Mennonites in the Valley

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This semester of JMU’s Lifelong Learning (LLI), I was excited to get into the “Mennonites in the Valley” course. This five-week course has given us a wonderful education about these kind folks who live in our midst. The class was led by Phil Kniss. Phil has spent 32 years in the Mennonite community in Harrisonburg, most of the time in church leadership. He has pastored two local Mennonite congregations, including 21 years as the senior pastor at Park View Mennonite Church. He holds an M.Div. from EMU in Harrisonburg and a D.Min. from Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. He is married and has three adult daughters. His hobbies include photography, hiking, and – believe it or not – roasting coffee!

Our first class provided an overview of the Mennonite church, including history, faith, and life – and specifically the development of the diverse community of Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley.

The second class covered the Virginia Conference Mennonites, who are the most progressive. During this class we met the EMU Provost, learned about the Virginia Mennonite Missions, visited Eastern Mennonite High School, and heard a wonderful concert by their Chamber Choir.

My favorite class was the week we learned about the Old Order Mennonites, the most conservative branch of the faith. We were taken by bus from Park View Mennonite Church first to the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church. We then were introduced to Lewis Martin, an ordained minister and a self-employed business man, owner of the Martin Harness Shop. When Phil said that Lewis would speak to us for about 40 minutes, I figured I would get bored and possibly fall asleep. But this delightful man kept us entertained with information about his faith and several stories, spicing it up with his wonderful sense of humor.

From the church, our bus next took us to the Mountain View Old Order School. This two-room school house sits just down the road from the Martin Harness Shop. We learned about the parochial school run by this branch of the Mennonites and about their education, which only runs through the 8th grade. The two rooms in this building are divided into one for the lower grades, and one for the upper grades, with a moveable divider. There were additional rooms in the basement for the art and music classes.

We met the beautiful children, most of whom were bare-foot by choice. The little girls all wore dresses, and their feet looked well callused from playing without shoes. Our tour ended with the children singing a cappella (no instruments in this church.)

Our third stop was at the Burkholder Buggy Shop. Everett Burkholder and his son Daniel showed us around their shop – a two-story affair. The buggies are assembled on the top floor and are then dropped by hoist through a very large trap door. Everett was our main tour guide, and we enjoyed his terrific sense of humor and his funny stories. He told us that there are approximately 350 families in the area who are buggy families, and they normally have about three buggies each. Each one starts at $10,000, which does not include the horse or the harness!

Our final stop of the day was in the home of Mennonite Janet Shank for a home cooked lunch. Janet cooks these delicious meals as a source of income, and the food was amazing! I have never liked lima beans, but I could have just eaten the bowl of her limas and skipped the rest – which was also delicious.

Our fourth class was about the Southeastern Conference Mennonites – less conservative than Old Order. We met at Weaver’s Mennonite Church and heard a brief history about this church. Then we drove to the Bank Church where we first met in the historic of Bank Church Cemetery. We heard the story of Susanna Heatwole Brunk and her endurance of the Civil War and the loved ones she lost during that time. We heard from Philip Wenger, one of the pastors of the Bank Church and also Harvey Yoder, the creator of this course. He talked about growing up Amish and about the Augusta County Amish- Mennonites. He explained the differences in the two religions.

Our final class was a trip to the CrossRoads campus of Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center. Visitors can engage with the faith traditions of these two faiths through stories, artifacts, and buildings and learn about the differences and similarities of these two religions. Their website is: During this time we also met for a short time with class coordinator, Phil Kniss, where we filled out a quiz (then discussed answers) and we were free to ask him questions about any aspect of the class and his personal religious experience. He gave honest and complete answers and did not dodge what could be uncomfortable questions.

Addendum to this story - During the class on the Old Order, we met Lewis Martin. In addition to being a minister, he owned the Martin Harness Shop. This shop has been bought by a young man named David L. Rhodes. We did not visit the shop during our class, but fellow classmate Susan Sheridan and I made a trip over to visit this shop as we were told you could buy leather belts. What a unique place and what gorgeous belts! If you wish to visit the shop (which is located at 2659 Harness Shop Road, Dayton), call 540-879-9302 and check their hours. If you wish to purchase a belt, bring one along that is the right length. If you’d like to see the belts, ask my husband, Don Oxley. He now owns one of the “plain” black belts, and one of the more embossed brown belts.

LLI typically offers “Mennonites in the Valley” each spring. If you have not had the opportunity to take this class, I strongly recommend you sign up the next time it’s available! --Pat Oxley