One of the Rarest Religious Experiences You Can Have in America is Joining the Amish. Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?

Going Plain

One of the Rarest Religious Experiences You Can Have in America is Joining the Amish. Can an Outsider Ever Truly Become Amish?

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But there was the rub: The other parents didn't want to know what their teenage kids were up to. To confront the problem would be to acknowledge it, which was anathema to Amish sensibility. Better to just chalk it up to kids being kids, and hope that it passes.

"But the consequences of that is disastrous," she notes, "It's just disastrous what happens to a lot of people. And that disillusioned us."

Meanwhile, Jan's eldest son, Paul, married a bishop's daughter from down near Holmes County. From the moment she arrived, it was clear Paul's wife was emotionally distressed, though Jan could never determine the genesis of her unhappiness. She told the family she had had a miscarriage — Jan isn't convinced she actually did — and couldn't help around the farm as a result. Instead, she stayed in bed for two months, occasionally waking Jan, whose youngest was 2 at the time, in the middle of the night to "pull pain from her arms and legs" in a Reiki-esque fashion. During this time, she asked her sister to come live with her, and the two would often faint simultaneously, basically on command; once, Jan and her husband found them both lying on the floor, so they took them to the emergency room, but the doctors said they were fine. In later years, she'd hide under the chicken coop for hours when upset, or give her children vodka to drink to keep them subdued.

But despite her eccentricities, there was a sense among the Edwards family that they had to behave in front of her, because if they did something untoward — say, converse in English as opposed to Pennsylvania Dutch at the dinner table — she might tell someone. Eventually, the strain of catering to her whims and keeping up appearances became too much, and Paul and his wife moved to a rented farm on a different plot of land. After that, Jan and her husband missed two church services (Old Order Amish hold church every other Sunday); when they didn't attend for the third one, they were excommunicated.

Overnight, what had been their communal and personal identity was swept out from under them.

That was around 26 years ago, and Jan is still struggling to adjust to life outside the Amish; her husband passed away in 2011. "I think, while I was gone, while I was out, the world changed. It's not the same world anymore. I haven't actually adapted very well. People don't cook their own food. Mothers don't raise their own babies. People don't teach their own children anything," she says, her head tilted slightly downward toward the wooden kitchen table. There are many things she misses about Amish life: the camaraderie, the stillness at night, with no passing traffic or vibrating phones or even lamps to slice through the darkness. But it's not like she spends all her time pining for the past, either; there's a lot of stuff she doesn't miss, like having to stifle the smallest expressions of her individuality, or sitting through incomprehensible church services in High German. It's not that one place or another would be better; it's that no one world is truly a home, not anymore.

"I absolutely don't fit!" she says with a laugh, and in my head, I fill in the obvious clarifier: anywhere. I start to feel sad for her, until I notice she's still smiling. "But you get over it. And maybe fitting in isn't a good goal anyway."

The Sunday in May that I spent with Alex and Rebecca isn't the culmination of years of pining for Amish-Mennonites, but still, I had, upon entering the church, a moment not unlike the one Alex described having 14 years prior: I became tense, excited and in a state of near-disbelief. Like many Americans, I carry with me preconceived notions of Amish-Mennonite people, and one of these is that Amish-Mennonites exist only when they are being gazed upon by outsiders. Of course I know intellectually that this isn't true, but some part of me has absorbed this conception of the Amish as relics, and their homelands as being, like Plymouth Village in Massachusetts or Colonial Williamsburg — or Harpers Ferry, for that matter —essentially historical reenactments, meant not for the people doing the reenacting, but for the visitors.

A room full of Amish-Mennonites in their trademark garb is enough to disabuse one of that notion. The first moment, you might think that the mannequins in a display at the American Museum of Natural History (if they had a dedicated Anabaptist Wing) have suddenly come to life; then, a child wiggles in her seat, and a person quietly clears his throat, and you realize these are flesh and blood people. Here you are! They're all around you!

Here's what I see: services are held in a large, unadorned room that must have been in its previous incarnation a cafegymnatorium. On the left side sit the men, and on the right, the women. There is a long mirror on one of the walls, which I deem noteworthy. Down the middle of the room — bisecting the genders— an aisle leads to a small stage where a man stands at a lectern addressing the group. I am too busy soaking in the visuals to really listen to what he's saying, and his voice is so quiet and measured that it doesn't disrupt my reverie. The women are all wearing long, monochromatic dresses, and the odd one dons a sweater; the palette covers the primary colors, but no garment includes more than one pigment, or has any flourishes of any kind, like a little lace on the sleeves or a Peter Pan collar. No one wears jewelry. The adults briefly glance back at me, the resident outsider, whereas the kids turn and stare at me with deep, wide eyes like tiny lakes. Every last one of them is stunningly beautiful.

"There was a church picnic yesterday," Rebecca writes (in immaculate handwriting) on her notepad, which she then passes to me. "That's why everyone is sunburnt."

When the devotional is over, the group rises and sings a hymn entitled "Our God, He Is Alive." The singing is soft and a capella, as Amish-Mennonites frown on musical instruments and solo performances, but the hymn itself has a quick tempo and a not-uncomplicated call-and-answer chorus, which the parishioners — who don't learn how to read music — handle with aplomb.

There is a God (There is a God), He is alive (He is alive)

In Him we live (In Him we live) and we survive (and we survive)

From dust our God (From dust our God) created man (created man)

He is our God (He is our God), the great I Am (the great I Am)!

***

Church service runs maybe two hours, which isn't trying for me, because I spend at least that long in synagogue every Saturday. There are devotionals, hymns, moments of silent prayer; it's Mother's Day, so there's a lot of discussion about loving our mothers, who are the foundations of the household though they might act more behind the scenes than their hirsute counterparts. I can hear the tut-tutting of my ardently secular peers in my head — the patriarchy silences the Mennonite women! — and attune my ears to anything that might offend liberal sensibilities, but not much comes up. One speaker comments that the society is crumbling, but you hear that from all camps these days; another talks about our duty to love our fellow human beings regardless of their politics, race, or religious belief, which I think we can all get behind. At one point, a group of church ministers reads a letter of recommendation they had drafted on behalf of a former member (when a member moves, they need such a letter to join a new church). They ask the congregation if everyone deems the letter acceptable. Everyone silently agrees that it is.

Once during the service, the congregation kneels down for prayer; this we do with our backs to the lectern and our elbows on the seat of our chairs, like we are children saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep" before getting into bed. I sneak a few furtive glances around the room, and then look up to Alex, who is kneeling in a back nook, where there is built-in bleacher-style seating. His eyes are closed and his hands are clasped. I wondered how natural prayer feels to him, how fervent or lyrical or intimate in tone his outpouring is, but his face betrays no fiery mental activity. He looks serene. For a person raised religious, prayer can become routine, even robotic, but for the convert it can also be understood as a skill to be honed, and your facility in it can come to measure, for yourself and those around you, your worth as a Jew or an Amish-Mennonite or a Muslim or whatever the case may be.

Watching him there in church, I think of one time, when a friend and I — both studying to convert to Judaism — were discussing an acquaintance of ours, a woman who had converted as a teenager and had at that point been living an Orthodox life in Boro Park, Brooklyn, for around 10 years. "I mean, you should see her daven," Elizabeth said, using the Yiddish word for pray. "It's incredible."

After church services, Alex and Rebecca take me to pick up my rental car, and then I follow them to their abode, which is a small house sandwiched between two other small houses, just on the other side of Berlin's main drag. Rebecca goes into the kitchen to finish preparing lunch (chicken, applesauce, coffee) while Alex and I settle in the living room to talk about adjusting to Amish-Mennonite life. Their home is so close to the road that I can hear through the open window the clip-clop of horses' hooves as buggies approach and then pass outside, which they do often. The space contains seven enormous aquariums filled with tropical fish; there are lights throughout, but none of them are turned on, and an old laptop sits closed on a table. A small bookshelf houses a handful of Christian books, as well as a few authored by Alex himself, including a coffee table photography book of Amish-Mennonite churches, as well as his taxonomy of the different styles of head coverings worn by various Plain communities. As I flip through a copy, lingering momentarily on a photo spread, he explains that he believes the cap (think bonnet) is superior to the cloth style (think scarf). "There's quite an undercurrent now for the church to be moving toward the cloth style," he says. "And given that the churches hold such a revered place in the Plain peoples' lifestyle, is the switch in covering style indicative of a shift away from the church's importance in people's lives?"

These might seem like petty details to an outsider, but for Alex, no aspect of life is too casual to be deemed irrelevant to Plainness. This is actually not unique to him ­—whereas the Amish are legitimately above all the consumerist silliness that characterizes so much of American culture, they are also in other ways more mindful of aesthetic choices than the non-Plain masses. As academic Sue Trollinger puts it in her book Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, "[The Amish] know better than most Americans that it matters how you style your hair, the sort of pants you put on each morning, what kind of vehicle you drive to work."

***

At 18, Alex enrolled at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, so as to be within driving distance of the church. He generally preferred the church to EMU, where he was getting a degree in geography; the school was too mainstream — "no distinctiveness whatsoever" — for Alex's taste. He became active in the community, attending Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services faithfully, and eventually joining the youth group and the choir. He adopted a more conservative uniform, though other than that, a lot of his behavior already conformed to church standards, because he had been working since high school to give up movies, the radio, involvement in sports and television. (The last show he watched was The Simpsons, which was tough to let go of. He looks momentarily enticed when I tell him it's still airing.)

Two years after he began attending, he formally joined. But even over the three years of membership that followed, he worried that he was doomed to always be a misfit. For one, he often felt like the social bull in the china shop of Amish-Mennonite life. He projected his voice in choir, spoke up in meetings, and deviated from the norm in ways the community didn't understand, like maintaining his interest in classical music. "Plain People have prescribed forms of deviance," he explains. "If you're going to get an instrument and be naughty, you're going to get a guitar, but the flute? It created too much question for them." Because he hadn't grown up in the culture, Alex couldn't pick up on the way the group subtly expressed their disapproval — a pregnant pause, say, or a swift glance, but never a verbal rebuke — and often felt like he was the last to know when he was doing something unacceptable. "When I did violate some sort of norm, everyone else already knew it, and I was just set back from really being accepted by these people as one of them."

Conflict also arose because, Schoenberg flute solos aside, Alex was in many ways a little more conservative than the group. While church officials were discussing abolishing certain sartorial codes — say, ditching a full button-up shirt for men in favor of shirts with one or two buttons at the collar–Alex was dressing consistently more conservatively. Sometimes, he would wear suspenders, and the other men would brusquely inform him that they dropped that requirement years ago, as if piqued they were being outdone by a new kid. He was always trying to organize evening activities for the male youth — Bible study, seminars on mission work abroad — only to find out the kids were planning to go sledding instead. After one evening when turnout was particularly disappointing, Alex was so depressed he stopped attending that church for the next three months, service-hopping from one Plain congregation to the next, hoping in vain to find somewhere that checked all his boxes. He started underperforming at his job as a transportation planner. Doubt consumed him: Do I really want to be with these people? Do these people even really want to be who they are? If the keepers of these things don't even value them, then what value do these things have?

The move to Ohio in 2009, precipitated by a scholarship to study for a Ph.D. in sociology at Ohio State University, proved re-invigorating. "It was really a chance to begin taking control again of what I want to do amongst these people. How I want to be amongst these people. Put some of what made me me back in middle school and high school to work in this setting." In Ohio, he did join a new church, but with a greater understanding of how he would have to compartmentalize in order to be both his autonomous, individual self and his devout Amish-Mennonite self. That old-self found its outlet in academia, whereas the devout self prays, works to yield to the authority of the group, and regularly gives speeches to the church youth about cherishing their heritage. It's harder for them to value Plain faith and culture, he knows, because they, like most people, find it easy to take for granted what's always been.

In a way, Alex has come to realize what the wishful Amish of the internet haven't fully grasped yet: that the Amish universe and its denizens are not perfect. They don't have a vested interest in your quality of life — spiritual, technological, or otherwise — anymore than you do in theirs. When the wishful Amish express disappointment at this — "Why don't they seek to try to save this terrible world?" as one internet commenter opines — they are ignoring the fact that the Plain-from-birth are not operating as full-time beacons of goodness, but as people whose "private convulsive selves," as William James wrote, more often than not trump ideology. They're also not spending every moment musing on the purpose of community and separatism. They're just humans: They get tired of their lives, they skirt convention, they just want to go sledding when they should be reading. It takes someone like Alex, acutely aware of the socializing forces at work on them, enamored of and devoted to the faith they all share, a part of and yet a stranger in the community, to remind them of what they have.

Suddenly, I'm thinking about something I saw in church earlier that morning: In front of me sat a girl, maybe 10 or 12, a white cap pleated neatly around her light brown bun like a cupcake wrapper. A few times, she reached her skinny arm back, drew a silver pin from deep within her tightly coiled hair, moved the pin a fraction of a millimeter, and pushed it back into place. A tiny motion, a meaningless one maybe, but I felt like I was watching a dance savant, moving without thinking about the next step, or about any of the technicality behind her piece, unaware, in many ways, that she was dancing at all. This is the kind of cultural fluency Alex always wanted, but can never have. This is the warmth of effortless identity people like Alex and me will never know. But that's okay: Though we'll stumble over the wordings of our invocations sometimes, we'll make up for it in the love we feel for our little worlds, and in the ways in which, as perennial outsiders, we can proclaim their worth with a special sort of authority.

"In the early days, I would have wanted to hide the fact that I didn't grow up this way. Now I embrace it. Now it's part of me." At this, he grins and opens his arms, palms out, as if to say, here I am.

Author's Note: "Alex" and "Rebecca" are not the real names of two people interviewed. They felt strongly that they should not be identified by name out of respect for their faith's general belief in the body above the individual.

This article was originally published by Longreads.com in partnership with Atlas Obscura. It is reprinted here with permission. Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, which was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program in 2013. She lives in London, where she is at work on a book about religious conversion.

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