By CASEY FABRIS
Men clad in the traditional German Baptist attire encircled the edges of a 55-year-old canvas tent and readied to raise it.
The process begins with a job for the younger brethren, who scurry underneath the fabric, head for the poles at the tent’s center and begin to tug on the ropes. The pulleys squeak and the canvas begins to rise.
The tent-raising signals the start of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church annual meeting, which coincides with Pentecost.
The event, which ran from Saturday through Tuesday, draws church members from as far away as California and Washington. This year it was hosted by the Eastern Districts of the brotherhood. The location for the annual meeting rotates across the country to areas with large concentrations of brethren.
Chester and Barbara Bowman’s Franklin County farm was chosen two years ago as the location for the 2019 meeting. The land — 35 acres where the couple previously raised crops to support their dairy farm — was transformed into a pop-up village where organizers estimate around 5,000 gathered for worship and fellowship.
“It’s quite a privilege, a once in a lifetime experience for us,” Chester Bowman said of hosting the conference.
On Thursday morning, starting promptly at 7 a.m., two tents were raised. The first was the dining tent, which seats 832 people per setting. Just five hours later, the brethren planned to serve a meal there. Diners sat on benches and ate at tables built just that morning. As soon as the tent was secure, the construction crew moved in to build the furniture, sledgehammers swinging and drills buzzing.
Meanwhile, members of the tent committee moved on to raising the 39-year-old council tent, which has a capacity of 3,600.
Marlin Hege, who traveled to the conference from Pennsylvania, arrived in time to see the tents hoisted into the air.
“The glory of a young man is his strength,” Hege said, referring to Scripture. “So that’s why we let them handle this.”
No one can recall how much the tents weigh, but it’s safe to say they’re heavy.
Dwight Bowman, a member of the tent committee who is from Franklin County, said the hardest part of the process is beginning to pull the tent up off the ground. Since the canvas is first hoisted from the center, it creates a vacuum. Until air finally seeps, he said, it’s a tough pull.
Though the annual meeting didn’t officially start until Saturday, hundreds of church members were at the site Thursday morning, taking it all in.
Women pushed babies in strollers and snapped photos as the tents rose skyward. Children watched in awe, perched on piles of lumber that would soon be turned into tables and benches.
“It’s amazing to us, to stand and watch it,” said Susan Bowman, of Franklin County.
When the brethren travel to other states for the annual meeting, the tents and other structures are often complete by the time they arrive, she said.
When it’s held locally, church members can appreciate the organization and effort required to make the conference happen.
Hosting duties extend beyond the meeting site. Most out-of-towners stayed with members of the local German Baptist community.
Preparing for the arrival of thousands onto a rural piece of farmland is no small task. It takes 25 subcommittees, charged with handling everything from restrooms to drainage to dining, explained Randy Boone, a member of the public relations committee.
Despite the many tasks and many details, the process runs smoothly.
“Everybody has their job and does it,” said Barbara Bowman.
The two tents are erected in about 40 minutes, and after just a few hours many of the tables and benches in the dining tent are finished. The cook-shed is buzzing with activity.
“Have you heard the old saying about many hands make light work?” said Dan Sowers, of West Virginia.
The supplies and lumber used for the annual meeting are scheduled to be sold at a public auction on June 15.
Boone said it’s important to remember the reason for all this effort.
“The Father and the Son,” he said. “That’s who we work for.”