I often meet curious people. I love curious people. I am a curious person. And I am often asked where I come from when folks hear my accent. It’s quite obvious indeed that I am not a Lancaster native. Have you ever wondered where I come from? Or why on earth I chose to live in an ‘overcrowded’ place like Lancaster? Here is my story.
First I want to give a shout out to my parents. This was a very unpleasant experience for them. They did the absolute best they could. I am very proud of them, and today I appreciate them more than I ever have. I cannot begin to imagine how it would feel to spend 20 years teaching your son the Bible (as you perceive it), only to have him say,”I don’t believe you.” They have handled the situation incredibly well. They are the best.
Second I should clarify one fact. I was raised in a unique community that is a hybrid between Amish and Mennonite. My heritage is 75% Amish, and 25% Mennonite. Based on this and the fact that this community has chosen to follow Amish values rather than Mennonite values I will call them Amish for simplification.
Growing up Amish was a great experience. My parents were likely the most understanding and possibly most open-minded Amish in the faction in which I was born and raised.
My ancestors came from Switzerland in the eighteen hundreds, bringing with them a desire to be true Christians but hampered with generations of alcoholism, violence, and at times witchcraft. My dad was the first in generations to really stand up and take control of the situation. Instead of violence or even a bad temper he was calm, and expressed regret and apologized when he became impatient.
The integrity of my dad cannot be questioned. Even though we completely disagree on the practical out workings of the Christian life, he taught me that you must know what you believe and stand strong on these beliefs despite time and current. He began a legacy of change and truthfulness that profoundly impresses me and which I am committed to continuing. He expected me to apply this wisdom within the boundaries set by the Amish church, however.
I was born and raised on a farm in south central Kentucky, where I began working in the garden and helping with the chores at age five, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the age of six I began attending the one room school-house where I learned English, in addition to Pennsylvania Dutch which we spoke around the house. My dad has a large vegetable farm,
so my summers were spent harvesting vegetables and fruits for practically as long as I can remember. In addition, we spent lots of time putting up hay and grains for the winter. As the oldest of nine siblings, there was always lots to do. Spare time was spent fishing in the farm pond, for trout in the stream or swimming in the creek. I had lots of cousins my own age, life was so much fun. Innocence and bliss reigned.
Slowly a dark cloud rose. My family attended a funeral of a relative in a neighboring county that was part of a slightly less conservative division of Amish. They had bicycles! Slowly, a forbidden thought formed in my mind. What if, just what if, it wasn’t actually sin to have a bicycle as I was taught? And I am living life without one? I began thinking that when I was all grown up, I might consider switching to that particular faction so I could experience the thrills of a bicycle. Of course I didn’t want to incur the wrath of God and everlasting damnation, but what if it wouldn’t? At the age of twelve I began pondering this and a seed of doubt was planted.
As I became older and reached the ages of 14-17 I thought of these doubts, but they were buried so deeply that I could barely even decipher them. I would never have dared to voice doubt about our lifestyle. All my life I had been taught that at about age 18 I would undoubtedly go through a church membership class and be baptized into the church. When I turned 18 a good friend of mine approached me awkwardly and said he is considering to go through this class and wondered if I would join him. I didn’t know why, but I knew I couldn’t. I refused, and pitied him as he sat in front of the church Sunday after Sunday while we all sat on backless benches in the squelching humid summer heat, clothes soaked with sweat, listening as the preachers with slow monotone voices expressed the displeasure of God on those who choose to turn their back on us , God’s sacred chosen people, and warning us to stay on the straight and narrow path of eschewing the conveniences and technology that the world has to offer. The candidates of the church membership class would read
verses out of the large Luther German Bible with ancient script, scarcely comprehending what they might be reading, but realizing it was a most integral part of the journey toward earning the hope of salvation, while many in the congregation nodded and slept in the warm summer air.
I felt no regret at not being in the class. And as the time for the classes came each year I was invariably approached by the preachers, my parents, and friends who plead with me to stake my claim with the church so I too could have a chance at salvation. Each year the pleas became more intense, but I refused, saying I needed more time. Deep down, even though I barely recognized it, the real reason was that if I held out till the age of twenty-one without taking church membership, I would be free to leave. This was the age that an individual’s independence was recognized.
I became somewhat of a black sheep, but a strange one. I spent hours reading the Bible to arm myself with arguments on why the Amish church is wrong in its teachings, and therefore it would be right for me to leave. I was very unfulfilled and I knew it. I felt that perhaps if I left and did some great work for the Lord I would finally be happy. Alarmed at the heretical path I was taking, I was summoned to the houses of the preachers many evenings, where we talked many hours late at
night in dimly lit back rooms arguing about scripture. While I was not a Christian and had bad motives, my arguments were quite sound, resulting in frustration with the preachers and an even emptier feeling inside myself as I drove my horse home across the dark countryside. The evening sessions usually ended with the preacher telling me,”You are just too young to understand.”
New doubts came to mind. One of my uncles had defected from the faith years before and had relocated far away. He was shunned and given the letter of excommunication which stated that the Amish church releases him from their oversight and recognizes him as a son of Satan and gives Satan the power to destroy him so that his spirit may be saved on the last day.
Occasionally my uncle would come back for a short visit which would always result in a family gathering. The rest of the family made sure that he experienced the shunning, requiring him to eat all his meals in a separate room. And yet, while visiting he was always talking about the Lord while the others told tall tales and joked. I pondered this deeply. ‘Why is the excommunicated sinner more godly than those people shunning him?”
Other events unfolding around me like unabashed dishonest leaders, unrepentant moral failures of upright church members all shook my confidence further. I was hanging onto my upbringing by only a thread.
As I was now well past the age of twenty, I along with everyone within the community realized I had to choose. I had to lay out a course for the rest of my life. I was scared and uncertain. How could I choose a path, not having any experience at all? I was admonished regularly by members from all walks of life within the community to give up my selfish ways, take membership, and to carefully consider the dire eternal consequences for those who abandoned the faith.
I spent months in inward agony, desperately trying to hear from God, haunted by terrifying evil spirits that could only be shaken by prayer and singing to God. I prayed, I spent hours reading the Bible, but it seemed that the harder I tried to find God, the further he disappeared from my life. My life still looked good on the outside, but inwardly I knew something was deeply wrong. I was beset with sins and found no victory. I was hollow. I was empty. I was fake. Only I knew this and carefully guarded this secret. I knew full well if I confided in anyone they would insist that church membership would solve all of the problems, a concept that I couldn’t bear to think of, because I didn’t believe it.
After a week of intensely searching for God, a week filled with hard work in the hot muggy climate of southern Kentucky, I went along to the Sunday morning service like usual. I joined into the slow, mournful German chants from the sixteenth century, but after the singing was finished I rested my head on my hands and listened to the monotone admonitions with one ear. Something happened. I don’t know how or why, but the Spirit of God started speaking to me. This was not audible, nor did I leave the room in my spirit. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
It seemed as everything else faded from around me. I alone was left to face the Spirit. I was asked three questions, the first being whether I am a Christian, to which I responded with a confident, adamant yes. I was almost indignant actually. Me? Seriously? I was like the best Christian around! The next question was whether I would enter heaven if I were to die, to which I again gave a hearty assertion. Of course I would. The next question got me. It was simply one word, one small word. “Why ?”
I didn’t know why. I gulped and swallowed some stagnant air as I searched for an answer, but still I stalled. Time and eternity stood before me without moving. In desperation I lifted my head to focus on the preacher, but he had strayed from his usual exhortations of shunning electricity and other such sinful vices to speaking of staying on the narrow way, which I didn’t want to listen to with the conviction I was under. I didn’t have an answer that I liked so I finally said,”I don’t know.”
I was shocked. For the first time in twenty years I admitted to my self that I couldn’t think of a single reason that I should be allowed to enter heaven. With the strong teaching I’d had of the horrors of hell fire, I was terrified.
But God is good and always completely thorough and all-encompassing. Strangely, never having heard the plan of the new birth, it was revealed to me how Jesus had already died for me and that by accepting his death and perfect life, I would become blameless. Broken and shattered, with my last shred of self-righteousness gone, I gladly accepted this reality, knowing my life would be changed. And it was. Immediately my heart was flooded with peace. Deep peace, so deep there was no way to explain it and no reason for it. I felt so incredibly light, that I thought I may float away. , I didn’t know this was called the new birth. I just knew something mind-blowing from God had happened. Much to my chagrin, I realized I would need to announce that I had been wrong. No I hadn’t been a Christian. I would need to tell my parents of who I had been, what I had done. But that was fine. Suddenly I didn’t really care what people thought anymore.
My parents did not take it well. Indeed they agreed that I wasn’t a real Christian before, (obviously, I hadn’t become a church member which constitutes the new birth and Christianity as the community saw it.) They cautiously agreed that I may now be sincere and if I would take church membership that would be proof.
I recoiled at the thought of dedicating my entire life irrevocably to the Amish religion. Absolutely recoiled in utter horror. But the same Spirit that met me in my time of need asked me whether I am not willing to sacrifice my entire life for him after he gave everything for me. I wanted to say yes but it took awhile, and after I told God I was willing to stay I felt even more free and happy. I reached another level of peace that I didn’t know existed.
And then it became clear to me that God would not have me stay here. I came to realize that I would never be allowed to speak of how I was born again and it was literally the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. It was a test. Slowly, albeit, I had given up my one big dream, and now God was granting me the one thing I had always wished for. Except, no longer was it optional. I had to leave. As I was faced with this overwhelming new reality my heart actually sank. I didn’t know how. How else to live. To survive. I didn’t know if I could do this.
I spoke with my parents about where I was at and they were somewhat understanding even though they didn’t approve of my choices. I bought a bus pass to travel around America for 30 days and started visiting friends and looking for a new church.
I realized that I would no longer be able to live with my family. The community I was raised in would want nothing to do with me. In fact they wouldn’t even want me in the same state. As I traveled I thought about these things. I would lose all my friends. Should I get married someday none of my family would attend the wedding. I would not get to see my eight younger siblings grow up. They would never know why I left, always hearing whispers and rumors of what a heretical wicked person I was. I knew my parents would not appreciate the slander about me but they would be powerless to do anything about it. To speak up would be betrayal of their faith. Perhaps what hurt the most and actually angered me is that my parents would be hurt, looked down upon and deemed a failure because of the unfaithful son, while they lived with more integrity than those who will point fingers.
After traveling for a month and a half I returned to tell my parents that I decided to leave. I came to realize I have no future here. It was very hard for me to accept and they tried very hard to have me stay longer. But they also realized that if I don’t change my mind there is no reason for me to stay within the group.
I set a moving date several weeks out. Actually just a leaving date. I felt like I should give my parents and relatives ample time to confront my decision. And they did. Even though my imminent departure was a well guarded secret among the extended family, my relatives would come to speak with me. Strong, husky, stalwart uncles with long beards urged with me to stay in the fold while tears silently slipped down their cheeks, as they grieved the eternal demise of a once promising young man. Self righteous relatives became angry and scolded me. How dare you betray all of us? Cousins were deeply fascinated by the unabashed rebellion but warned me to stay and asked whether they can do anything to change my mind.
And then came the time I would last go to church. I gave each person an extra hearty handshake, knowing that this is the last day they would look at me as a normal human being. Tomorrow I would do the unthinkable. Tomorrow I would betray them and the friendly faces and twinkling eyes would be replaced with ostracizing glares and icy gazes. Tomorrow the entire village would be plunged into shock and with hushed whispers they would tell the horrifying tale of a young man who lost his way and went to serve the devil. With a feeling of deep sadness I sat with the other Amish people and allowed myself to listen to yet another sermon of the evils of telephones and cars, and sang with gusto the old familiar chanting tune knowing I would come to miss it eventually. As I left the church service for the last time, tears welled up in my eyes.
At home, everything was strained. My parents were grieving deeply and it was hard to act normal knowing it was I who was causing the grief. I told my older siblings of my move and they were sad, and just wanted to be with me, even though they didn’t say much. Sadness covered the house like a fog. My younger siblings did not know what was about to happen. I wanted to tell them, but I knew my parents had kept them in the dark in the hopes that I may change my mind yet.
But moving day arrived and reality could no longer be ignored. I told no one, but I had no idea how I would have the courage to walk out when the time came. I made plans but didn’t know if I would have the strength to carry them out. My younger siblings were informed that I was moving and they were shocked, asking many questions. I packed my few earthly belongings and then a local van driver came to take me to the nearest bus station. (Bless his heart if he reads this.) Eyes brimming with tears, I bid each member of my family goodbye and walked toward the cab. My legs felt like jelly. I did not know if I could even walk there, but I kept taking one step after the next. I couldn’t bear to look back. I tried to breathe normally and stay calm, but I just wanted to scream. I wanted to wake up and realize this is a dream. But I had a calling, I had a mission and I must follow that. I no longer belonged to myself. I kept repeating to myself that we must love nothing, not even our family more than God in this life. I made it into the cab, turned and took one last look and wave at my precious family who had gathered in front of the only home I had ever known to say good-bye to one of their own. Their faces were forlorn. So was mine.