Of all the things I talk about, none generates more enthusiasm than when I detail the Amish lifestyle. The Amish are viewed as an enigma in our culture, the ultimate Luddite rejection of technology. And yet, they are romanticized for their simple ways, the horse-drawn buggy, straw hats, and shewfly pie.
I’ve been doing business with the plain-folk of St, Mary’s County, MD for nearly 30 years. The plain people (a term they use for themselves) encompass both the Amish and the “team” Mennonites who still maintain the horse and buggy lifestyle. During this time I started driving for them, taxi service and equipment hauler. I spent nearly three years waking up at ungodly hours of the morning or responding to last minute pleas for emergency transportation before I’d had enough. The best stories I tell come from these experiences.
While I was driving, I usually kept the radio off and chatted with whoever was riding with me. Over the course of a 12+ hour road trip, you can learn a lot about someone. My favorite employer was Amos Stoltzfus (yes, nearly everyone who isn’t a Hertzler, Yoder, or Swarey is a Stoltzfus). Much of what I know about the Amish I’ve learned from him.
Amos is soft spoken, reflective, and good at seeing thru the presenting issues. That he is a bishop will not surprise anyone who knows him. Amish life is centered upon the church, and practically, the church district. There are no church buildings. Everyone builds their homes with the reality that it must also function a gathering place for the local church at least twice each year. A church district is made up of about 30 families. It is not unusual for a family to have up to a dozen children. Amos stopped counting grandchildren when they reached over 120.
The church district meets every other Sunday. (During the off weeks, the father reads the gospels to the family and the young ones get to practice sitting still.) Each district maintains a wagon that contains benches and hymnals. The service is usually 4 hours, during which time there is singing, preaching, and a chance to deal with the issues that each community faces. The Amish community is a fully functioning governing body, regulating the details of daily life, providing assistance to those in need, and “admonishing” those who stray from the narrow path.
That narrow path is defined by each community and encompasses nearly every detail of daily life. A church district is part of a larger community, and thus in St. Mary’s County, MD, there are 7. The larger community sets the guidelines for daily life. And they will vary from one community to the next, based upon the needs of the community and its relationship to the world around them.
Most people are familiar with the Amish communities in Lancaster County, PA. They are the oldest, most established communities in the United States. They are also the ones most in danger of being swallowed up by modern culture. Such a high percentage of young people leave the church to seek their fortunes in the greater world that they have spawned a new church group, the Amish-Mennonites. Of course, one of the coarser features of the Amish, and the thing that has traditionally set them apart from the Mennonites is their practice of “shunning.” If a child does not join the church, or if they join and then leave, that child/person is shunned. No contact; completely cut-off. This issue seems to be second only to the scarcity of land when it comes to the Amish leaving Lancaster, PA to establish other communities.
Not every community believes in letting their young people “sow their wild oats,” but most in Lancaster do. I’ve seen elaborate stereo systems in decked-out buggies (one wonders why the horse didn’t go off in a shear panic). I’ve eaten in restaurants late at night to see teenage Amish girls with their freshly applied makeup flirting with their non-Amish “friends.” While this is perfectly normal to our way of thinking, this is hardly the Amish way.
Amish school life is contained in a one-room building that goes to the 8th grade. At age fourteen, formal education ends. For the net two years, the child is under a “work apprenticeship,” to satisfy the compulsory education requirements of the state. At age sixteen, Amish nightlife begins – sort of. Every Sunday evening, the young people gather at a farm to sing, play volleyball, etc. It is here where the matchmaking begins. As families visit from other communities, fresh faces appear. Long road trips might get planned. Buggies coming home late at night (or wee early Monday morning) happen.
By age 20-21, weddings happen, but only after the crops are safely in the barn. An Amish wedding is a big affair – 300+ people in one house (remember, there’s lots of family to invite). Another 4 hour service, in German, a hymn sing, best men passing our candy, a volley ball game, and yes – a meal. Those benches will convert into tables, and you have never seen so much food. The bride’s family has been cooking for the last three to four days straight for this thing (by family, I mean sisters, aunts, and cousins too).
The honeymoon is a drawn out affair, with the new couple spending the next 4 months visiting all the people they invited, collecting their wedding presents – usually things needed to start housekeeping.
The Amish community reflects the attitude of little things done well. They generally have the same problems we have, for they are human as well. They recognize mental health issues and have their own facilities to deal with that (here is where their greater reliance upon the Mennonite Church helps). They operate their own insurance funds and are able negotiators when that is called for. They have an exemption from Social Security since they abhor involvement with the government. They are most noted for their contentious objector status – they will not serve in the military.
By being in such a tight-knit community, they have largely avoided the hero worship/hero thinking that permeates so much of American culture. Not only do they not watch TV (they don’t have electricity or personal telephones) they don’t read the Bible with the assumption that they too can be a David killing a Goliath. They recognize that David killed Goliath because he did small things on a daily basis that enabled him to fight Goliath when the time came. The Amish way is not just to focus on the small things, but to take pleasure in them.
I had helped one of my friends put up some corn silage one day, and we had taken a break for lunch. Sam tied the horses to a post near the corn bin. We came back out to find the horses had pulled out the sliding gate closure to the bin and let the corn out. A lot of corn out. Sam got the horses away from there and called for his wife, Sylvia. I stopped the flow of the corn as best I could, but we had a problem – buried under this three foot mound of corn was the gate closure for the bin. Sam and Sylvia then swapped with me and held the corn while I went digging for the gate. I was frustrated at the situation until I heard Sylvia laugh. And then Sam started. And pretty soon we’re all laughing. Because why wouldn’t you?