enchanted. Who knew the Amish could be so easily entertained in a pinch? Dinner was pleasant and relaxed, and as the evening progressed, we began to speak freely and unguardedly about the differences in our ways of life. They talked about the history of the Amish people—why they came to America and some of the differences among the communities. They wanted to know about our family histories and found it curious that Bob and I came together and could make a strong family from such different backgrounds and traditions. We found ourselves talking about faith without really talking about religion, and discovered that we had many common values.
Bob admired John’s broad-brimmed straw hat, and Rebecca explained that there was one woman in Pennsylvania who made the hats for all the men in their community “because she’s the best!” John proudly pointed out the workmanship that distinguished these hats from lesser models. Laura and I noticed the lack of buttons and zippers on Rebecca’s dress, and she showed us how everything was held together with straight pins. I said she seemed like a particularly graceful person, and wondered if the pins had something to do with it.
“Oh, yes,” she laughed, “If you’re not careful, you’ll be a pincushion.” She went on, “This is plain clothing,” she went on, “It’s not fancy, it’s practical and easy to clean . . .”
“The clothes say we are plain people. Not like the English,” John interjected.
Rebecca added, “That’s what we call everyone who is not us.”
The next morning we rose early so they could catch a 6:30 am bus. We didn’t make plans or promises to keep in touch, but before we parted we hugged each other. I don’t remember the exact words we exchanged, but Rebecca remarked on the blessing of my opening my home to them, and that God was in it, and we all agreed that the combination of circumstances that brought us together seemed so unlikely as to be a little miraculous. I am grateful for the unexpected door that opened between our worlds, and allowed me to show respect and kindness to people I would not otherwise have had a chance to know. Their open delight in our conversation, our food and our home was our greatest reward. It was so easy for all of us to show kindness to strangers.
© 2019 K. F. Thurber