Mennonite convert resists the trappings of modernity


April 13, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

HAGERSTOWN -- Doug Beckley sets a feed bucket upside down in a corner of the stall, and then places a 3-inch handful of hay atop the bucket.

"That should be just about the right amount of upholstery," he says, nodding his approval of this makeshift seat for his visitor.

Mr. Beckley grabs a milking stool for himself. He plops it next to Jane, a Holstein-Jersey mix, leans forward and starts milking the cow by hand.

"If you're around me long enough," Mr. Beckley says between jerks, "you'll realize I'm not traveling the same tracks as everybody else."

Actually, the train left Mr. Beckley at the station. A 36-year-old Mennonite farmer living just south of Hagerstown, he wishes the juggernaut of modern life could brake, back up and head for the station of an earlier era.

In a crackly, sing-song voice, his words carefully measured, this tall, thin man in the round, plain hat explains:

"I had the great fortune of being the oldest Beckley grandchild. It meant I had more years to spend with my great-grandparents and grandparents.

"I had the opportunity to work with them and live in their homes and get to know them. They talked quite often about how friends and neighbors got together and helped one another. There seemed to be more of a common conscience long ago, a common conscience aimed toward the community."

His family was not Mennonite, but he met Mennonite farmers through his part-time job with Four States Livestock Sales, which operates livestock auctions in Westminster, Frederick and Hagerstown. Mr. Beckley oversees the stockyard at the Tuesday night sale in Westminster and the Wednesday night sale in Hagerstown.

He began visiting Mennonite farms and then their churches. Two years ago he was accepted into the Meadow View Mennonite Church, which sits on land next to the Beckley farm.

Mr. Beckley says he is one of only two people in his 64-member congregation who weren't born into the church.

"A lot of their ways and value systems fit in with what I was taught and believe," he says. "The thing is, the Mennonite value system stayed the same all these years. It's the world's value system that changed.

"The Mennonites try to uphold a high value system as far as moral decency and purity are concerned. We try to stay away from the excessive modern comforts. Our goal is to maintain our plain and simple lifestyle."

He farms with tractors and electricity, but the buildings and equipment on the 52-acre farm of goats, crops and cows are modest.

He shares the old farmhouse with his parents and his mother's mother. His father's mother lives in a trailer next to the house.

Mr. Beckley has farmed all his life and never wanted to do anything else. He recalls the day he graduated from South Hagerstown High School:

"After we graduated in the morning, a lot of the students went to parties or whatever. I went home and made hay. I was satisfied to do that.

"At the time I didn't think I was missing anything. Now I know I wasn't missing anything. That's the thing about age: Often your physical eyesight gets a little dimmer, but your mental eyesight gets a little clearer."

Life then and now, Mr. Beckley says, is too hectic and fast-paced. People are so wrapped up in themselves they have no time for others. "Me first" describes it quite well, he says.

So he has wrapped himself in the old life. He helps his neighbors, makes time to visit and takes special pleasure from collecting antiques, especially functional antiques he can admire and use, such as old pitchforks and hog-butchering equipment.

"He's always been the one to respect the old way of doing things," says Jim Starliper, who owns Four States Livestock Sales, where Mr. Beckley has worked since he was 16. "He's the one willing to give a helping hand and expect nothing in return.

"He's an oddball, I guess you'd call him, in a positive sort of way."

Mr. Beckley is well-grounded in this modern, mixed-up world. He's not perfect, he points out. Nor is he smug in his belief in God and the simple life.

"I just want to aim to do all I can that's right," he says. "When I'm laying in my casket I don't want to have to twitch knowing I've not done the right thing."

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