Amish who exit their communities find the cost of discipleship high
AN HOUR OUTSIDE OF CLEVELAND, the wheels of time turn backward. They move buggies along tarred roads and push reel mowers through bluegrass. They pulley clotheslines hung between porches and the peaks of barns a hundred feet away. Amish properties, like those Amish wheels, are easy to spot in a place like rural Ohio.
The surest sign? Power lines stretch here, but they do not stretch there. That’s true along County Road 175, where field after field is upturned, dirt smiling at a clear May sky. Plows with a six-horse hitch have done the prep work, and now men wearing suspenders and straw hats do the next thing, dropping fledging tomato plants into rows covered with punctured plastic. Nobody likes weeds, not even the hardworking Amish.
A few miles away, three generations of the Schrock family have their own garden to tend, but they do it with the help of a diesel tractor. Just 15 years ago, though, the sound of that engine would have been foreign on their 68 acres. That, plus indoor plumbing and the tangle of cords charging their iPhones. The Schrocks were Swartzentruber Amish, the strictest sect within the larger Amish community.
And while farms surrounding them focus on growing vegetables, their family and other Christians in this area are hoping for a harvest of a different type. They see gospel opportunity in Amish country, and they’re intent on scattering seeds of truth. The climate, however, is harsh. Their Plain friends will have to count the cost to follow Christ.
TACO TUESDAY gets a different branding at Andrew and Hannah Schrock’s dinner table. Sure, it’s Tuesday and bowls are filled with what looks like taco salad, but here it’s called an Amish haystack. Layers of ground beef, quinoa, lettuce, the works. It’s good, but it’s pushing 10 o’clock before Andrew Schrock, 38, pauses to eat. His four daughters have gone to bed. His mother and father have left to finish milking.
It’s quiet when the straight shooter draws a final conclusion: Fear holds the Amish community together. “It’s the great fear of being excommunicated. That’s No. 1,” Schrock explains, stroking his 5-inch beard. “When you don’t have the peace of God ruling your heart, the possibility of something like shunning really bothers you. Until someone actually gets set free by Jesus Christ, they won’t leave.”
Fourteen years ago, that kind of fear prodded Schrock to challenge a converted cousin about his new-found beliefs. With concordance in hand, Schrock pored over the Scriptures, zeroing in on the topic of law—God’s and man’s. Although he mainly spoke Dutch and English, Schrock’s Bible was written in German. “I was taught all my life that English is corrupt, that people who read English get deceived.” Schrock was fluent enough to make it to some life-altering verses in the second chapter of Colossians. That’s when he says the whole weight of religion lifted off his shoulders.
“When I read that the traditions of man are not of Christ, it was crystal clear for the first time,” he says, remembering his excitement. “I couldn’t wait to show it to my bishops. I thought they would see that we’d had it wrong all this time.”
Today Schrock can laugh at that memory and his naivete, but he acknowledges the meeting with his church leaders wasn’t funny. They gave him two weeks to come to his senses, but by the time those two weeks were up, Schrock had moved on to reading Romans and the Gospels. He says he’d also managed to buy a tractor and get his driver’s license. “I was on a roll,” he remembers.
The average Amish family includes five children, but Schrock’s mother, Lena, gave birth to 12. Typically, 85 percent of children raised in Amish households join the Amish church, and the Schrocks were on track to line up with that statistic until their oldest son, Moses, left home looking for answers. When he ultimately became a Christian, Lena says she couldn’t abide by the strict shunning imposed by their church. “Moses would come for visits, but I would make him hide his car,” she whispers with a smile.
When Andrew started making waves, Lena and her husband, Dan, began voicing questions, too. Lena says she eventually found the answer to hers within the pages of an evangelical Chick tract. “I had peace for the first time, assurance of salvation,” Lena remembers, thumbing through the tract she’s kept for all these years. It was a pivotal, belief-bucking moment. The Amish say assurance of salvation is prideful, even grounds for excommunication.
But by the time Dan and Lena came to their new beliefs, two of their daughters had married Amish men and had children of their own. The Schrocks’ decision to leave their Amish community meant the couple wasn’t just turning their backs on the only life they’d ever known. They were saying forever goodbyes to children and grandchildren, too.
THE YOUNG CENTER for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College numbers the Amish population nationwide at more than 356,000. If the current trend of doubling in size every 20 years continues, they’ll surpass the 1 million mark by 2050. But just who are the Amish? And why do they cling to old ways and uniform lifestyles?
The word Amish originates in a name, that of Jakob Amman, a Swiss minister whose influence grew after a 17th-century schism in the Anabaptist church. Amman admonished his followers to conform to Biblical teachings by forsaking the world, but in early rural America, Amish ways didn’t really stick out until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when Amish leaders rejected modern progress and expanded their list of rules, known as the Ordnung. Even now, the church is adding rules to regulate the latest flashlights. No LED versions allowed. Only old style, two batteries max.
Thanks to fiction writers like Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall, Americans have developed a fascination with Amish culture. Combined, they’ve sold more than 30 million books filled with picturesque descriptions of quilting bees, courtships, and barn raisings. Lewis told Newsweek her readers want the nostalgic bent: “They feel the family is fragmented in our society. They find such peace in the way Amish children are brought up.”
When asked about the genre’s popularity, Amish scholar Donald Kraybill doesn’t disagree, but he’s concerned about who benefits: “Amish fiction written by non-Amish authors provides an anchor of stability to comfort non-Amish readers who feel threatened by social change.” But the books aren’t all bonnets and buggies. Some show a beautiful culture with flaws—like the belief that a right standing with God comes from man’s law-keeping, rather than Christ’s.
Joe Keim knows a thing or two about that beautiful, flawed culture. At 15, he left his Old Order Amish home to explore the “English” world. He had $50 dollars in his pocket and a cousin by his side, and they spent their first night bedded down in an open vehicle in a stranger’s garage. Facing the surprised homeowner the next morning was tough, but hearing that Keim’s father was fasting until he returned was tougher. He went back. Then left again. The tug-of-war lasted six rounds. By the seventh Keim was 18, married, and converted. Still, when in 1987 he and his wife, Esther, were ready to leave for good, he says the transition was difficult: “We weren’t born into the English culture. It’s like a U.S. citizen going to another country.”
Keim landed a factory job, where many mornings he sat outside praying for his former community before heading into his shift. At home, he and Esther would lie awake at night wondering who would go to spiritually rescue their people. “We realized churches were sending missionaries around the world, but no one was sent to the Amish.”
That changed in 2000 when Keim helped establish Mission to Amish People (MAP), a Savannah, Ohio–based ministry that today operates with 22 staff members and more than 50 volunteers. The main task area displays the complexity of their work—mixing the old with the new. Modern computers anchor a line of desks, but a whole wall of shelves is organized for outgoing mail. Printed correspondence is the only way to reach many of the 60,000 Amish families on MAP’s mailing list.
While the priority is evangelism, Keim and his team also help young adults who have left the Amish culture acclimate to a new one. They work through language and customs barriers, apply for Social Security cards, open bank accounts, obtain driver’s licenses, and study for the GED, an important step since Amish students finish school at the eighth grade.
Keim gets round-the-clock inquiries from Amish who are curious about faith, grace, and life on the outside, including 60 messages he missed during a meeting this morning. In 2012, he took a furtive call from Samuel Girod, a grown man who stood shaking like a leaf behind his own home in Indiana. He was afraid someone was going to catch him talking to an excommunicated Amishman, but the calls continued for six months.
“Then one night he came here,” Keim says, pulling out a picture he snapped of Girod at that first meeting. “He literally walked away from his properties and a construction business, and he stood here with two duffel bags. That was all he had.” Girod now travels throughout the United States speaking on behalf of MAP.
GRANT RITCHEY GREW UP driving on roads in a part of Ohio where Amish buggies weren’t a common sight, but after a year as the sole reporter for the Ashland Times-Gazette, he’s used to them. Everyone who comes to Ashland gets used to the ruts in the pavement caused by horseshoe studs. They get used to the litter of manure and buggy-passing delays, too.
Ritchey traveled Ashland’s roads while covering stories like April’s rash of vehicle break-ins and the completion of pickleball courts at Cahn Grove Park. What he didn’t cover much was the Amish.
“They really keep a low profile,” Ritchey explains, speaking over the din at Downtown Perk, a local coffee shop. That’s why he was surprised early this year when officers arrested 74-year-old Joas Swartzentruber for sexual assault of minors.
For Ritchey, who can’t recall covering a single crime involving the Amish before the story broke, writing a 200-word report about Swartzentruber’s February indictment was difficult. Pulling up court documents on his laptop, he reads aloud information about the alleged victims. “This one was actually born on my birthday,” he points out, referring to “Sarah Doe.”
Ashland County Prosecutor Christopher Tunnell declined to comment on the case, but Ritchey, who has since moved on to another reporting role, continues to think about its effect on the Amish community. “I’m wondering if it stereotypes them in a bad light. The Amish act as a group, and when one individual is accused and charged with such a serious offense—multiple offenses—I’m wondering what the long-term application of that will be.”
Some would say the application is simple. Sin is a reality in the Amish community just like it is everywhere else. Consequently, Joe Keim does a lot of counseling at MAP, where he often hears Amish express a hopelessness bound up in their beliefs. “With rules come bondage and depression, condemnation. You can never reach the bar even on a good day, and when you live under that mindset, it’s very depressing,” Keim explains. “Just yesterday, another 18-year-old boy shot and killed himself. This is what these young people are experiencing, but they’re afraid to leave it because they’ve heard from a baby up if they do, they will go to hell.”
THAT’S WHAT LEVINA HERSHBERGER believed. She was a bishop’s daughter, one who liked to work outdoors tending fields and the family’s big Belgian horses. She married an Amish carpenter named Andrew, but five children into their marriage his devotion to Amish beliefs started to diminish. He began to read his Bible in earnest. After two years, he’d come to understand there was nothing he could do to earn salvation. “We had some arguments about it,” Hershberger admits. “Andrew would take me to the Bible, and I’d see the truth for myself.”
When the Hershbergers tell their story, they occasionally slip into Dutch. It’s a part of their makeup as much as the Amish work ethic, but they speak without faltering when they describe their costly breaking away. Andrew lost his construction business because church members could no longer work for him. His parents threatened to leave their property unless he did, forcing them to move.
Last year, however, the Hershbergers came back. They built a house about a mile from the home where Levina was born, and today she can look out her kitchen window and watch her mother drive past in her horse-drawn buggy. Her mother won’t stop, though. She won’t enter the new home with the van parked outside and the black stainless steel refrigerator in the kitchen. She won’t visit with Levina or Andrew or her now seven grandchildren.
Andrew Hershberger says that’s OK. His dark eyes are calm and steady, resigned. Leaning his arm against a plastic tablecloth, he says the move back was simply about being available. He and Levina want to let the family members and friends who rejected them watch them up close. They want to be a living testimony before the Amish. “Questions will come up, and when they go through hard times they will wonder what we have that makes us different. That’s when I want to be here.”
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