MARROWBONE — At a Thursday night service at Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood Church, members prayed for the safety of the Esh family, who planned to travel to Iowa to attend a friend’s wedding.
Ten of the 12 people riding in the van belonging to family patriarch John Esh lost their lives Friday morning en route to the wedding in a crash on Interstate 65, and members of the mostly Mennonite church have spent the hours since then putting the tragedy in perspective.
“Our faith believes very strongly that all things happen because God knows what’s best for us,” said Kai Steinmann, 25, a friend of the family and a member of the church.
The community of nearly 100 Mennonites in this western Cumberland County town is grieving the loss of one of its most well-known and respected families.
“Life will go on, but it will be difficult,” Steinmann said. “For us as a community, I think it’s going to hurt that a big piece of us is gone, but life goes on.”
John Esh and his family settled in Marrowbone about eight years ago, according to Michael Kauffman, the son of Leroy Kauffman, pastor at Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood.
Before moving to Kentucky, the family had lived in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
They built a business, Esh’s Vinyl Buildings, constructing storage buildings on site next to their home on Glasgow Road, situated across from a rolling creek at the edge of Marrowbone.
“I considered myself blessed to be their neighbor,” said James Garmon, who lived next door to the Eshes with his three children. “On cloudy days or cold days, I’d go over there and they could lift my spirits up.”
Leroy Kauffman said the family loved to sing, and recorded and released CDs as The Eshes.
The family sold the CDs of bluegrass gospel songs, with the proceeds supporting a mission in Brazil that two of John and Sadie’s surviving sons, Elmer and Abner, operate.
“Knowing the Eshes as well as we did, their desire was to glorify God in life and I believe their desire would be to glorify God in death as well,” Leroy Kauffman said.
Strength through change
Friends described the Eshes as a family with strong faith, even as the church they attended went through a transition period.
About six years ago, the church, opened as a sister church to the one the Eshes left behind in North Carolina, transitioned from New Order Amish to Mennonite, according to Michael Kauffman.
Though some members left the church because of the transition, the church picked up new families to offset the losses.
The transition was undertaken so that the church could expand its mission outreach, Michael Kauffman said, and one of the biggest changes resulting from the transition involved members driving motor vehicles for the first time.
“(John) preferred a simple lifestyle, but when he got his driver’s license, he did it with a clear conscience, believing it was the thing to do for the present time,” said Leroy Kauffman, who had known John Esh for more than 30 years.
The van in which the family members were killed was the first vehicle that John Esh had ever bought.
Marked by loss
Tragedy touched the Esh family and the surrounding Mennonite community prior to Friday.
Four years ago, another of John’s sons, 23-year-old John Jr., was killed in a snowmobile accident while on a mission trip in Ukraine.
Late last year, the family lost their home in a fire, which friends believe was started accidentally.
“Rachel had to jump out of a window onto the porch roof, and she jumped from the roof onto a trampoline,” Leroy Kauffman said.
William Carey, a friend of the family and a member of the church, said the Eshes were able to recover from the loss of their home thanks to their faith and the help of several dozen Mennonites who built a new home for the Eshes on the site of their old one in a matter of weeks.
“(John’s) wife was hurt pretty bad, and I think that was on his mind more than the fire,” said Carey, who helped remove debris from the property after the fire.
The snowmobile tragedy that claimed John Esh’s son resurfaced in a roundabout way Friday morning.
According to Leroy Kauffman, the friend whose wedding the family planned to attend was on the mission trip with John Esh Jr., distributing seeds to farmers in Ukraine.
Two children, Josiah Esh, 5, and Johnny Esh, 3, survived the crash.
Leroy Esh and his wife, Naomi, adopted Josiah and Johnny as infants from Guatemala.
Leroy Kauffman said the boys appeared to be in shock after the crash, but seemed to be holding up well physically after a brief hospital visit.
The children will go into the custody of their mother’s parents in Somerset, Pa., Kauffman said.
“They are very smart, very intelligent boys,” Kauffman said.
John and Sadie Esh were the parents of 12 children, seven of whom survive: Elmer and Abner in Brazil, twin brothers Elvin and Benuel in Milbank, S.D., Verna in Texas, Betty in Virginia and Amos, who lives in Marrowbone.
Amos and his wife had planned originally to join the rest of the family on the trip to Iowa, but decided at the last minute to visit relatives in Virginia, Leroy Kauffman said.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete, but Kauffman anticipated that a funeral service would be held at the former Carhartt building in Marrowbone, which was purchased by local Mennonites and is used for weddings and funerals.
Caskets are being made by a Mennonite church in Greensburg, Kauffman said, and several members of the Mennonite community will likely volunteer to hand-dig the graves for each of the 10 people who died in the van.
Those 10 will be laid to rest outside Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood Church near where John Esh Jr. is buried - currently the only person buried in the church cemetery.
“Death is as sure as life, we might as well accept it’s going to happen … we aren’t afraid of death,” Kauffman said. “The more I think about it, the more I think about how much I’m going to miss them.”