A View from Glen Hill: The Amish in our midst
Our March Florida winter-escape vacation seems a distant memory now. Yet a special aspect of the American experience I was reminded of there remains very much with me.
Sarasota, our destination, has become an Amish retirement and vacation site, following in this case the ways of us “Englisch,” as in the line “take care among them Englisch” in Peter Weir’s remarkable film Witness set among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa.
I grew up not far from Lancaster. Going to “Amish country” was considered a special family treat, with great Amish restaurants, horse-drawn carriages, and horse-or mule-powered farm equipment working the richly fertile land in traditions faithfully maintained from their 17th Century European roots.
Our family visits were long before the advent of reality shows about the “Amish Mafia” and wild Amish youth on their now-famous rumschpringe, “seeing the world” before choosing whether to be baptized into their faith, forswearing Englisch ways of life forever on penalty of community shunning for violation of that solemn baptismal vow.
Back then, while there were the restaurants, quilt-makers, and tourist businesses catering to Englisch customers, much of the Amish community was able to live a life mostly apart as farmers and tradesmen catering exclusively to their fellow Amish. They maintained their own schools (and still do) through the eighth grade — Amish parents went to jail in acts of civil disobedience to secure the right to end their children’s education short of high school — when their youth are expected to take up farming full-time or apprentice in a trade.
Religion-based education-law exemptions following a landmark Supreme Court decision allowed the Amish to do so and also exempted them from the Social Security system, recognizing their insistence on no insurance — with each community (the local district g’may presided over by a bishop and ministerial brethren chosen by lot and with about 200 members, with new g’may created as numbers grow) charged with caring for the needs of its own. The Amish pay taxes and certainly rely on the larger Englischer communities around them for such things as emergency services and hospitals, with the g’mays paying the medical expenses for their members who can’t afford to themselves.
As the Amish have grown in numbers, farmland in Lancaster County has grown very expensive. So the Amish have branched out across the country and have also found employment off the land in businesses owned by non-Amish, or in Amish-owned businesses famous for high quality and value that not infrequently employ Englischers alongside Amish to drive motor vehicles and to run gasoline-or electric-powered equipment forbidden to baptized Amish.
So for example, the often quite elaborate Amish-made sheds sold up Route 7 come long distances, typically from Lancaster County, hauled on trailers (made by other Amish businesses) that have unusual, very creative, loading and unloading features. In fact, ingenuity is another characteristic of the Amish in a lifestyle that brings them not only back to basics and values of mutual support but also to community life in which creativity and accomplishment in crafts as well as in farming and manufacturing are highly prized.
Down in the Pinecraft area of Sarasota, Amish travel the very flat land by bicycle, not horse-drawn buggy, and regularly interact with us Englischers. The variety of that interaction is interesting to observe, and the changes over the last half-century have been remarkable: from homes now with propane-powered refrigerators and freezers and with full indoor plumbing to, depending upon the g’may, use of cellphones, solar power, computers, and the Internet in business. Yet the Amish are still able to maintain a considerable degree of separation from the larger world, not just in attire but also in attitude.
There is both a sweetness and a rigidity to that separation. Talking in Sarasota with a few departees from their Amish roots is illuminating. Despite the clear finality of their decision, they retain a certain wistfulness for a way of life that highly values family, community, and care for one another and in which one can feel secure in separateness from the craziness of “the world.” That is what makes those “Amish Mafia” shows seem such a travesty. Whatever the reality these series seek to portray, they entirely miss the greater reality of a way of life which, while certainly not for most of us, has much to recommend it.
As immigration issues rear their ugly heads again, it is well to reflect on the nation of immigrants that we are and how the resulting diversity enriches us all.