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“To air-dry clothes by choice is countercultural.

And who, more than any other group in twenty-first-century America, is countercultural?

Who have intact families, healthy communities, home-cooked meals and uncluttered homes?

Who are restrained in the use of technology, have strong local economies and no debt?

Most of all, what group has kept simplicity, service, and faith at the center of all that they say and do?

The Amish!

Few of us can become Amish, but all of us can try to be…… almost Amish.”

― Nancy SleethAlmost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

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Giving his Dad a hand (Photo courtesy: Amishphoto.com)

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Close-knit, in a world of their own, an Amish family on the way to church (Photo courtesy: efoodsdirect.com)

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A road sign alerts drivers to an Amish community ahead (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

(To enlarge, click on photos)

October the 3rd, 2006, was just like any other day for me. We had bought our first car in Canada just the previous day. Albeit, it was 8 years old but it was our first car and the feeling of suddenly being able to just take off any which way we could, was exhilarating.

We named her Bertha, tanked her up, flipped a coin and took off west on the Trans-Canadian. Just like the Grant Trunk Road does in India, the TransCanadian cuts right across Canada. Bertha is still with us today. In a couple of years, when the kid who lives in my house turns 16, I’ll donate Bertha to him.

For pretty 13-year old Marian Fisher of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and her little sister, Barbie, October 3rd-2006 was a vastly different day. It was the day when the two girls unhesitatingly put into practice what had been preached to them all their young lives – sacrifice.

At 10am, 32-year old Charles Carl Roberts IV, a non-Amish milkman from the nearby Bart Township, entered the one-room Old Order School where the two girls were taking lessons along with other little children like them. With him, Roberts had a 9 mm handgun, a 12 gauge shotgun, a rifle, a bag of black powder, two knives, tools, a stun gun, 600 rounds of ammunition, wire, and plastic tie-wraps. Aiming to stay there a while, he had also brought with him, change of clothing and a toothbrush.

He first let the boys go, all 15 of them, and then he ushered all the adult women with infants out of the school unharmed. The remaining 11 students, all girls, aged from 6 to 15, he bound their hands with plastic tie wraps and began to load his guns.

Suddenly, in an attempt to buy time for the rest of the girls, Marian Fisher stepped forward and asked that she may please be shot first. Her younger sister, 7 year-old Barbie, then fell in behind her and asked Roberts to ‘shoot her second’. He acquiesced. He shot them both and the other 9 girls. Five survived, maimed for life.

The deranged Roberts turned his gun on himself when the police stormed the school.

In the immediate aftermath the horrendous deed, the first announcement that went out from the community leaders to the international press was, “We do not think that there is anybody among us who wants to do anything but forgive and not only be there for those who have suffered a loss but also to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts…”

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Accepting. And grieving. An Amish family after the massacre (Photo courtesy: Ibelieveinlove.com)

Members of the press reported that neighbors of the deceased girls met the father of Charles Carl Roberts and embraced him. Roberts’ widow was even invited to attend the funerals. It is not known if she went. Here are some excerpts of blog posts from journalists and writers…..

Columnist Rod Dreher wrote:

“Yesterday on NBC News, I saw an Amish midwife who had helped birth several of the girls murdered by the killer, say that they were planning to take food over to his family’s house.”

Journalist Tom Shachtman, author of the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, said:

“This is a stark imitation of Christ. If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”

Gertrude Huntington, a specialist on Amish children, said:

“They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent and they know that they will join them in death. The hurt is very great, but they don’t balance the hurt with hate.”

Lancaster Online reported:

“During the service, which lasted just over an hour, heads were bowed and tears flowed for the loss of schoolgirls’ tender lives and for their killer, a man described as a loving husband and father of three young children.”

The recent beheading of the freelance journalist, James Foley, by the ISIS in Iraq, made me think of the whole concept of evil one more time and this time, from a new angle. I thought that if I wanted to understand evil, I would have to understand good first, or more appropriately, why there is good at all and to what purpose this good exists. Have the ISIS ever heard about the Amish, I wondered.

Of course they haven’t. The ISIS are an isolationist community of individuals who use terror to the ends that they see as true and just. For the Amish the ends are the same, only the means are just the opposite.

The Amish practice what is known as ‘intercessory prayer’, which is pleading with God on behalf of others, not the simplistic bargain or unsaid agreement that we all try to contract with God when we pray. The Amish way is practiced by the Buddhists too.

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The story goes that after the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet, there was a mass destruction of Tibetan monasteries, holy libraries and other cultural artifacts. Along with it, whole groups of Buddhist monks too were imprisoned and made to do forced labor.

One such labor group happened to be carrying their prayer beads with them and would chant their mantras from time to time, till it came to the notice of their guards who confiscated the beads. No matter. The monks began praying without them till, once again, they were told not to talk aloud. Unfazed, they then began reciting their chants silently in their minds.

Then one day the order came down for them to be executed by firing squad. Lined up facing the executioners’ rifles, the monks began praying again, which appeared ludicrous to the Chinese since nothing could possibly save them now.

One PLA officer approached the monks and asked what god they were praying to and what they had to gain by praying at this juncture, when death was a certainty. One monk replied, “Actually we are not praying for ourselves. We are praying for you.”

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2000 years prior, there had been another man who believed in intercessory prayer. Beaten and tortured and then impaled to a cross, he had raised his eyes to the heavens and said,” God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This piece is on folks who follow that man more closely than any other religious group or sect on earth – the Amish.

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The Amish are an orthodox Anabaptist Christian sect that believes in remaining as close to Jesus Christ’s teachings as possible. I am reading about them and I love what I am reading. As I read on, the contrast between the Amish and the rest of us appears stark.

Let’s get to know them a bit. Very interesting folk they certainly are, sprinkled sparsely over parts of the US, like roses growing inside a cesspool of consumption. (Yes, I said cesspool. Only in America does a father gift his 8-year old son an Uzi automatic assault rifle for Christmas. This actually happened in 2010 in Manchester, Conn. The boy accidentally shot himself in the head and died on the spot).

The Amish were a part of the European Free-Church along with Mennonites, Brethren Quakers and other denominations that first broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1500s with the German reformist and founder of the protestant church, Martin Luther. They generally hailed from Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands.

Breaking away from an entrenched and essentially evil institution like the then murderously oppressive Roman Catholic Church, was not easy. What followed were decades of persecution and wholesale murder, as the Catholic Church tried to wipe out ‘emerging competition’.

But the Free Church survived and soon after, one of Martin Luther’s colleagues, Menno Simons, formed his own sect, the Mennonites, a sect that believes in living a simple life, of peace and brotherhood, single-mindedly dedicated to the way Jesus Christ intended life to be led.

As time went by, a group within the Mennonites emerged, that wanted stricter adherence to the Christian faith. Led by a Swiss tailor turned Anabaptist leader, Jacob Amman, the Amish movement was born. The Amish belief is – if you want to live as a true disciple of Christ, you have to do without some of the comforts, pleasures and conveniences that others around you take for granted.

Some Amish and Mennonites migrated to the United States, starting in the early 18th century. They initially settled in Pennsylvania. There they spoke a language that gradually morphed into a guttural tongue that is today known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Other waves of Amish immigrants established themselves in New York, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio. Around the same time, one group traveled north and settled in southern Ontario.

Over the years, the Amish have attempted to preserve the 17th century rural European way of life, consciously avoiding the use of modern technology and developing practices that isolate them from modern American culture. Many ordinary Americans, especially the bible-belt rednecks, think of the Amish as freaks who belong in the looney bin.

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Innocence, bewildered by excess. A group of Amish teenagers in New York’s Times Square (Photo courtesy: nypost.com)

The Amish are more fundamentalist than the Mennonites, the differences being in how they practice their faith. While the overall doctrine followed by both is similar, the Mennonites are generally more tolerant of technology and the outside world than the Amish.

A few Mennonite congregations accept higher education. They believe that it strengthens their religious beliefs. The Amish, on the other hand, feel that the outside world and its ways only corrupt the purity of their faith. They forbid education beyond secondary school, believing that today’s high school curriculum corrupts young minds by introducing moral sciences that teach students to accept alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality and the study of Darwin’s theory of evolution as the accepted origin of mankind.

Amish children are truly angelic. Go through the photos at the website amishphoto.com and you’ll see what I mean. The kids go to Old Order schools that are one-room joints where they learn only the basics. Here are some of pics I took from amishphoto.com, that are especially cute…..

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Cuddling must be a major pastime among Amish adults, with angels like these. Amish kids walk around without any footwear (Photos courtesy: Amishphoto.com)

When the children reach adolescence, they enter a period that the Amish call Rumspringa, in which boys and girls are given greater personal freedom and allowed to form romantic relationships, usually ending with the choice of baptism into the church or leaving the community. Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania German word for ‘running around.’

Amish men keep untrimmed beards and wear jackets and coats that have hooks and eyes instead of buttons. Their women dress in plain 18th century-style rough cotton clothes with long sleeves and ankle length skirts. In the case of Mennonites, you might find a few dressed the way we do.

The Amish mode of transportation is horse and buggy and the farm lands are tilled with horse-drawn implements that are forged in coal-fired black-smithies. They don’t draw power from the grid and have no electricity, either at homes or at the places of work. Mennonites differ in that while they do not go overboard with the latest gadgetry, they do not believe that using electricity or motorised farm machinery and trucks shakes their faith.

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The iconic Amish horse-drawn buggy (Photo courtesy: kidsbritannica.com)

The Mennonites have historically sought to increase their fellowship through missionary activities throughout the world. Today, there are Mennonites churches from Bolivia to Ethiopia and Nigeria to Indonesia. There are 1.7 million Mennonites worldwide.

On the other hand, the Amish have never felt the need for reaching out across the seas and converting others to their faith. Today there are just 290,000 Amish in the world, of whom 250,000 are living in the US and another 2000 in Canadian province of Ontario and the rest in Europe.

Two hours’ drive south-east of Montreal is a tiny Mennonite community of 15 families in a picturesque village called Roxton Falls, population – 1300. These Mennonites are making plans to leave their homes and farms behind and move to Ontario so that their children will not be forced by the Quebec government to attend government-sanctioned schools.

Provincial officials have threatened the families with legal action, including the potential loss of their children to the Child Welfare Services, if they do not abide by the mandatory education curriculum.

But leaders of the community have decided that they will leave Quebec before giving up their children to the ‘state indoctrination’.

It is sad to see them go, given that there is something refreshing about them. They lead clean healthy lives devoid of alcohol, drugs and crime. They bother no one and in fact, except for their quaint lifestyle which makes them something of a tourist attraction, they enjoy a good rapport with their non-Mennonite neighbors.

Last Saturday we packed a picnic basket and headed to Roxton Falls to see and maybe meet some of the Mennonites but the congregation was at church and while we couldn’t hang around we did love seeing the old-style barns and farm machinery everywhere. And horses, lots of horses and windmills and just about every structure made from wood. Mennonites being not as rigid as the Amish, we did see cars and electric lines.

Amish beliefs are quaint and one would imagine that the Amish would gradually disappear from the face of the earth, overtaken and overwhelmed by the technology and the avarice of the outside world, but quite the opposite has happened. The Amish have grown in numbers. From 165,000 in the US in 2000, they are now 250,000 strong today.

Inside the community, there are no secrets. Grudges or resentment toward others or rivalries over a girl’s attention are normal human emotions and these are discussed and resolved peacefully, without any fallout. As we saw in the Nickel Mines shootings, the Amish’s capacity to collectively forgive and move on is deeply spiritual and moving.

This is not to say however, that violence does not exist at all. In October, 2011, there was an altercation between two religious groups within an Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio, where members of one group used shears to chop off the hair and beards of a 79-year old Amish bishop and his family, accusing them of ‘not living right’.

Inside Amish communities, crimes such as robbery or homicide are non-existent, though there has been one case of cocaine trafficking at the Alberta/US border in 2013. There are no locks on doors. Every member is aware of everyone else’s lives and problems and involved in trying to make sure everyone is cared for. Male members call themselves ‘brethren’. Love is expressed as a spiritual kinship within the community. The community provides social and economic support, sheltering its members from cradle to grave.

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A bit of ‘Rumspringa’ – Adolescent Amish girls happy in a ball game. Rumspringa, in Pennsylvania German, means running around having a bit of fun and frolic (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

The Amish believe that only within a stable community will individuals find security and satisfaction, not by being individualistic. No one strikes out on his own or refuses to share. Their society is devoid of alcoholism, divorce, alienation and loneliness in old age. Perhaps this ensures a suicide rate far below the national average in both, Canada and the US.

The Amish foster group activities and there are many things that they do together, besides those related to farming. One is called barn raising, an event that looks more like a social event than hard labor that it really is.

Occasionally, there is a need for a new barn to be built in an Amish community. A new member may be starting up farming. Sometimes disaster strikes and a barn may burn down. The men get together and build a new barn for the member. Even little children help out, running chores, handing tools and stuff to the men. The women gather together and lay out tables full of food and refreshments for the workers.

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An Amish community gathers together to construct a barn for a fellow family – an amazing feat that is typically accomplished within a few days’ time.  (Photo courtesy: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau / Terry Ross).

Though women are involved in almost every activity, even the more arduous ones such as tilling, sowing and harvesting, The Amish are still a staunchly patriarchal society, with women playing second fiddle. Amish women are expected to obey the dictates of their men, cook and feed them and bear their children.

There have been exceptions though. Like Katy Stoltz.

Growing up, Katy was forbidden from having her picture taken because of tradition. On top of school work she spent hours in the fields pitching hay as well as cooking, cleaning and looking after her siblings. Before school she would go out and feed the cows. After school she had to take care of the calves and then make dinner for the family. She spent six hours at a time out in the fields raking hay. Her clothes were shapeless dresses and bonnets and she had to cover her head at all times.

But in 2012, Katy’s life changed forever. She appeared in a reality TV show Breaking Amish. Soon afterward, she was signed up by a modelling agency and now she looks gorgeous in saucy lingerie shoots.

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Amish-turned model, Katy Stoltz, before and after. Innocence transformed (Photo courtesy: dailymirror.com)

Amish women are startlingly beautiful, with flawless complexions and direct, guileless eyes. It was just a matter of time before one did what Katy did. But the Amish think that modelling is one of the worst things a woman can do. They see it as flaunting your body and being vain. They look at Katy’s photo spreads and sigh in resignation.

Katy’s parents have forgiven her transgression. They did not engage in honor killing as some other fundamentalist societies would probably have done. They keep urging her to come back home, but Katy has no desire to return to the Amish way of life. She is in fact signed up to do a second series, Return to Amish. Is Katy going to start an exodus? The world is changing faster than the Amish can hold it back. I am afraid she might have set in motion a trend among other Amish girls.

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WITNESS - TEMOIN SOUS SURVEILLANCE

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Amish girls are startlingly beautiful, with flawless complexions, direct and guileless stares and ready, innocent smiles. I am considering asking the Lord to make me an Amish man the next time. With a woman like one of these, who needs electricity? (Photos sourced from Google Images)

The Amish way of life is led by the truths as taught in the Book of James, which exhorts followers to live with simplicity, grace and obedience to elders. Not being very literate, they avoid immersing themselves in any deep theological study. Besides, with all the hard manual labor, farming, tending, fixing and mending, there is very little time for sitting around deep in spiritual reflection.

Constancy is valued above novelty and innovation, qualities that they view with suspicion. The Amish take pleasure in repeated patterns of life, greetings, and rituals. They do not believe in multi-culturism either. For them, other values, practices and beliefs are not legitimate and therefore not to be tolerated.

Marriages outside the community will lead to immediate expulsion. Congregations being small, the ban ensures a limited gene pool and consequently, genetic birth defects are not uncommon. On the other hand the clean living, supported by fresh organic farm produce, endows Amish communities with 60% less incidences of heart disease and cancers than the North American average.

While I look upon the Amish’s quaint lifestyle and isolationist beliefs with amusement, I cannot help but admire their courage in believing in themselves and their faith. I hope to visit one of these ‘islands of sanity’ that are settled in Ontario, some day. Better still, as Nancy Sleeth dreamed of in the quote at the start of this piece, I dream that some day the world shall turn ‘almost Amish’.