It was nice to go on a road trip again. We packed up our station wagon recently and hit the road, visiting friends and family in Upstate New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Toward the end of the week, we decided to spend a few days in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, home of one of the largest Amish populations in the United States. We had visited the Amish once before, about twenty years ago, but our kids were small and so that was more of a stopover between amusement parks in Pennsylvania. I recall thinking at the time that I’d like to return someday, to experience more of the solitude and simplicity I encountered during that trip. Back then, I was struck by how much the Amish lifestyle was about separation from “the English” (i.e., how they refer to the non-Amish). This was a group so dedicated to their values and ideals that they shunned all aspects of our modern life, choosing to exist in a manner distinctly estranged from it. This choice seemed strange but also alluring to me. I respected their resolve.
During the current trip, we had more time to observe the Amish. More importantly, we interacted with them, had a chance to ask them questions about their lives, and saw them much less as separated from the English, but rather as carrying on amidst all of us – distinct but not completely apart. We talked to Abner the buggy driver, Elmer the furniture maker, and Mr. Lapp who created basic but absorbing toys for children. We learned a lot from them.
The Amish choose simple lives, based more on needs than wants. They consider many of the facets of existence we all take for granted as distractions or even as temptations away from a life centered around faith, family, and service. Twenty years ago, I thought of the Amish as naïve to the modern world. This time, I saw them as making an active choice to live differently from it.
They strongly prefer not to be photographed, so my own images are of the Amish from behind, which is more acceptable to them. They choose plain clothing, to work hard, and to always help each other whenever needed. They don’t shy away from their beliefs, citing scripture and demonstrating their faith abundantly. I had previously thought that they are completely unable to use modern conveniences, such as electricity, but learned during the recent visit that they may use electricity to run their businesses. For example, Elmer uses an electric powered table saw to create his tables and bookshelves – which are incredible works of art – but he does not use electricity to light his home. Propane lamps are suitable for that task. It’s all about necessity.
I also learned about a tragic shooting that took place in their community in October of 2006. For reasons still unclear, a man entered an Amish community’s small one room schoolhouse and then committed an unthinkable act. Six died that day, including the shooter. Five others were seriously injured. Just a few hours after the shooting, the grandfather of one of the lost Amish children stated: “We must not think evil of this man.” Members of the Amish community reached out to the shooter’s family immediately to console and to forgive. The man’s widow wrote an open letter to the Amish community, stating: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
This is putting faith into action. And it doesn’t require a separation from our world; rather, it requires remaining within it, being part of it and not being afraid to also be different from it. This is what Christians are called to do. Mother Teresa often commented on the many individuals she encountered who came to Calcutta seeking a more direct and obvious way of living out their faith. She often instructed them to go back to their homes and to express their faith there. She noted: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
How can we be distinct, different, and fully committed to our faith… while also living within a broader world that may not share our values or beliefs? Perhaps the Amish can teach us that it’s possible.