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Amish country loves God, Donald Trump and refugees

Written by Joel Shannon/The York Daily Record | Jul 5, 2017 4:37 AM
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Miriam Charles worships beside Paday Shee, left, and Paw Shee. Paday, 25, and Paw, 10, are not related but are part of the group of ethnic Karen refugees from South Asia who attend Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Charles has attended Habecker for 70 years and welcomed the first Karen family into her home nine years ago. (Photo: Joel Shannon, York Daily Record)

(Lancaster) -- From the road, you'd never guess what's inside Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, on a Sunday morning.

Surrounded by cornfields, obscured by trees, lacking a steeple or stained glass, the outside is unremarkable by design. It's tucked into the heart of Amish country, where people put down roots and stay, often for generations. It's a politically and religiously conservative area, and in the 2016 election, the county -- as it has every year in recent memory -- voted for the Republican candidate.

Some things inside Habecker are typical for the area: A pile of handmade blankets; several women wearing prayer caps; a program that reads, "Come let us bow down and worship."

A few dozen faithful locals attend the church. Many have been going for decades.

But the pews hold an unexpected gathering, too, on Sunday mornings -- they're filled with more than 100 South Asian refugees.

"It's a gift from God ... it's just a precious gift," said Miriam Charles, who's been attending Habecker for 70 years.

The church uncovered a need and responded -- by welcoming a refugee family into its congregation nine years ago. Then more and more families joined, until the Sunday service became bilingual.

The call to help refugees is particularly strong in Lancaster County. The city of Lancaster has been called the refugee capital of the nation, resettling 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the country, according to the BBC.  

The area's primary resettlement agency credits the support of the county's strong religious community for its success: More than 85 percent of refugees -- people fleeing their homeland because of famine, war, persecution or other causes -- are self-sufficient in six months or less.

"Why Lancaster? It's sorta simple: It just really comes back to the community," explained Stephanie Gromek, a community resource coordinator with Church World Service, a faith-based organization with local headquarters in Lancaster that holds a government contract to resettle refugees in central Pennsylvania. "This is not new to Lancaster County. This is who the community is. It's who we are," Gromek said.

The organization's goal is to help refugees to assimilate into American culture. "We never proselytize," said Gromek. Sharing faith should happen in the context of friendship.

Support is particularly strong in Mennonite churches, a diverse community of believers with a faith tradition that has loose similarities to the Amish.

Even so, some in the area are resistant to helping refugees, said Habecker co-pastor Dawn Landis. "It's sad when we see Christians be too afraid or be too ... swayed by the culture or the politics of the time, and then they compromise their witness, in my opinion."

Politics of the time

On Oct. 1, 2016, about 10 miles down the road from Habecker, Lancaster County welcomed a different guest -- then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

A crowd of Trump supporters cheered with their candidate's promises, booed with him as he critiqued his opponent.

Among those criticisms: "And now she wants a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees to pour into our country?"

He looked baffled. In the next breath, he spoke of "radical Islamic terror."

The county handily voted for Trump in November. Since then, he's overseen a clampdown on refugee acceptance, documented in a USA Today Network investigation.

From the outside, Lancaster County might seem a paradox: A religiously and politically conservative community that simultaneously welcomes refugees and embraces a candidate suspicious of refugees.

That's how it looks from the outside.

'Plain human decency'

Craig Coble has a sign in his front yard: "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor."

It's written in three different languages: English, Spanish and Arabic.

Sitting on his front porch on a sunny June day, Coble mused dryly, "I've not gotten very far in life. ... About 2 miles across town."

He was being modest - that's what people do around here.

It was clear his life was full: A career chemist at a Fortune 500 company; a family of four children and six grandkids; a lifelong church family -- Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren.

He talked around politics, not about them. He tried to avoid using candidates' names.

Trump supporters "may have voted against somebody else," he speculated. "That's all fine and dandy."

Labels frustrated him, especially when it came to the issue of refugees: "I don't know what 'conservative' and 'liberal' means anymore."

His faith taught him to help those in need when he can. After hearing the stories of refugees -- that many come from war-torn, famine-stricken lands, he looked around lush Lancaster County, and the right thing to do seemed clear.

"It can be a ministry for some people. It can be just plain human decency to many other people," said Coble. No need to overthink it.

Something else that Coble doesn't overthink: The number of refugees now coming to the United States. "I can't do a whole lot about what the government sets as a quota, so we do what we can for the people who can make it."

Refugees are neighbors, and they're new - we all were once, somewhere in our family tree, Coble said.

'Family'

Rachel Bunkete is one of those new neighbors.

When she first arrived in the United States in 2013, she cried for days. And not for joy.

Her hope was fading: She might never see her family again. She missed her husband and three children. She had waited five years to get to the States, to flee the land where her parents were killed. When she arrived in Lancaster County, an ocean separated her from the Congo. She didn't know the language and the customs.

But her tears didn't last.

She was welcomed into her new home. "Love. Only thing: Love. Everybody show me their love," she recalled.

She found a new family, the people of Keystone Church in Paradise, Pennsylvania, who drove from the Lancaster County countryside to the city to help her with, as she put it, "everything."

And soon a global church family she had first connected with in Africa would help her with something that meant everything to her: Reuniting with her family.

Today, there's only one Bunkete missing from Rachel's home - her oldest son, nearly 30, who's in limbo awaiting approval to join his family.

Love not fear

The Rev. Keith Rohrer helped lead the efforts to welcome Rachel, Keystone Church's first refugee.

He's also a Republican (but not a straight-ticket Republican, he's quick to note). It's important to him that the United States remains secure - for his family, for Rachel.

That's probably the most important part of the president's job, he thinks.

But Keith Rohrer is not the president.

Instead, he sees himself in a different role: "If (refugees) get here and I have an opportunity to help, I want to do that."

Since 2002, more than 4,000 refugees have had the opportunity to call Lancaster home, with over 75 percent having come since 2010, according to USA Today Network data

The majority come from south Asia, but Iraq, Somalia, Cuba and the Congo have also sent hundreds. Less than a hundred fled Syria, the subject of political controversy in the Trump administration.

Rohrer, like Coble, said he's not particularly bothered by headlines about Trump overseeing historic lows of refugee admittance into the United States.

He's traveled abroad extensively and knows it's a tough topic: "Everyone wants to come to the U.S., but we don't have the capability to bring everybody here."

So sweating those policy details isn't his priority. His focus is on loving Rachel, her family and those like her.

And the idea that some fellow conservatives might not be comfortable joining him is disconcerting. They might need to trust God a little more, he said.

Those who wouldn't welcome refugees, who are suspicious of people unlike themselves, are probably acting out of fear. That's not what Christians are called to do. They also aren't called to follow a particular political party, he said.

"I think we do have a lot of religious conservatives who take their political views as a package and maybe don't scrutinize them as hard as they should," he said. That happens on both sides of the political aisle, he said.

Mission, not politics

For many Christians in Lancaster County, it's uncomfortable that refugees are considered a political issue at all.

At Coble's Brethren church, there are Trump supporters. But that doesn't have any effect on the church's mission to help refugees, said the Rev. Greg Davidson Laszakovits.

"Our congregation has identified this as a place that is above politics. And beyond politics. And if we're going to do like Jesus said and love our neighbor as our self ... It seems pretty obvious," he said.

At Church World Service, the agency has shifted its role to increase its advocacy efforts since refugees have become a controversial issue in American politics. But the organization recognizes that not everyone in the community is comfortable taking on D.C., explained Gromek. And that's OK.

Keeping politics at an arm's length from the church is a common attitude for Lancaster County Christians, many of whom claim Anabaptist and Pietist traditions. That group includes Mennonites, Brethren and Amish, explained professor Steven Nolt of Lancaster County's Elizabethtown College.

These Christians essentially say: "We just help refugees ... and we've been doing that for a long time, and so that's what we're going to keep doing," explained Nolt, who has written numerous books on Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania German history and contemporary life.

There are good reasons they feel this way.

They trace their history back to when the church had gotten too cozy with the government -- they chose to separate at their own peril.

They came to America essentially as refugees. Many settled in Lancaster County for its fertile soil and because the commonwealth, founded by Quaker William Penn, promised religious liberty.

So while some Christian institutions are inviting politicians to speak, many in Lancaster County, like Craig Coble's pastor, aren't jumping on any politician's bandwagon. Instead, Laszakovits encourages his congregants to look at political issues one by one through the lens of faith.

"Let's not think about 'Well, my candidate believes this about this issue, .... I guess I better think this.'" Instead, he teaches his congregants to think: "'OK, I'm a follower of Jesus first and foremost ... so where do I fall on (an issue)?'" Laszakovits said.

So, what about the Amish?

The Amish, too, help refugees. Just in a different way.

"Without the Amish, we would not do nearly what we do," said Ken Sensenig, the assistant director of Mennonite Central Committee, East Coast.

With strong support from the Amish community, MCC assembles and ships hundreds of thousands of relief kits to refugees around the world.

The Amish don't stop at assembling kits.

They create comforters by hand to send overseas and knit quilts to sell at benefits.

And they're the main participants in MCC's mobile canning operation, which takes a portable meat-canning factory to the country, allowing them to preserve turkey for aid efforts.

At a mobile canning event, Nolt was struck by a "plain man's" passing comment.

Even though his religious beliefs caused him to separate from mainstream society, he was aware why they were canning turkey: It was a meat acceptable to all religions.

"I'm not sure how much he understood things about, you know, Muslim or Hindu ... dietary practices. But he knew that ... some places, people don't eat certain meats."

It showed an awareness of the world that might be unexpected, if you were judging by appearances. But in Amish country, that would be a mistake.

Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has only a few dozen local members. But on Sunday morning, resettled refugees fill the church with song and love. Joel Shannon, York Daily Record


This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

Published in Lancaster, News

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