Ray Miller: A Biographical Case Study | Digital Traditions

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 charge of the cooking, he does bake the homemade breads the restaurant serves.  Since his wife is not a morning person and prefers cooking to baking, he arrives at the restaurant before four in the morning everyday to begin the process.  Although his mother made homemade bread, he did not learn how until adulthood.  Yet, he still learned through customary example—the example of his sixteen year old Mennonite niece.  “Interestingly enough, my little niece taught me how to bake bread.  Her mom was always making bread.  She helped her mom bake bread so she helped me, too.”23  According to Miller, white and wheat breads are the traditional breads served in Amish and Mennonite homes, but, from these basics, he developed specialty breads, including honey oat, garlic onion, butternut, cinnamon raisin, and cheddar cheese, to serve and sell at the restaurant in addition to the standard white and wheat breads.  His methods also varied slightly from the traditional in home process.  “I knead the bread electronically, but my mom and grandmom, the people that didn’t have mixers, did this by hand,” Miller explains.  “They kneaded all the flour in there by hand.  They’d start mixing it with a spoon until it got too thick.  Then, when it got thick, they’d get in there with their hands.”  After learning to bake bread through his niece’s instruction, he perpetuated the tradition by teaching his children who worked in the restaurant, and now his young grandchildren watch him bake bread.  His daughter, Sandra, took a special interest in helping him bake the bread for the restaurant and made her individual mark by differentiating from her father’s recipe.  “I called her bread ‘Sandra bread.’  Her thing was to make the bread light.  She didn’t put as much flour in so it wouldn’t have as much body to it, and it would rise real good to make light bread.  It was real critical you had bake it the right time ‘cause, if you didn’t, her bread would flop.”24  Miller also passes down the art of bread baking to future generations by hosting training sessions for local schoolchildren.  While sharing with them the coinage his niece taught him—“let the dough rise until it doubles in size”—and assuring them baking bread is simple once they understand this principle, he also instructs them on cleanliness.  “They each get their own little pan, and we flip them over to put their names on the bottom.  I tell the children:  ‘Go wash your hands; you’re all going to do a loaf of bread.  I say, if you have soapy hands and you don’t rinse them, you’ll have soapy bread.  Then, I say, if you have dirty hands and you don’t wash them, you’ll have dirty bread.  So you got to be clean.’”25

Treasuring the way work revolves around the homestead in Amish communities and allows parents and children to labor together, Miller relocated to South Carolina because, in his hometown, this traditional familial arrangement actually would not have been possible.  Although, as Kraybill explains, farming stood as the traditional center of the Amish economy, land became incredibly scare and expensive as their population increased and outside urbanization encroached upon prime farmland.26  This situation proved an obstacle for Miller and some of his friends and family members since they could not farm even though their fathers prepared them for this occupation.  “The traditional eighty acre farm was somewhat of a dream because you just could not raise and feed you family off the wages you would make farming with the prices of land so high,” Miller explains.  “There was no way to pay off the land just from farming.  I saw a lot of my friends buy farms, but they had to go work some factory job to make their payments.  I saw my buddies work in the factories ten hours a day, and then go home and end up working all their Saturdays and any evenings off trying to keep the farm going.”27  Miller realized he did not want to be one of these men.  “It defeated the purpose.  These men couldn’t work with their families.  The children were growing up without a dad.”28  Miller wanted to develop the same strong sense of family identity he cherished as a child for his own offspring.  “I was proud of being a Miller.  We were a family, and I felt good being a part of that family.”29 

After two families from his weekly Bible study relocated to Blackville, Miller, his wife, who was pregnant, and their two children, along with two other families from their community, decided to make the move, too, in hope of purchasing farms since land cost less in South Carolina.  They became the sixth, seventh, and eighth families of the Mennonite community in Blackville.  Miller originally intended to farm in his new environment, but, again, obstacles prevented him from becoming an agriculturalist.  “We moved down here so we could be farmers and raise our families in a country setting, but the farmer down here did not have an eighty acre farm or even a hundred acre farm but a five hundred acre farm,” Miller explains.30  Even though land prices were less, Miller lacked the equity to buy his own property so he worked as a herdsman on a dairy.  He enjoyed the employment since it allowed him to utilize the skills he acquired growing up on a farm, yet the pay did not meet the needs of his growing family.  “I fit in real good working of the dairy.  It was my cup of tea, but the wages were minimum wages.  There was really no way of getting ahead.  I was barely making enough money to put food on the table.”31  Also, the job did not give him the chance to work with his family as he intended.  He decided, therefore, to purchase equipment for a paint and body shop from his fellow church members and opened Miller’s Paint and Body Shop in his backyard in Blackville.  Lacking experience in this business, he learned this trade through the customary example of the previous owners, and, although he might not have passed down the traditional occupational skills his father taught him to his sons, he perpetuated the techniques of the paint and body business through them since they helped run the shop during their youth.  His oldest son, Wade, even owns and operates Miller’s Paint and Body shop in Williston, South Carolina.  Later, Miller opened the restaurant, which also offered the opportunity for both he and his wife to work alongside their children.      

Although both Miller’s businesses enabled an adaptation of the familial labor arrangement he and his wife experienced in their Amish community and sought to maintain in their new environment, the demands of two successful operations and the strains of providing for his large family still prevented the quality lifestyle he desired.  As he admits, he ended up juggling two jobs just like the men he knew in Indiana who worked at the factory and on the farm.  “I saw myself being so overly concerned about being the breadwinner of the home.  I had to make sure the children were fed, and I had to make sure the kids had diapers and shoes and clothes.  Eight children, you know, that’s a lot of shoes in a year’s time.  We didn’t have to have the best, but we did have to be neat and not be sloppy,” Miller says.  “So I worked, worked, worked.  I had this backyard business and the restaurant.  We were married to both, and we couldn’t even sit down at the table without the phone ringing.”32  Miller regrets the precious time work stole from familial interactions.  “In some sense, I felt that I neglected my family.  I didn’t do things with my family like I should have when the children were growing up.”33  Although he could not make up for lost time with his grown children, he did make an effort to spend time with other youths from his church after God gave him the inspiration to create the Nature Scouts, a weekly fellowship meeting for boys from his congregation.  “I saw young men in my church making the same mistakes.  They were so worried about paying the bills and work, work, work so I took their boys over to my little piece of property to show them somebody cared enough to take the afternoon off and go to the woods with them,” Miller explains.34  Although Miller found this outreach satisfying, he later criticized himself for not incorporating a Bible study into these outings.  “One morning, while I was baking bread, I looked back on my life and beat myself up.  I thought, you know, I could’ve taught them boys a little better.  I could have learned them some Bible lessons.  We could’ve done more than just cut trails and drink a soda and eat a hotdog.”35  After his self-criticism, though, he realized the members of the Nature Scouts turned out well.  “Every one of those boys made something of themselves.  They’re not druggies; they’re not out on the streets.  God moves in many ways,” Miller marvels.  “I think there’s a real need for mentoring children that don’t have a father image in their home.”36 

Miller’s creation of the Nature Scouts serves as an example of the Amish and Mennonite value of mutual aid.  As Calvin Redekop relates in Mennonite Society, the plain people’s “systems of supporting and assisting one another have not so much been created as they have slowly and informally evolved,” and mutual aid, as an “in-group approach to need,” deals with showing “concern for both one’s brother and one’s neighbor.”37  Miller remembers learning the importance of this concept as a young boy witnessing and participating in the barn raisings in his Amish community.  “One of the highlights of my childhood years was the barn raising where everybody gets together when the neighbor down the road is having a barn built, and we all pitch in and do it for nothing.  It’s a neighborly effort to help raise another man’s barn,” Miller recalls.  “We’d raise a barn in a day’s time because of good work coordination.”38  Miller’s fellow members of his Mennonite community  helped him in a similar fashion when preparing to open his restaurant.  “Our church people helped us in a big way here.  They came in and helped us renovate,” Miller says.  “When you turn a building into a restaurant, there’s a lot of work to do, and they helped us save costs.”39  Miller instilled his belief in offering assistance to those in need to his children by setting an example for them through his own gestures of kindness.  As he reveals, though, they initially did not approve of his actions.  “I remember how they’d frown when I brought tramps home—picked them up off the street and brought them home.  I just remember how they would complain.  I remember them saying, ‘Dad, why did you bring them home?  They don’t smell good.  They don’t look good.’ My children fussed at me for bringing home these people that had needs, but, you know, that’s part of being a caring person and showing God’s love,” Miller relates.  After a phone call from his daughter, Gloria, though, he realized they eventually appreciated the merit of his outreach.  “Gloria said, ‘Dad, I remember how you were a friend to the down-and-outer.’  She admired that in me, and I guess that’s something of me that passed on to them that I didn’t realize.”40

 While Miller, like most Amish and Mennonite parents, made a conscientious effort to ensure his children inherited the plain people’s commitment to faith and family and neighbors and work, he simply does not content himself with knowing he has succeeded in passing down his values to his children.  He also seeks to share these values with all the customers he encounters at Miller’s Bread-Basket.  “There’s a real longing in society, in American people for the plain people’s family values because there are so many broken homes and so many hurting people out there that don’t have that family setting,” Miller says.  “I don’t think we should push our Christianity, our religion, our Mennonitism on anybody, but we should be examples.  My goal is that God use me as a person to be an example to others.”41  In Mennonite Entrepreneurs, Calvin Redekop, Stephen, C. Ainlay, and Robert Siemens argue Mennonites’ involvement in business ventures creates a gap between faith and economic affairs, and they assert “the result of this split has been to make faith irrelevant and barren and economic life sterile and without higher purpose.”42  While these authors claim Mennonite businessmen’s lives become “compartmentalized” so they “embrace this split” between their religious and economic lives, Miller proves their assertions wrong because his faith determines how he runs his business on a daily basis.43  “In most Mennonite communities, there is a restaurant because you can work with your family members and you can provide jobs for others in your community.  Also, we don’t feel like we need to cross the lines of our religious values and convictions,” Miller says.  “We don’t feel like we need to sell alcohol or cigarettes.  We can be open the hours we want to be open.”44  Owning the restaurant gives Miller the authority to choose not to work on Saturday nights and Sundays.  His decision not to serve dinner on Saturday stems from his father’s warning against working the evening before the Sabbath since this exertion would leave one poorly prepared for worship the next morning.  He also hosts weekly Bible studies and monthly prayer breakfasts at his establishment.  Knowing the restaurant would provide an opportunity for outreach also influenced his decision to open the restaurant.  “As a Christian person, I saw the opportunity perhaps to make a little difference in people’s lives.  I have the opportunity to be a Christian witness here.”45  He even took the name of his establishment from his favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread.”  “I had the name from day one.  One time we did a little coinage on pins that said, ‘Give us this day our daily bread at Miller’s Bread-Basket,’” he recalls.46  He also references the New Testament story of Christ’s miraculous feeding of the crowd numbering five thousand with only five loaves of bread and two fish.  “You know, they weren’t pound and a half loaves, either.  They were probably just enough for a little boy’s lunch, and they, along with two fish, fed five thousand.  Truly a miracle.”47  Redekop, Ainlay, and Siemens argue a decision confronts all Mennonite entrepreneurs:  “Do they try to serve both God and mammon effectively, or do they abandon their traditional values and beliefs to participate in and give allegiance to the liberal market economy?”48  Miller, though, chooses neither option the authors offer.  He definitely does not abandon his traditional values and beliefs, and he does not serve both God and mammon.  “We need to have God first place in our lives.  What we have—material wealth—can flee in an instant,” Miller says.  “You can have one hospital bill, and it’ll all be gone.”49   His concern for demonstrating his faith far outweighs his concern for profit.   “I would like people to leave here [Miller’s Bread-Basket] knowing this is a Christian business and that they were not overcharged,” he says.  “In fact, that’s been a detriment to my business a little bit.  I would sooner have them leave here knowing they got a deal than make a penny.  I don’t see how else to be a Christian business than to give customers fair service and a fair price.”50 

Miller’s evangelism efforts differentiate him from many other Mennonites.  As Redekop explains, in many Mennonite communities, there is “a lack of concern for evangelism” since the “reproductive process has assured the continuance” of their congregations.51  Certain groups even see “the evangelizing of their own offspring” as enough outreach.52  “The plain people’s main emphasis is on their own immediate families,” Miller explains.  “Well, that’s my concern, too.  My own immediate family is my first responsibility, but, as a Christian person, I read the Bible that says go out into all the world teaching and baptizing and making disciples.  That means everybody and everywhere.”53  Miller understands the rationale behind the usual insularity but warns against clannishness.  “We are to be plain people, peculiar people, separate people—kind of like the Jews.  They were separate people, but they thought they were it.  They became clannish.  They were God’s chosen people, and, if you were a gentile, you were scum.  I don’t feel that way about anybody.  I think God values every soul—he created us all.”54  Although Amish and Mennonite communities’ “emphasis on nonconformity to the world and separation from it” has often caused the members to “act as though there was only the inner world” of the Amish and Mennonites, Miller steps beyond these boundaries as evidenced by his recent decision to attend a Clemson football game.55  “I always thought I wouldn’t go to a Clemson game ‘cause it’s all Budweiser drinking.  Well, I went, and I enjoyed it.  I saw some Budweiser, some misuse of it, but I also saw a value in going with my sons and son-in-law and my grandsons and having a good time.  We tailgated.  Hah!  I never thought I’d do that, but we didn’t have any Budweiser, you know.  We just had a good time together, and I got a chance to see some more people.”56 

Despite his willingness to venture into the outside world, Miller knows the typical mentality of insular Amish and Mennonites.  He describes their attitude:  “We got our own little circle, and, because you are not in our little church circle, we kind of wonder.  We’re a little hesitant to accept you into our circle because you might bring some unorthodox beliefs along with you.”57  Miller, in the interest of both his business and his desire to win converts for Christ, does not share these fears he details.  “I got to be different.  Most of my clientele does not come from my Amish and Mennonite people.  To be a successful business man, you have to take an interest in your clientele,” Miller relates.58  Yet, his interest in others primarily stems from his desire to minister.  He finds his greatest satisfaction in sharing his faith.  “It’s wonderful just knowing you might have made a little difference in somebody’s life—that God used you.  He used me not because I’m such a great person but because there is a person that had a need.”59 

Although Miller appreciates the opportunity to witness in his dealings with his customers, he still desires an even bigger mission field.  After leading a Bible study on Noah twenty-five years ago, he began developing the Noah Project in an effort to bring hope to the troubled world he sees around him similarly to the way God provided hope for humanity in saving Noah despite the wickedness of others and promising to never flood the earth again.  “The flood was an act of judgment upon the earth, but it was also an act of love,” Miller explains.  “God could have said the human race was so bad he was going to wipe them out, but, through his love for the human race and his creation, he saved Noah.”60  Miller believes, by purchasing a sizeable patch of property and constructing a three-story high replica of the ark, totaling 28,400 square feet, on the land where live animals will reside and replay the boarding of the ark daily for visitors, the Blackville community can learn the lesson and help impart the lesson of this Biblical story to others.  “The Noah Project would offer a Christian message to a dying world where there’s all this ugly.  It’s a reminder for people that are in immorality that there’s a judgment coming, and I think God can use this to bring people back into right relationships with their God.  If people have sin in their lives, you’re supposed to remind them of the sin because they need to do something about it because there is another day of reckoning.”61  He also envisions this site serving as a destination for families looking to spend quality time together.  Realizing both the importance and difficulty of finding the time for special family activities, Miller wants to offer this opportunity for others by creating an environment where parents and children can relax and enjoy each other’s company.  Although this ambitious and costly dream is still far from becoming a reality, Miller remains optimistic.  “The Noah project almost consumes me.  There’ve been times when I’ve said, ‘God, this is way too big.  It’s not happening.  How can I back out of it?’  But I don’t have peace.  I must go through with this.  When God puts an idea in your head and your heart, you have to follow through.”62  Finding peace for himself, though, concerns Miller less than finding peace for his fellow men in his community.  “This can help people know Jesus and be at peace.  Jesus gave us peace.  We don’t feel condemnation.  We don’t feel guilt.  We have peace in our hearts, and it’s a terrible thing if you don’t have that peace.”63  Embodying Miller’s deep concerns for faith, family preservation, and neighborly outreach, this project, if eventually realized, could stand as an enduring testament to his values while ensuring the perpetuation of these plain people values in the future generations of visitors to the ark he imagines.