In order to be truly free, I eventually discovered, I needed to belong once again — but this time to a way of life I had chosen for myself, one that enabled me to find meaning and joy, in the here and now. ~ Galen Guengerich, Author of God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.
It is six weeks since my last post. I’ve been thinking about my blog and how it feels to me like the contents of it have become too self-focused. When I started this blog I thought it was going to be About Amish. That was nearly ten years ago. All long-term bloggers eventually re-think their approach, and many will stop or slow down on their posts after careful consideration.
Over the past months, I’ve been experiencing some sort of writer’s block. My writing wasn’t completely blocked, but neither has it been flowing naturally. With the support of those in my writers’ groups, I am slowly making more time and space for my writing.
In the meantime, I’ve been crocheting one rug after another. My neighbors have bought several of my rugs, and there are several more on order. So they are not piling up at the rate of several a week, which is a good thing. I was having a hard time knowing where to put them.
While I’ve been doing all this crocheting, I’ve been thinking about how I might connect in a meaningful way with others who have journeyed out of an Amish community. Some years ago, I had a dream of founding a non-profit that would support those who were leaving. I have discovered I don’t see myself as a leader in that way. So I will go with my strength and help others tell their stories. In the future, I am hoping to post a series of interviews here on my blog that focus on individuals who have left their Amish community.
I have, for some years, believed that the study of the Amish culture should include the perspective of those of us who have left for a number of reasons:
- Being self-reflective is not encouraged in most Amish communities, and downright discouraged in others. Once we leave and begin reflecting on life within the Amish, we notice things we didn’t while living inside.
- We are no longer trying to please the elders of the church and other community members, so we feel we can be more honest about our experiences and the ways of life inside.
- For too many years, researchers have painted the Amish as if they are the model of a good society. To do so, the problems within the Amish had to stay out of the public eye. Those of us who leave see the differences between what we experienced and the rosy rendition painted by researchers and the media.
- Scholars have often stepped over the line from researching and observing the Amish culture to becoming their advocates. This stems from the unwritten social contract that the “subjects” will no longer speak to the researchers if they write anything that can be construed as negative. This inherent bias is removed when researching those who have left.
- Many Amish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (and other places) run Amish tourist organizations that depend upon preserving this pristine view. Those of us who leave have no financial investment in how the Amish are depicted.
Ever since I did an internship with Dr. Donald Kraybill in 2006, I knew that including the perspective of those who’ve left was not part of the research plan. I also learned there are gatekeepers who control what is published. I felt like a lone voice and if I criticized, I would be written off as a bitter defector.
Now two voices have emerged that are taking on the established researchers. Torah Bontrager and Elam Zook have founded The Amish Heritage Foundation. The last weekend in September, they held a conference at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a bold move. The resistance to this conference was strong from those in the Lancaster area, and in other places. I heard some of that criticism here in the Shenandoah Valley.
I decided to attend the conference. I’m glad I did. The constellation of speakers that Torah and Elam attracted to the conference were really good at provoking thoughts and naming issues.
The first two speakers, Elam Zook and Marci Hamilton, Marci Hamilton, law professor at University of Pennsylvania, both talked about the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case in which the Amish were exempted from compulsory education. This is an issue that has been near and dear to my heart. In fact, I’ve written a series of five blog posts on the subject back in 2012 that starts here:
So Elam Zook, a “non-compliant” Amish person and director of the Amish Heritage foundation, and Marci Hamilton both took on this issue first thing at the conference. It made me realize, once again, how much I wish we could reverse the Wisconsin v Yoder decision.
Micheal Billig, professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall, criticized the mainstream scholars of Amish culture for crossing the line from being interpreters of Amish culture to advocates. I loved this quote: “One’s informants will try to sway you toward the informants’ views of the situation. In fact, this is one of the reasons they volunteer to speak with you in the first place. One should make it crystal clear that one is there as a witness, not as an advocate.”
Mary Byler, who left an abusive situation in her Amish family and community in Wisconsin told her personal story about “What happens when an Amish person goes to trial.” Hers is a well-known case in which she testified against her brothers who raped her repeatedly over many years. I cannot even imagine how much courage that took.
Galen Guengerich, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, told his personal story about leaving his Mennonite community in a talk titled “A Revised Understanding of God, Belonging, and Freedom.” You’ll find his quote at the top of this blog post. His talk resonated with me. Wow. If I were as articulate, I could have written that.
Sarah Haider, co-founder and executive director of “Ex-Muslims of America” talked about leaving the Muslim religion. I learned that leaving the Amish is a walk in the park compared to the struggle Sarah and others had to go through to leave their religion. At least those of us who leave the Amish don’t fear for our lives.
Unfortunately, I missed most of Joel Engelman’s talk. He left an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Brian Young, a member of the Navajo Nation, spoke about his experiences growing up on a reservation and then going to a prep school in his teens and on to college. He is a filmmaker and writer.
Barbra Graber, founder of The Mennonite Abuse Prevention List, talked about “why we name names.” She has been a survivor advocate for many years.. Creating the MAP list is gutsy, but so important. Silence always shrouds abuse, and breaking that silence is the first step towards prevention of further abuses.
I had to head down the highway towards home after Barbra’s talk and didn’t get to hear the panel of women entrepreneurs.
So Torah and Elam pulled together a credentialed and excellent group of speakers for the conference. I’m glad the focus was not exclusively on Amish issues. Bringing in speakers from other religions and cultures gave a sense of how similar the issues are across various backgrounds.
I would have done some things differently had I organized this event, but it wasn’t me who had the courage to do this… it was Torah and Elam. They should be commended for that.
If you are interested in more about the conference, you can read this article in Lancaster Online.
Today I noticed a clue that researchers of Amish culture might sit up and take notice. Erik Wesner, who blogs about Amish culture on Amish America wrote a piece about sexual abuse among the Amish today. Normally he writes about lighter issues and if he does write about abuse, he is right with the scholars in cautioning against painting the Amish with too broad of a brush. In today’s post, he didn’t caution against that. It seemed to me he is taking the issue of hiding sexual abuses in Amish communities a little more seriously.
Perhaps Torah and Elam will successfully “Reclaim our Amish Story and engage our silenced issues.”
I will continue to do my part through writing and engaging readers in these issues. Thank you for your patience during my long silence here on my blog.