Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Amish Primer

One of the fun and interesting things about where we live in Maryland is that we have a community of Amish who live nearby. A few summers ago, I took the time to read several books about the Amish to try to educate myself about their chosen lifestyle. I’d like to share a few things about that here.

First, the Amish do not pronounce the name of their faith as you do. You probably say Ah-mish. They say A-mish as in the letter A and then mish. (I don’t know if this is specific to Southern Maryland or if it’s more widespread.)

Though they are well known for shunning the public electric grid, the Amish do use electricity. They tend to generate it themselves either with a wind generator or diesel, but they don’t believe that electricity use is bad. Being on the public grid is bad.

You also probably know that the Amish don’t have phones in their homes. They do, however, have them by the side of the street. They also have them in their offices. When we visited an Amish furniture builder in Indiana after Loring’s wedding in 1999, we asked him about his fax machine. He said he can’t compete without using such tools. Most local churches have agreed that their members may use such worldly goods in order to maintain businesses that are dependent upon the non-Amish world.

Amish teenagers are every bit as rebellious as “English” teens. (The Amish refer to the non-Amish as English or Plain.) I read a book called Rumspringa (It’s in Maryland if you want to read it.) which describes the life of an Amish teen. Basically, they are allowed the freedom to do what they want between the time that they complete 8th grade and the time that they confirm their membership in the church. That time frame is known as rumspringa. Confirmation usually occurs by age 21.

During rumspringa, teens often become very much like English teens. They may smoke, drink, do drugs, drive, have sex, dress fashionably, hold jobs in the English community, or otherwise behave the way many other American teens behave. They do not, however, attend school. Though many mothers agonize over all the heathen activities that their children may be participating in, some parents seem to welcome it. They prefer that those kids sow their wild oats, reflect on their poor choices, and then opt to formally join the church and adhere to all its rules. As in any society, there are those who choose not to join. The Amish community is never happy about those who make that choice, but they accept it.

The Amish do not accept any person who has committed to the church and then reneges on their commitment. Those people are shunned and forbidden from any communication with any member of the church. I read about people who refused to even sell goods to a shunned person. They look right through them and act as if they do not exist. They return letters to the sender and won’t take phone calls from their own shunned children or siblings.

The Amish community also doesn’t permit education beyond 8th grade. Anything more than that is considered worldly and one who requests it is considered pretentious. I have read about people who have left the community to become doctors, lawyers, and other college educated professionals. Though they aren’t exactly shunned, they are not welcomed, either. They don’t mind the existence of such people, but they mind when those people come from their own blood lines.

In Charlotte Hall, the Amish have a market where they sell their goods on a daily to weekly basis. It’s just down the street from our house at the library. Wednesdays and Saturdays are the big days. If you want fresh butter, you’d better arrive early. They also sell baked goods, fresh produce (not necessarily organic), jams, and a few carpentry and textile items. I have not seen a quilt for sale there, but they do sell them at a yearly auction in November. Hope and I visited the auction a couple of years ago. Maybe I’ll write a separate essay about that.

In some communities, the Amish are known for not being particularly friendly to their English neighbors. I have not found this to be the case in Charlotte Hall. They smile and speak to us easily at the market. Family members have hired them for various types of work and found them to be highly skilled and friendly.

The Amish in Southern Maryland have been there since 1940 and came from Lancaster. They are fluent in both English and Pennsylvania Dutch (a Swiss German dialect).

Though not all Amish use buggies, ours do! They are gray and have headlights and turn signals which may be mandated by the state to help improve safety. Some of the roads are extra wide in order to accommodate buggies on the shoulder. Sometimes, you just have to trust your luck to get around them. It’s fun to lie in bed at night and listen to the clip clop of the horses hooves as they go by on the road.

There is a lot more to share, but it will have to wait. This is enough to whet your appetites about one of the fun aspects of living in Charlotte Hall.

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