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Ray Miller: A Biographical Case Study

Ray Miller
Ray Miller preparing a batch of bread


by Z'anne Covell. Covell is an English Language and Literature major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. The fieldwork for this paper was completed for her class "Folklife in America."

J. Geraint Jenkins believes the folklorist’s “chief aim is to study ordinary people as they constitute the overwhelming proportion of every community.” Charged with the duty “to record details of their life, their skills, their homes, their fields, their customs, their speech, and their leisure activities,” the folklorist, as Jenkins explains, “searches for the key to the world of ordinary people” in attempt to “throw light on their astonishingly ill-documented day-to-day life.” As a biographical case study of Ray Miller, a Mennonite restaurateur in South Carolina who originally hails from an Old Order Amish community in Indiana, this paper serves as the culmination of a month and a half long investigation of this ordinary man who is currently a member of the Mennonite folk group and was previously a member of the Amish folk group. The investigation involved a visit to New Holland Mennonite Church where he worships in New Holland, South Carolina and five visits to Miller’s Bread-Basket, the restaurant he and his wife, Susie, own and operate in Blackville, South Carolina.

Visiting his church offered the opportunity to hear the Barnwell Mennonite Chorale perform and sample the dishes served at a Mennonite potluck dinner while visiting his establishment enabled both observation of and participation in his daily ritual of baking bread along with his weekly Friday morning men’s Bible study. More important, these visits, totaling over fourteen hours, allowed the time for the casual conversations and in depth interviews providing the bulk of the information for this paper, which seeks to shed light on the motivations behind Miller’s day-to-day life by revealing how commitment to faith and family and neighbors and work—all traditional Amish values he learned from his parents and taught to his eight children—is the key to his world.

Miller remembers his parents instilling in him as a young child the necessity of putting God first, recognizing the immediate family as the center of life, treating other human beings with compassion, and developing a strong work ethic. As Donald B. Kraybill explains in Old Order Amish: Their Enduring Way of Life, Amish children, despite the lack of formal religious education, learn the Ordnung – the unwritten “religious blueprint for expected behavior” that “regulates private, public, and ceremonial behavior” – by observing adults. The Ordnung, serving as “a body of ‘understandings’ that defines Amish ways,” passes on “from one generation to the next by oral tradition.”

Although Miller decided to become a Mennonite after relocating to South Carolina in 1969 and this change resulted in the abandonment of certain rules included in the Ordnung, such as the forbiddance of owning automobiles, he did not relinquish the core Amish values and even perpetuated them in his new locale by passing them to the next generation. “I consider myself Mennonite, but I have the Amish values,” Miller says. “I appreciate the Amish heritage—the traditional values I was taught. I taught them to my children, too.” Gelassenheit, a German word meaning submission, stands as the cornerstone of Amish values; according to Kraybill, the entire value structure of Amish life revolves around this concept of “self-surrender, resignation to God’s will.” As he explains, to “Amish thinking, obedience to the will of God is the cardinal religious value.” Miller, indeed, makes a conscientious effort to act according to God’s intentions for his life. On two different occasions, he related the story of an evangelist who answered, “I just obey him,” when asked about his formula for how to be a good Christian and walk by faith. Miller marveled at these words, recognizing the evangelist’s response as an astute verbalization of his own attitude. “I just obey Him. Simple. That simple. So simple. It’s not hard.”

Miller even views his departure from the Amish community as an act of God’s will. “I could be a happy Amish man, really, but I’m here [South Carolina]. God wanted me here. I have to be what I’m supposed to be here. I’m not in an Amish community; I’m in a Mennonite community.” Similarly, he sees the hand of God in determining his opening of the restaurant in 1983 since the business allows him to utilize his interpersonal skills. As he explains, “God gives everybody a different gift, and my gift is interacting with people. The restaurant business is a niche for me. It’s no wonder why God puts us where he does. He really wants us to work and function in what we like to do. I like people.”

For the Amish, work, according to Kraybill, is “not a career but a calling from God.” Miller strived to instill this same commitment to faith in God in his children. “One of my heartbeats was to see my children walk in truth, walk in faith, walk in Christianity, and I think God has blessed that desire even though they are not all Mennonites.” Even though all Miller’s children, now grown and living on their own, belong to various Christian denominations, he admits passing down the faith to the next generation did not prove easy at times. “Not always were we sure my children were all going to turn out right,” he reveals. “I had a son that gave us a hard time. He really kept us in prayer. It’s not a good feeling when you see one of your children going astray. We really had something to worry about.” As Kraybill relates, “like all human communities, gaps appear between the ideal and the real.” Growing up an Amish child, Miller also learned to set high standards of work for himself as his father trained him to farm. “I was taught to be responsible and do my job well. I was taught to do the best I could—to be conscientious, to feel good about what I did. If you do shoddy work, you’re not going to feel good about what you did.” As John A. Hostetler explains in Amish Society, “teaching the child to work and to accept responsibility is of utmost importance.” A young boy learns to feed the chickens, gather the eggs, feed the calves, and drive the horses. “When I was in second grade, I was driving four big workhorses through the field,” Miller recalls. “Now, sometimes I’m hesitant to sit my little grandchildren on my horse to ride him, and I was driving four of them in second grade.”

Just as Miller learned his father’s occupation through familial apprenticeship, his wife learned the women’s traditional duties of caring for the household from her mother. “Passing on their vocations to their children is an asset of the plain people,” Miller says. “The role of the mom, of course, would be to teach her daughters to cook well for when she has her own family, and the dad, of course, would teach his sons the farming vocation. It’s like Jesus in the carpenter shop. Joseph passed on his vocation when Jesus helped him with carpentry.”

Although, as Hostetler explains, typically young girls perform small tasks for their mothers, Miller learned how to work in the kitchen alongside his mother as well as in the fields with his father. “I was the oldest in my family so I had to take the role of mom’s helper. I remember baking my first chocolate cake from scratch before I even started school. It wasn’t a box mix, and I remember the satisfaction when that cake turned out real well.”

Despite his early experience in the kitchen, though, Miller’s wife handles almost all the cooking for the restaurant. “She always said, if we opened a restaurant, she’d have to do the cooking ‘cause I’m not that good of a cook,” Miller says. “Her mom taught her real well, though.” His wife passed her culinary skills to their daughters, too, as they grew up preparing food for the restaurant. While Miller leaves his wife in