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July 13, 2016

Hospitality and a welcome

Written by  Emily Jones

This article appears in the July/August 2016 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

Year-round, tourists stream to the shopping and entertainment options along the Lancaster County portion of the Lincoln Highway.

While diversions like Tanger Outlets, Dutch Wonderland, and the American Music Theater are all big draws, many of the Lincoln Highway attractions are based on the Lancastrian feature perhaps most alluring to tourists: its elusive Plain communities. Among Amish-themed tchotchke stores and bake shops, one modest brick building just off the main highway seeks to be a source of real answers to true curiosity.

For almost 60 years, the Mennonite Information Center (MIC) has existed to provide a core explanation of the Amish and Mennonite ways of life. The center explains the heart of the Plain mystery as few other attractions do: in terms of the Anabaptist faith. Each year, 60,000 visitors arrive to seek illumination into the Amish and Mennonite ways of life. Ten percent of those are international tourists.

“The world is here! To me, that’s exciting,” says Nancy Hess, who has worked as a part-time MIC tour guide since June 1997.

Small gestures of kindness

Nancy, who welcomes and assists the flow of tourists when she isn’t delivering 45-minute lecture tours at the Tabernacle, treats each visitor as a guest. She remembers one conversation with a young visitor who identified as Muslim. He mentioned to her that he enjoyed the song playing in the center, an instrumental version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Because of her involvement in a choral group, Nancy just happened to have a lyric sheet for the song and offered it to him. Through small gestures of kindness, staff make connections with people from all around the world. Hess describes the MIC as having a “How can we help you?” attitude towards those who walk through its doors.

In a way, the MIC can trace its roots all the way back to the city lights of Broadway, according to MIC director Jeff Landis.“Plain and Fancy,” a Stein and Glickman musical comedy in which cosmopolitan and Amish lifestyles collide in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., enjoyed a surprisingly successful 1955–56 run in New York City. Suddenly the nation was turning its collective gaze on Lancaster County’s quiet Plain communities ­— and the tourists began rolling in.

The influx of visitors changed the social and economic fabric of rural little Lancaster County, and the effects extended to a mission-minded group of Lancaster-based Anabaptists. Eastern Mennonite Missions (then Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities), already in existence for over 60 years, had recently been expanding its international focus to the unreached in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. As Landis tells the story, a traveling speaker charged the organization to view the stream of tourists as a kind of reverse mission field — one that travels straight to your own doorstep. EMM took on the challenge, and the MIC was its answer.

From 1958–1975, the MIC took up residence in a church basement and then a portion of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society building, before moving to its current location on Millstream Road.

In 1975 it also acquired one of its most popular features: the Biblical Tabernacle Reproduction, which was shipped in its life-size entirety from St. Petersburg, Florida, after falling into disuse there.

Today the MIC is legally owned by EMM, but operates independently under two full-time staff, two part-time staff, and 10–12 guides and lecturers. Besides lecture tours of the Tabernacle, the center offers two video features explaining Mennonite beliefs and Amish life respectively, a walk-through exhibit of Mennonite history and modern life, and a store stocked with relevant books and items from Ten Thousand Villages.

The MIC’s countryside tours offer perhaps the best opportunity for staff to connect with visitors. Tour guides, all of whom have Mennonite heritage themselves, tag along in visitors’ vehicles and navigate the Lancaster countryside, pointing out Amish farms, schoolhouses, and cemeteries ­— and often making a stop at the Bird-in-Hand Bake Shop. These personalized tours give tour guides the chance to form special connections with visitors.

Education as evangelism

Part of the vision for the MIC has long been education as a gateway to evangelism. “Our manner here is very important,” says Jeff, explaining that for the staff, evangelism is the “underpinning” of the center. The education-as-evangelism approach has been a mainstay of the MIC since the original imperative to start the center in the 1950s.         

“We are a place where many people are touched,” says Jeff. He keeps a folder with dozens of thank-you notes collected from visitors over the years. “People are blessed by being here,” he says. “There is a spirit of peace in this place.”

This article appears in the July/August 2016 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.