September 2007 Issue
In this excerpt from his new book, the author describes his relationship with a family of Swartzentruber Amish, the most conservative of Amish sects.
I live in the midst of the largest Amish settlement in the world. Approximately 40,000 Amish live in the Holmes County/Wayne County vicinity, which also includes surrounding counties, the nearest being Ashland. When people hear that I live among the Amish of Ashland County, they get excited over having heard the word Amish. Usually the next thing they'll tell me is that they know somebody who knew some Amish guys who used electric chainsaws and drank beer at lunch, implying that the whole way of life is some kind of sham or at least a hotbed of hypocrisy.
But people truly in the know might ask if the Amish being generalized about are Beachy Amish, Swiss Amish, Nebraska Amish, Weaver Amish, New Order, Old Order, or Swartzentruber. Even within subgroups, different church districts often have different interpretations of the social template called the Ordnung, the rules of the church.
To be a Swartzentruber Amish means having black buggies with one or two kerosene lanterns and no windshield, no homes with central heating — gas or electric — and no couches or stuffed chairs. To be a Swartzentruber Amish is to have no indoor plumbing, no refrigerators or freezers, no continuous hot water, no tractors in the field or at the barn, no blinds on the windows, no wild rumspringa (the "running-around time" when Amish 16-year-old boys and girls are permitted, even encouraged, to enter the modern world until they decide to join or leave the church).
You will not see the Swartzentruber Amish of Ashland County on camera, unless it is against their will; nor will they pose for a picture or talk to a film crew about their ways.
Reprinted from Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish
by Joe Mackall
By Permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org
Samuel Shetler and I first became friends without meaning to. I watched as Samuel, his wife, Mary, and their children moved into a nearby English house. As the Shetler family moved in, the accoutrements of being English moved out. I came home one day to find a toilet near the street and an outhouse being built. Electrical wires were cut and removed, pastel-colored wallpaper peeled off walls, linoleum stripped and discarded, carpet ripped off the floors.
Every day that I passed the Shetler house, I would slow down, inspect how the de-Englishing of the house was progressing, and wave to Samuel, who never seemed to sit down. And Samuel's waves were not merely civil. They were downright exuberant, his arm bursting up into the air as if trying to capture a wayward balloon.
Not long after I began waving, I approached Samuel about boarding our daughter's quarter horse in his barn. Samuel needed a day or two to think about it. When I stopped by a couple of days later, he said it was okay with him if the contract he wrote up was okay with me. The only stipulation in the contract drawn up on a steno pad was a promise from me that I would not sue him if something happened to us while on the horse and that we'd be liable for any damage the horse caused to people or property. Later Samuel admitted that he only had us sign the contract because he had heard that the English sue each other over anything. His Amish do not sue.
About six months after we'd met, Samuel learned of the death of his beloved mother. For people without telephones or computers, the Swartzentruber Amish I know have an amazingly fast and efficient way of communicating. Although letters written back and forth and items in The Budget -- a newspaper published in Sugarcreek, Ohio, that offers everything from news, front-porch-style talk from relatives in other states, classifieds, word of births and deaths -- are the main ways of keeping in touch, word of emergencies seems to travel by some unseen, mysterious familial and figurative fiber optics unique to the Amish.
The week Samuel learned of his mother's death at her home in Canada was the same week Mary was due to give birth to the couple's fifth child. Samuel had a choice to make. He could stay home to be with his wife for the delivery or he could travel to Canada to be with his father and other family members as they buried his mother. Samuel would be permitted to take the Greyhound bus to Canada, which generally took one day up and one day back, meaning that he'd probably miss the delivery. He didn't know what to do.
Although I didn't want to offend Samuel or be presumptuous because we had known each other such a short time, I volunteered to drive him to Ontario for the funeral and then back to Ohio. Samuel seemed interested in my offer and went to see his bishop, whose word on whether an English man could drive him up north would be final. By the time Samuel's bishop told him "go bury your mother," the funeral was only a day away. I figured if we drove through the night, we could make the funeral the next day and then drive home the same night.
Samuel, his 4-year-old daughter, Rebekah, and I left at about eight that night. The whole way up and back, Rebekah slept, and when she wasn't sleeping, she sat soundlessly in the backseat, heard only occasionally when answering her dad's Pennsylvania Dutch queries about her well-being and comfort. Samuel wanted Rebekah to come along because he wanted her to have some memory of her grandmother.
The hours passed quickly as we got to know each other.
Although I do not remember much specific dialogue from that drive, I do recall clearly one of Samuel's statements regarding his mother.
"At least she's not part of this sinful world anymore."
When we arrived early that March morning in front of Samuel's boyhood home, we parked beneath rural Canada's clear and star-heavy sky. I asked Samuel if he wanted me to come in or stay in the car. Without answering right away, he got out of the car and removed Rebekah from the backseat. Holding the half-asleep child in his arms, he looked at me and said, "I don't care what you do." He did not say this dismissively. He was exhausted and grieved, and he seemed to suggest that whether I came along or stayed behind, he'd be able to do what he needed to do.
I stayed in the car.
Later I spent the coldest hours of my life in the upstairs room of Samuel's brother's house, roiling around on the seat-cushion-thin mattress, praying that the heat from the woodstove down below would eventually make its way up to me.
The next morning, and still several hours before I would sit down for a meal with the hundreds of mourners, Samuel told me that his uncle wanted me to ride along with him in his buggy for the funeral procession. The graveyard was on the land of a local farmer, just four miles away. The northwesterly wind tore through Ontario that day. Everybody huddled under blankets and pulled coat collars up over their heads.
When we arrived at the farm that morning -- a four-mile ride that took nearly an hour -- the 50 or so buggies in the procession found a place to park along the road or on the frozen grass of the graveyard. Prayers were said over the gravesite as four young men lowered the coffin into the ground using ropes. As prayers and hymns were read in High German by the bishop in attendance, the four young men began refilling the grave.
From the morning of that funeral until today, my family and I have immersed ourselves in the lives of the Shetler family in the manner of few outsiders.
My own feelings about the Swartz-entruber Amish are conflicted. I love and admire their connection to the land and devotion to family. I love the glow of the kerosene lamps at dusk and the sound of the buggies in the distance. I love their ability to say no to the latest technology. I wish my son and daughters had grown up knowing the small, manmade lake we live on as fully as the Amish I know are attuned to the soil, air, and rain.
I also love the way the parents work on the farm and are almost always home, which is not something one can say about more liberal Amish orders who have chosen or been forced by economic realities to work in the English world rather than on the family farm. Hardly a day goes by when there's not a family breakfast, lunch, and dinner with all gathered around the table, the meal preceded by heads bowed in silence in what they call a "quiet grace."
At the same time, I sometimes fear for the future of the children.
As the father of two daughters, I worry most about the lives of the Amish girls. A girl who has just finished her last year of school at 14 will help her mother with her chores and her father with his until she gets married at 21 and has her own chores to do, her own eight or 10 or 12 children to raise. There will be no high school, no movies with her friends, no hanging out at the mall, no proms, no college, no career. But then I'll have moments when I wonder what's so great about hanging out at the mall as Madison Avenue turns our children into the next generation of our gluttonous consumer culture. And then I worry that perhaps one of these young girls would like to become an architect or a math professor or a doctor or lawyer and dress fashionably and look sexy, because as a human being she has every right to do just that, but that all this will be impossible if she stays a member of the Swartzentruber Amish.
And yet ...
As most of the world appears to be lost in poverty, genocide, war, and terror, I find it impossible not to be attracted to the Amish insistence on family and community, pacifism and peace.
More than anything, it is my relationship with one family that has helped me understand what it means to be a Swartzentruber Amish. The Shetlers and their children have welcomed me and my family into their world.
Members of the Shetler family have become our friends, not just "our Amish friends." They have reinforced what I hope I'll never forget, which is that to have any real chance of knowing anything about people different from yourself, you must get to know the individuals of that social group, or race, or nationality. Nothing less will do. In our case it is this family. We have cried with them, laughed with them, worried with them and for them, shaken our heads in dismay at their behavior, and shaken our heads just as hard at our own.
I have gained access to this family because the Shetler family and mine have gone through much together. We were there when several of their children were born, and we were with them when their oldest child died. She was nine. We have eaten dinner at their house, and sought refuge with them when an ice storm cut off our electricity for three days.
I've listened to Ashland County rednecks disparage the Amish, and I've talked with senior citizens who were selling Amish calendars filled with pictures of an idealized Amish life. And all the time I would have to ask myself, "Who are the people in the calendar? What does the guy behind the plow horses worry about in the middle of the night? And who is he anyway? What does the woman pictured removing a shirt from the clothesline do with the rest of her day? Who is she? What is her name? Is she happy?" I have tried to write not about all Amish people, but about a few real, honest-to-God human beings, as separate and unique as the rest of us like to believe ourselves to be.
Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets (Beacon Press, Boston, June 2007), is a professor of English and journalism at Ashland University, and has written for NPR's "Morning Edition," The Washington Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Mackall changed the name of the Swartzentruber Amish family "because the Shetlers have been kind, generous, and fearless enough to permit me access to their lives," Mackall says in the book's author's note.