The church building first appeared as a single white dot in the vast sage-covered plain of the Diamond Valley, 12 miles north of Eureka. Coming closer, we saw its simplicity: a converted double-wide mobile home. The soil of the churchyard was loose and dry after one of the driest winters in memory, so my footsteps left tracks. It was mid-April and blindingly sunny, but at 6,000 feet above sea level, the Sunday morning was cool
Presently, the yard began to fill with pickup trucks and SUVs, and the people who stepped out of them bore Bibles, babies, and smiles. The women wore loose ankle-length dresses, expertly home-sewn of pretty cotton prints, and their hair was gathered up in buns, each bun covered with a small white cap. Men favored plain slacks and white Western-cut shirts, but a couple wore black suits of unusual simplicity, without lapels. Nobody wore a necktie. Only a few of these folk had met me before, but most greeted me warmly as they might an old friend.
These were Mennonites, members of a remarkably sincere denomination of Christians, who began to settle in Eureka County in the 1990s. Now 50 of them took seats in the sanctuary of the double-wide church, leaving only a few empty. Worship opened with the hymn, “We Now Have Met To Worship Thee.” No musical instruments are permitted, so somebody blew a pitch-pipe to establish the vocal key.
A little later, those in attendance were asked if they knew of anyone in need of prayer, and many were mentioned. All concerns raised that day happened to be for people not Mennonites, just neighbors and acquaintances. And to my surprise, given the Mennonites’ well-known opposition to war, prayers were offered for a neighbor still suffering from injuries received at war in Afghanistan.
Mennonites settled in Diamond Valley partly for worldly reasons and partly for spiritual ones. Lynford Miller, now 54, was living in Colorado when, he related, “My best friend, Gary Graber, and I jumped in a pickup truck and drove west looking at land.” In the Diamond Valley they found deep soil, relatively new to the plow, acquired by private owners only about the 1950s through the Desert Land Act. “I made a promise that if Gary moved here I would too.”
Graber, also 54, explained that he was looking for something besides farmland. Originally from a Mennonite community in South Carolina, the Graber family moved west, and ultimately to Nevada, because he felt vaguely discontent dealing mostly with other Mennonites. “As a Christian, I like to see people spread out, because they can be more useful. If you are surrounded by too many of your own kind, you don’t reach out as much. Here, our nearest neighbor is five miles away, but we know every neighbor for miles around.”
The Graber family moved to Nevada first, left after a few years, but returned because they missed Eureka’s spirit of community. Both Graber and Miller, in separate conversations, gave the example of a silent auction and benefit supper, a few days earlier, to help a local woman fighting a serious illness. The Census Bureau says fewer than 1,400 people live in and around Eureka. Yet, said Graber, “They raised $44,000 out of this little community.”
Miller pointed out, “We Mennonites didn’t make that happen; it was like that before we came. But it’s a big reason we like it here.”
Curvin Martin, 44, is pastor of the Diamond Valley Mennonite Church, but earns his living by operating “The Pony Express Deli,” in the town of Eureka. His encyclopedic recall of scripture is based on lifelong study, rather than a seminary education. The Bible’s Book of Acts, said Martin, depicts early Christians selecting their own leaders from local membership. “And we do that, pretty much throughout the conservative Mennonite Church.”
The deli’s menu, handwritten on a whiteboard on the front wall, was unique. Besides the prices of sandwiches, it bore Martin’s fees for butchering deer and elk, or converting them to sausage or jerky.
Breakfast and lunch are served six days, but supper only one night a week. Those hours were business decisions, but being closed on Sunday was a religious one. “Our commitment to keep the Sabbath restricts a Mennonite’s choices of occupations,” Martin explained. “Although mining is the principal industry around here, none of us are miners.” Eureka miners typically have to work some Sundays. Most of the Mennonite men are farmers who raise hay — the most profitable crop of several that will prosper in the short growing season — or in related professions such as hay brokerage.
Most of the Mennonite women are farm wives, and Debbie Graber, 51, Gary’s wife, has a sideline of baking pastries that she sells in a farmer’s market. Lucene Stover, 31, is single and manages the Sundowner Lodge, a motel on Eureka’s main street. Originally from Pennsylvania, she came to Eureka County five years ago to work as a teacher. She said she switched to the motel job because “I needed a change from being a full-time nanny. But now I find myself telling my sister ‘Just drop off the kids with me and go have some fun.’”
“Fun” for young Mennonite adults might mean a cookout or a camping trip with others their age. Volleyball games are regularly scheduled, both genders playing in the same game. It’s not absolutely forbidden, but unusual, for single Mennonites to date outside the faith.
Most Mennonite women won’t wear makeup, Stover said. They own as many of the pretty but modest dresses as they care to and can sew. Debbie Graber said the dresses are supposed to come below the knee, and must not expose the shoulders. They usually are equipped with a “cape,” a second layer of fabric covering the chest and upper back, suggesting an inconspicuous, miniature poncho, “for modesty’s sake.” she said.
All the women wear head coverings. Sometimes these are scarves draped over the hair, but more usual is the brimless cap made of a transparent mesh. “Most of us call these coffee strainers,” said Debbie Graber, smiling. There are thought to be more than 1.7 million Mennonites worldwide. The denomination is named for one of its early leaders, Menno Simons, who lived in the Netherlands, and it is part of the Anabaptist movement which includes Amish and Hutterites. The Anabaptist movement originated in the 16th Century and was defined by its rejection of then-typical baptism of infants. Anabaptists baptize only those who personally profess faith. Some Anabaptist denominations baptize by full immersion, but Martin said the rite varies among Mennonite groups. In the Diamond Valley church, water is poured over the convert’s head.
“One thing you will never see in a Mennonite church is an American flag or a flag of any nation,” said Martin. “We’re not anti-American, but believe in the complete separation of church and state.” How to apply this principle, however, is debated among Mennonites. Some liberal Mennonites, he said, work to get good people elected to office, but the Diamond Valley group are conservatives who believe they must not participate in politics, or even vote. They believe that rulers and elected officials, even evil ones, hold office only because they somehow serve God’s purpose.
Mennonites nevertheless pay taxes, Martin said, in accordance with Jesus teaching, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
A related and equally misunderstood aspect of Mennonite theology is non-resistance, which is often confused with pacifism. Mennonites oppose all wars, said Martin, but conservative Mennonites will not engage in anti-war or anti-nuclear protests.
Non-resistance also applies in personal relationships. “The sermon on the Mount is our Constitution. Not just the Beatitudes, but the entire sermon, all of Matthew 5, 6, and7,” Martin said. The sermon contains Jesus’ admonition “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Therefore, said Martin, “If we are mistreated, we don’t believe it is right for us as Christians to retaliate. If I’m a farmer and somebody borrows my equipment and doesn’t bring it back in good working order, I might say something to him, but I won’t go to court over it.”
If physically assaulted, said Martin, a good Mennonite might try to restrain the assailant, might try to get away, but would not strike back. A Mennonite victim might report the assault to authorities, who might take action if they saw fit, but the victim would not press charges.
Gary Graber noted Mennonites are rarely assaulted because, being teetotalers, they’re never in the barrooms where bullies tend to be encountered. But if it somehow happened anyway, “We had rather be hurt ourselves than to kill somebody. Suppose that person were not ready to die, would you want to hurry him into eternity?”
Miller said conservative Mennonites do not watch television or listen to radios, because they cannot control the images and words bursting from those media. But they embrace other technology, including the Internet, and seem well-informed about national and state events. Some have traveled internationally. Miller and his family served as missionaries in Belize. His daughter spends six months a year in Bangladesh, studying the language and teaching. Lucene Stover has taught in Africa.
But Mennonites recognize that the Gospel is also spread by the example of quiet living and charity. “Our desire is not to promote being a Mennonite, but to promote walking with God,” said Gary Graber. And perhaps that is just as well done on the section of irrigated land where the Grabers raise alfalfa, timothy and another generation of committed Christians. Driving away from Eureka, I recalled a hymn sung that morning in the Diamond Valley church. The title made its point: “Where Jesus Is, ‘Tis Heaven There.”