When Someone Leaves the Amish
The Roads Taken
There are as many paths out of an Amish community as there are those who have left. The one most often taken is the one towards what many call “spiritual freedom.” In most Amish communities, it is not encouraged to study or interpret the Bible for oneself. There is more emphasis on adhering to the Ordnung, or set of church rules. This is the definition of what it means to be a “good” Amish person.
When someone begins to study the Bible, challenge the Ordnung, or doubt the Amish beliefs, it doesn’t usually take long before they feel like they need to leave the community. One of the beliefs that often brings doubt to the minds of those who are questioning the Amish faith is the one that we heard often: “We can never be sure of our salvation, we can only hope.” There is also the idea that God has a book in which he writes our every deed. The idea is that if the good we’ve done in our lives outweighs the bad, we get to go to heaven. I remember quaking in fear of hell when an Amish preacher gave one of his fire and brimstone sermons. So when someone learns that they only need to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and there is a guarantee that they will go to heaven, that is pretty good news, which is why this is the path most often taken out of the Amish. Also, if someone needs help leaving, they can reach out to others who have gone in that direction.
The former Amish who become born-again are often so overcome with relief and joy that they want others to know their good news, so they set out to save others.
Another road some take leads to more education. They felt unsatisfied with the eighth-grade education they received in the community, so they set their sights on earning a college degree. This is often an arduous road, fraught with obstacles. Without a high school education, one first needs to acquire a General Education Diploma (GED), and then there are no guidance counselors to help find a college fit. After that, they need to find a way to fund their education. The way that financial aid works today, young people have to declare their parents’ income until they are 24 years old, which means they need their parents’ cooperation. That would be a rare thing for a former Amish youth to obtain. Finally, when they make it to college, they find all the holes in their knowledge that their fellow students learned in high school.
Not everyone goes in one direction or the other. I met several this past weekend who have managed to keep their faith as a born-again Christian and earn a college education.
Even with the many obstructions to earning a college education, I loved every minute of it because it was the realization of a lifelong dream. It was key for me to find my place in this world.
Me with fellow Ada Comstock students about to graduate at Smith College in 2007
There is yet another road some take out of the Amish, which in my mind is the saddest one. They say, “I know I’m going to hell anyway, so I may as well do what I want.” This often leads to partying and living on the wild side of life with drinking or drug addictions, which are so self-destructive. To me this is the ultimate loss of hope. As humans, we always need something to hope for.
Dealing with Issues of Abuse
When there are abuse issues to deal with, it seems the former Amish take one of two roads toward healing — either the religious path of “giving it all up to Jesus” or finding counseling and other ways of facing the pain from abuse. The difference between these two paths came into sharp relief this past weekend when I attended the Voices of Hope Conference in Berlin, Ohio. I thought there would be some of the former, but there was a lot more than I’d expected. I felt at times like the “testimonies” got in the way of women telling their stories in their authentic voices.
For myself, I went the counseling route because I could not unravel the issues of abuse from the Christian beliefs of my childhood. I began asking fundamental questions about God and the beliefs I grew up with when I first started counseling, which went on for years. I didn’t realize until recently that many others have gone through this process, and there is a name for it — “deconstructing faith.” Eventually I came around to reconstructing my faith, which is quite different from what I grew up with, and it’s different from the born-again Christian beliefs. I believe there are as many paths to God as there are people, and that our worldview is as unique as we are. In other words, our beliefs are native and they are part of who we are when we recognize that we are born on this earth for a reason and live in accord with that reason. Living our potential is a matter of accepting the talents and gifts we came with and using them to make our contributions in this world. Some call this glorifying God.
Voices of Hope Conference
Even though the approach of the conference was different than I expected, I’m glad I went. I made a lot of meaningful connections. I met up with friends, met a few who I’d known through e-communications and had for a long time wanted to meet, and I also met new friends. I enjoyed being part of a panel of six women who told their stories. Because this was a more informal process without prepared statements, I found the stories to be deep and profound. The pain of what we endured, and the healing we were/are going through was right there in the room with us. One of the things I said was that I don’t think I can ever say that I’m healed, past tense. Rather I can say I’m healing because for me it is a lifelong process.
With my friend, Lizzie Hershberger – Photo by Margaret Schwartz
With a new friend, Luella Gilbert, BA, Social Worker, Trainer, Interpreter, and Mom.
With my small group for breakout sessions – Photo by Margaret Schwartz
With good friends, Lizzie Hershberger and Linda Crockett – Photo by Margaret Schwartz
I will close by saying that I honor everyone’s path toward healing. Even though the approach taken at the conference would not have been my choice, I want to honor and applaud everyone there (and those who weren’t) for seeking healing, whatever direction that takes. We are all pilgrims on this earth, helping each other along in the ways we can. The organizers of the conference are doing exactly that.
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