Amish Conference, Part 4

Special children are not just interesting medical problems, subjects of grants and research. Nor should they be called burdens to their families and communities. They are children who need our help, and if we allow them to, they will teach us compassion. They are children who need our help, and if we allow them to, they will teach us love. If we come to know these children as we should, they will make us better scientists, better physicians, and thoughtful people. ~ D. Holmes Morton

There were two plenary sessions, back-to-back that ended the conference on Saturday morning. The first one called Plain People, Genomics, and the Art of Transitional Medicine presented by Dr. Holmes Morton, co-founder of Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. You can find out more about Dr. Morton’s work with the plain communities by following the link.

I have heard Dr. Morton speak on a few occasions and I am always heartened by his expertise and compassion and his commitment to helping the Plain People (Amish and Old Order Mennonites) in Pennsylvania (and beyond) treat and cope with genetic diseases. Other clinics have opened and have been able to use the knowledge base Dr. Morton and his group have developed.

Dr. Morton is now developing another center called “Central Pennsylvania Clinic for Special Children and Adults in Kish Valley (also known as The Big Valley). As fate would have it, the land they plan to build this clinic on once belonged to Amish scholar John Hostetler, who grew up Amish in that community.

Dr. Morton has been asked how people are going to afford this clinic. Dr. Morton answered that question with several stories of how their work has benefited the children and families they serve, and each time he responded with, “We can’t afford not to.”

I cannot possibly do Dr. Morton’s talk justice in terms of the diseases he and his team diagnose and treat. You can hear him speak by following this link.

When I first learned about the “founder effect” and “genetic drift” in the Plain groups from one of Dr. Morton’s associates, it seemed to me that Amish people are on a collision course with their own genetics. I felt like someone needed to make them understand that they need new blood if they are to survive as a people and a culture and that Dr. Morton was in a good position to convey his understanding to them. However, that is not what he is about. He does not judge the Plain People for their way of life. He sees his role as that of someone who will provide them with infant screening, diagnoses, and treatment whenever possible. He also recognizes that they are generally more accepting of illness, suffering, and death than people in the mainstream population. I realize now that he would not have been effective in his work, had he tried to convince them they needed to change their ways.

Dr. Morton earned several distinguished awards: the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1993 and was named one of Time Magazines “Heroes of Medicine” in 1997. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his work. I would say they are well-deserved. Dr. Morton is not only wise in the field of genetics, but he is also wise in the ways of humanitarianism. The families who work with him are so fortunate to have an advocate for their special children.


young-centerYoung Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College

Last, but not least, I turn my attention to the last session of the conference called Worms in the Amish Software: Coping with Risk in a Cyber World by Dr. Donald Kraybill, Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. He took the audience through the various steps of the Amish negotiating modernity, starting with when they first faced issues with modernity with the advent of the telephone, and then on to when they had to deal with decision regarding automobiles, electricity, and tractors. This was all background for his topic of how Smart Phones are undermining the Amish way of life. He said that the Amish have always considered themselves separate from the world, and yet when they have a Smart Phone on them, they are “carrying the world around in their pockets.” He also made the point that the Smart Phone is insidious, partly because people don’t know whether or not someone is carrying one. He said, “I could have one in my pocket right now, but you wouldn’t know it.”

Donald Kraybill went on to suggest that Amish leaders get together to deal with this issue — perhaps they could adopt the Mennonite Conference-type structure so there would be a critical mass of Amish people trying to deal with the issue, rather than each bishop dealing with it from one church district to another.

At some point Kraybill said that we, the audience, might be thinking that he is just a crotchety old man who doesn’t want to lose his research subjects, but he stressed how much he felt this technology was undermining the Amish culture.

When Kraybill asked for audience questions, he had quite a few people walk up to the microphone. One person said he would like to play the devil’s advocate and suggest that the Smart Phone might bring about changes in the culture similar to those brought about by the printing press. An animated Kraybill said, “No, it is not the same. If you have a phone in your pocket, it vibrates, it buzzes, and it rings and you have to look at the darn thing!”

The audience member said he thought that it was similar in the sense that the ancestors of the Amish probably lost control over what they sons and daughters were reading with the advent of the printing press and how, at first, there were few controls over what was put into print.

Kraybill admitted it is similar in that regard, but he pointed out that if you want to read a book, you have to go to the bookshelf and pick up that book, whereas if you carry a Smart Phone, it is always with you and it demands your attention.

Another audience member asked for clarification that Donald was suggesting that the Amish adopt the Mennonite Conference style of deciding their Ordnung (church rules). Donald confirmed that it what he is suggesting. The audience member said he didn’t think it was a good idea to try to make Mennonites out of the Amish, and by the way, the Conference organization hasn’t worked very well for the Mennonites, either. Donald reiterated his feeling that the Amish needed to do this on a wider scale than on a district-by-district basis.

I think this audience member is right. I remember hearing in my teens about Diener Versammlungen (gathering of ministers) that was held by Amish leaders and how instead of creating unity, the ministers got hung up on their differences, which caused church splits. They soon learned not to do that anymore.

I had a nagging question, so I finally stepped up to the microphone and asked it. “Whether the bishops get together and decide to place a ban on Smart Phones on a regional basis, or by each district, how would one enforce such a thing? Because of the size of the Smart Phone, it can find its way into young people’s pockets pretty easily.”

Donald said that he doesn’t really know, but perhaps the men would have to go back to wearing no pockets on their pants, or perhaps when young people are baptized, they need to give up the Smart Phone.

I said, “But the phones can be hidden after baptism just as well as it can before baptism. And as you pointed out, it is addictive…”

Kraybill admitted that he did not have all the answers, and it was clear to me that we were running out of time. Otherwise I would have shared the story he told me back in 2006, when I was doing an internship with him. This was about regular cell phones before Smart Phones came along. An Amish man, who I will call John, had a cell phone on the sly. One evening, a church elder came to admonish him about that. While the elder was admonishing him, the cell phone rang in John’s pocket.

When I told that story to an Amish man, he thought for a moment and said, “Now, that would not be good.”

The lesson from this story is that even members of the Amish church will do things on the sly if they think they can get away with it.

My takeaway from this last session is that whatever rules the Amish come up with around the Smart Phones, it will have to come from within the community itself. We can have all kinds of opinions, but they will have to figure this out, just as they have in the past. I have confidence that the Amish are a resilient people, and that their culture will survive Smart Phones — perhaps better than they will survive changing their church structure.

Normally a conference will wind down at the end, but Kraybill’s talk revved up to end the conference with a bang.

I came away from the conference with lots of food for thought. I’m so glad I attended.

This concludes my series of reporting on the Amish Conference 2016. Now I look forward to attending another conference next summer at Eastern Mennonite University called Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries.

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15 thoughts on “Amish Conference, Part 4”

  1. Sorry, smart phones are here to stay among the majority of the youth. And the next generation of old people will not be as active in Pinecraft as they are now but will instead sit and text message their children and exchange photos. This generation of old people have the flip phones and use them wisely.

    Then there are Amish groups like the Dan Gmay and the Swartzentruber who will never openly allow them but will still have them among themselves and make church confessions when caught with one.

    1. Wow, what will the Amish world come to… sit and text message their children and exchange photos? Gasp!

      I know that the Dan Church and the Schwartzentrubers don’t allow them. That is actually a good example for Donald Kraybill… how the more conservative Amish are dealing with the Smart Phones.

      The question I have for you is… if those who get caught with a cell phone get caught with one and they make a public confession, do you think they will stop there? Or do you think they will just keep hiding one and be more careful next time?

  2. On the genetic issue, do some of the Amish breed their livestock with the same disregard for what inevitably will happen? If they recognize that new blood needs to be introduced into the livestock to prevent problems, why would they just say “it’s God’s will” when dealing with humans?

  3. jennifer peterson

    Saloma, I saw the strangest thing today. I was at the Columbus Zoo and there was a huge group of plain people.I couldn’t determine what exactly they were. I have been to a beachy church and I don’t think that was what this group was. They were wearing a black headcovering-not a kapp, but what looked like a black doily on their heads. The women were wearing dresses that had a pleated skirt. (i have never seen that), but the thing that I thought was strange-the men and boys were wearing shirts that were made from the same material as the women’s dress-and it wasn’t just that they matched the colors, but it was the same color and pattern. Much like families wear for pictures. Do you have any idea what/where these people are or where they come from?

    1. Jennifer, I cannot say for sure, but it sounds like these people are from one of the Mennonite groups. Quite a few Mennonite women will wear the black doily-type covering.

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. pamela lakits

    Saloma,I have been away and unable to read the second half of your interview and the about the different speakers at the conference. So glad I finally got to do so!!! First of all, you did a great job with the interviews, she had some tough questions. I feel that to a certain extent I got to be at this conference,I thank you so much for sharing. Professor Loudin had some interesting information about their language. Didn’t realize their language was primarily created here!!Not sure why Dirk Eitzen was part of this whole conference? What does reality tv of Amish life have to do with the rest of it? I think we all realize its not real. I would have liked to have heard Dr. Morton talk and Dr. Kraybill. Question, as far as genetic issues among the Amish, since they seem to be spreading out to other states more than ever and so many different communities are coming together and marrying could some of these health issues in time become a thing of the past?

    1. Pamela, thank you for your compliments, comments, and questions.

      I didn’t learn that PA German was a dialect developed in this country until last year when I was doing my preliminary research for the Fulbright. It was developed out of necessity, so German-speaking people from different regions of Europe could communicate with one another.

      I am unclear about the reason why reality television was included in this conference.

      As far as the genetic issues are concerned… no matter how many communities are started, if their ancestors all trace back to the same ones, they have the “founder effect” going on. Now, there are some leaders who are careful to get together with another community who has not “mixed” with their own when they start a new settlement, so that they have a better chance at having healthy children. Whether they have the founder effect going on is usually still the question.

      There is a way to deal with it, and still stay within their “ways” but they won’t. I’ll explain.

      There are Amish communities that have not intermarried with the mainstream Amish since they came from Europe… the Swiss Amish. It seems to me that the mainstream Amish and the Swiss Amish should get their young people together to introduce new blood into their communities. But most Swiss Amish are considered “primitive” or backward by other Amish, and so they don’t intermingle. There is a language issue because the Swiss still speak their Swiss dialect, but the language barrier can be overcome, in my IMHO.

      This is a common problem among the Amish… their reputations are so important to them that they will not jeopardize it by associating with those who do not have a good reputation. They are experts at “othering.”

      Genetic issues are a challenge among the Amish. Some are beginning to take notice and marry from another community, while others ignore it and keep on marrying second cousins, generation after generation.

      Thank you again for your thoughtful comments. I hope you have a good rest of the week.

  5. pamela lakits

    You made some good points, ones I hadn’t thought of. It is certainly a tricky subject and yet a fascinating one, but then anything that is linked to genetics intrigues me. I also feel a connection being mostly of German decent myself and coming from a long line of Protestant farmers. I didn’t take, however, into consideration there would be issues of language, church rules and even reputations.
    I find the Amish religion and life style completely fascinating and yet the more I learn and try to understand them the more complicated they become. Which in turns makes me want to understand them even more!!!

    1. Like a cat chasing its own tail… I know that feeling. So many people think the Amish embody simplicity, but their culture is definitely complicated.

      The Amish may well be your people, too. Have you done any genealogical studies on your family?

  6. pamela lakits

    Yes, slow but sure. I was able to get some info from my mother about her side (she has a lot of Scotch Irish) and my fathers before she passed away last year. A cousin from my fathers side is doing the same and hoping we can sit down together soon and begin to thread it all together. We are Anabaptists in that we believe in adult baptism. A good many of my family on my fathers side are Nazarene. I come from the German names, Pfeil and Blumenstein. Also the name Lachman (from my great, great grandmother, again from my fathers side, not sure if that’s German). I have not come across any names that would indicate Amish heritage. We are a people of strong Germany stock with an even stronger work ethic – idle hands are the devil’s workshop.Heaven forbid we be idle!!!! HA!!!!!

    1. It must be the German connection that gives you that curiosity about the Amish. Oh yes… I heard that saying about idle hands many times.

      I hope you get a chance to sit down with your cousin soon. Genealogy is fascinating!

      Take care!

  7. Oh Saloma, you made the Amish conference. I’m a little jealous! Also, the other conference you will be attending sounds fascinating, too. I could not bring myself to open the flyer they sent announcing the 2016 conference as I knew it such a trip to fulfill my intellectual curiosity just would not fit with my life right now. I did not want to tease myself by even reading about the theme. Oh well, so much for that! I miss Anabaptist research and would love to do another project, maybe in time for the next conference. We’ll see.
    When I see the Amish in Lancaster with their phones, which have always been allowed and embraced there, I always joke to my husband that at least they should not be allowed to have a phone that is newer, nicer, and faster than mine. They usually do! An Amish friend who runs a mini-barn business constantly has four things in two hands: His ringing iphone, a travel mug of coffee, a hammer, and a cigarette. We shall call him four-hand Sam.

    1. Monica, I know what that’s like, wanting something that one cannot have… at least not at this time in your life. I hope you get to attend the next one.

      That is too funny about the Smart phones in PA, and four-hand Sam. Thanks for sharing that giggle!

      I hope you are enjoying your summer.

  8. Sally schwartz

    Found your reports on the conference very interesting especially the part regarding the smart phones. On a flip phone you can call friends. But with a smart phone a lot of possibilities ,beyond calling their friends, are created..If they can afford cellular data the world opens up.,They can look things up,research things they are curious about,get the news,download books, movies-Netflix.(Its a tool nonAmish parents worry about.
    Another thought was that Amish society is not completely static. They are not living like they did in the 17th century. They ride in cars,even if they don’t own one,,Can call on a corner pay phone but not not have one in the house, use some machinery or appliances,without using electricity…….
    Lastly ,you discussed the development of Pennsylvania Dutch.My German Reformed ancestors ,on my dads side ,came to this country in the 1830s ,1840s ,settled in western Pennsylvania,and spoke, until my dads generation ,what was described to me as Pennsylvania Dutch. Am wondering,after reading your posts, if it was more high German or the if it was similar to what the Amish were speaking. Before immigration they lived in the Phalz/ Palitanate region ,west of the Rhine for generations going back to before the Reformation.

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