The Amish – a profile of courage and commitment
A Matter of Grace
The West Nickel Mine Amish School in rural Pennsylvania had been in session for approximately two hours October 2, 2006, when a man burst through the door, mumbling something the teacher didn’t understand. He went back to his truck and returned with a 9mm handgun.
Thirty-two year old Charles Carl Roberts, a milk tanker truck driver who serviced many Amish farms in the area, forced several boys to carry more items into the schoolhouse from his truck; these included plastic ties, construction materials to barricade the main door, and a shotgun and 30-06 rifle. He bound 10 of the schoolgirls and positioned them before the chalkboard. Two of the girls selflessly offered themselves up to be shot if the others could leave.
Roberts ignored their brave pleas and ordered the boys to leave. As law enforcement closed in, he emptied 13 rounds into the schoolgirls. Five would live, and five would die. After the massacre, he promptly committed suicide using the same gun. With the worst aspects of humanity now silenced, a flood of grace from the Amish parents of the murdered girls would wash over the community in an unparalleled act of forgiveness.
Before all the children were accounted for, an Amish elder admonished the students gathered outside the school, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another parent was heard telling his remaining children, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” It would be the Amish community who personally and demonstrably forgave the killer and his parents. One of the fathers who lost a daughter embraced the shooter’s father, consoling him for nearly an hour.
The Amish community began a fundraiser to help the parents with the turmoil and despair of losing their son in such a horrid manner. Likewise, on the day of the shooter’s funeral, a large group of Amish, including the victims’ parents, created a silent semi-circle around those gathered at Charles Robert’s gravesite, offering a degree of love and grace, seldom witnessed in today’s hostile and vengeful world.
The West Nickel Mine School was demolished within a week of the shootings, and all that remains of the massacre site is a verdant pasture. A new school, appropriately called New Hope School, was built and opened just six months later.
How the Amish church works
Church, in the Amish sense of the word, is less a particular building than it is a community governed by traditions and ordnungen, a set of rules that govern the community. Each Amish community is autonomous regarding the operation of their “church,” so one can expect some degree of variance in their rules.
For example, some communities permit rubber tires on farm implements, while others maintain that wheels must be metal. Some ordnungen allow Sunday School classes on the odd weekends. The rules are very individualized in each Amish community. You may see some Amish with buttons on their clothes, while other communities permit only pins for closures.
Mass is held every other Sunday, rotating among the members’ homes or barns. Rules even govern the accepted order of entry into the church:
1. The minister(s) enter.
2. Then, the older men and women, followed by the girls
3. Finally, the boys enter.
While Amish generally speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and English with the outside world, High German is reserved only for mass.
One fascinating ordnung is how the ministers are selected. Traditionally, any man in the Amish community may be chosen to be a minister by a method called “lots.” A row of books is arranged on a table; a single piece of paper is secreted in one of the books, and he who picks this particular book will act as a minister for life. And no training is required.
As mentioned in the previous article, Amish do not perform infant baptisms, believing that this ceremony should be considered only for those old enough to make a lifetime commitment to the church.
Rumspringa is a quaint German word meaning “running or jumping around,” among other similar definitions. For most Old Order Amish communities, this term refers to the period in a young person’s life called adolescence. Rumspringa occurs when young men and women reach the age of 16 and are not yet baptized. Although rumspringa is generally regarded as a time when ordnungen are relaxed so that young Amish can experience courting and, hopefully, find a spouse.
There is thought and wisdom behind the idea of rumspringa. As one Amish man told me, “Children will be children,” meaning many Amish children go through a period of curiosity about the English world, and some become rebellious as they enter adolescence.
How far an individual takes this liberty period depends on the young man or woman. It is essential to recognize the weight given to baptism – this act is a lifetime commitment and, therefore, very serious. There are those few who go hog wild with their newfound freedom, driving cars, smoking cigarettes and imbibing spirits now and then. More often than not, though, Amish youth of courting age do so within their own or a neighboring Amish community.
This particular aspect of Amish life fascinates the general public and is one of the top 10 questions asked by visitors to Amish country. Popular culture is guilty of sensationalizing Rumspringa and giving more press to those who stray off the path than those who merely want to socialize and stay in their own community.
It is not a rite of passage as is often thought. Not all Amish communities practice or even recognize Rumspringa. Likewise, 90 percent of Amish adolescents maintain their connection to the church during their period of freedom and are later baptized and married. So, let’s concern ourselves with just the facts.
What is bundling?
Bundling is an unusual but effective courtship ritual that is limited to Amish and Mennonites, and not in all communities. Simply put, the courting couple is permitted to spend a night together. Don’t let your imagination go too speculative at this point; the couple are fully clothed, and touching is strictly verboten. They can talk throughout the night if they wish, but premarital sex is also verboten.
In some Amish communities, another measure may be taken to assure the young couple will not succumb to temptation. In this scenario, a board runs right down the middle of the bed, pinning the topmost quilt firmly to the bed so that the arms are also immobilized. When I asked my friend about the practice of bundling, he made one thing clear: “Some of this still goes on.” Evidently, the practice is somewhat outdated among some of today’s Amish.
What’s the deal with Amish and electricity?
This is another frequently asked question about the Amish lifestyle and one in which presumptions are only sometimes accurate. Many of us assume that the Amish reject the use of electricity completely, yet, this is not the case at all.
The Amish do not reject electricity simply because they oppose the concept of electrons pulsing through a conductor. They recognize electric power’s usefulness but do not want to be connected to the grid. Doing so would symbolize a link to the outside world that may bring certain elements of that other world into their own communities.
As discussed previously, the Ordnungen (rules) vary from church to church. Yet, some of today’s Amish use generators to access electric ity, while others use battery storage by the installation of solar panels to run various machinery and appliances.
It is not unusual that when Amish buyers purchase an existing farmhouse, the wiring is promptly removed. You can imagine the work and damage to the walls in which this practice would result. But it also demonstrates the Amish commitment to being in our world but not of our world.
The bottom line on electricity is that the Amish have no problem with the concept of generating power, but it is the connection to the grid that they must avoid. They do not want to rely on any technology that would conflict with their beliefs.
In the final installment of our exploration of the Amish world, we’ll discuss how and which technologies are permitted and under what circumstances. We’ll find out how shunning works and include a frank conversation about puppy mills.
Author’s note: To the young gentleman who, when asked about the Old Order Amish, said, “Aren’t they the ones with a bunch of wives?” “No, of course not,” I responded, “You’re thinking of the Mormons. If you are interested in that lifestyle, set your car’s GPS for Utah and go west, young man.”
Please drive with extra care when in the Hillsboro area. Our curvy roads make it easy to drive up on a buggy unexpectedly. The Hidden Creek Amish do have buggies equipped with lights and the orange triangle indicating a slow-moving vehicle. And they are slow compared to our motor vehicles, so keep an eye out for our newest neighbors here in the beautiful mountains of Pocahontas County.