On our recent trip to Amish country in Ohio to spend time with the team at the Plain Values office, Marlin put together a small gathering of folks from the community, and I sang a few songs and shared a few stories with them. But I think my favorite part of the trip was when he took us around and introduced us to his neighbors, Ivan and Emma, a young Amish couple in their mid-thirties.
We have an Amish community here in Etheridge, Tennessee, about an hour from our farm, and we make trips there often to purchase jams and jellies and other things. But I don’t know any of the people who live there and have never been given the opportunity to spend time talking with any of them.
Ivan and his family live in a beautiful brick home up on a hilltop, not at all like the white clapboard houses I’m used to seeing most Amish folks living in here in Tennessee and other places. After welcoming us inside, for about two hours, we sat on chairs in their living room, visited, and got to know each other.
We talked about our families and what it was like growing up Amish for Ivan and his wife, and English for myself. I don’t think our childhoods could have been any more different. He grew up as part of a family of 11 (she is from 12), rooted in a strong community of believers, extended family, and centuries of history. I, on the other hand, grew up with my mom, a single mother, struggling to survive with 5 children, and spent much of my youth living in trailer parks, and only getting to be around extended family now and then, but never enough.
But here we were, both grown, raising families of our own. Me, with a good bit more gray in my beard than he has in his, but both of us well past our days of youth. He had recently purchased the English-built house they live in and turned it into an Amish home. Ivan explained that the first thing he had to do was remove the forced-air electric a/c and heat system and install a wood stove, with only a main floor grate that allows the heat to rise to the rooms above. And then he disconnected the house from the electric power pole and covered up most of the electric outlets and light switches. Then they installed a few gas lights here and there.
Lights that I’d never seen before, especially not in the rows of lighting options at Lowes or Home Depot where most folks purchase their lights these days. And lastly, he’d put in a few solar panels so that they could run a few small things from time to time, but only in moderation. Ivan told me how it wasn’t so much that all of this is strictly ‘policed’ in his Amish community, as much as it is given as a guideline. It was also, as he explained, how he and his wife wanted to live and raise their children. Like most Amish in that area, Ivan shared that he and his wife wanted to live and raise their children in this way: off the grid, with no TV or internet.
His story about how he took this beautiful, modern house with all the up-to-date features and reworked it to suit him and his family better reminded me of what I have done to my phone. I had to — actually, I chose to — ‘dumb down’ my smartphone to make it a tool that worked for me instead of me being a tool of the phone. My iPhone has no SIM card and no connection to the internet. It has no apps, no ability for googling or searching. And especially no texting. I just wanted to have a powerful 4K camera that fit easily into my pocket. In order to make it a blessing for us, I had to simplify it, like Ivan and Emma did in their house. They just need a good place to live their lives and raise their children, without the constant marketing of outsiders telling them how they should live or what they’re missing out on by not having the latest of the latest gadgets inside and around their home.
At one point in the conversation, we started talking about how the Amish do business and market in today’s society. That is where our worlds really crisscrossed. “Amish marketing?” I thought as, in my head, I imagined ads in a 100-year-old magazine or hand-painted signs at the end of driveways that said ‘homemade jam’ or ‘baked goods.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ivan explained that the Amish are being pulled into using the same marketing tactics that the English are using. They now have to know about Google analytics and page ratings, Facebook ads and Instagram likes, and other platforms like Pinterest. “But how do you know about these things?” I asked, a little dumbfounded that his world is so much like mine. “Unfortunately, we are being pushed in that direction,” he said. “It is how business is done these days; even the Amish have to find ways to reach our customer.”
He explained that they don’t actually put the ads on Facebook or see how many “likes” an Instagram post gets; instead, the Amish businesses hire someone else to do that. Very similar to the way Amish do not drive cars, but hire drivers if the need arises, they have forbidden devices that allow their members internet access but will hire someone to market online if needed.
Ivan also shared a story of what life was like for the Amish half a century ago and how things have changed based on things his uncle shared with him. Back in the early 1970s, when Ivan’s uncle was still a young man, many Amish families all gathered together to bring the hay from the fields to the barn. In time, they were able to go together and purchase a baler that their families could share. Soon it was a job that only required two families to do. But before long, almost every Amish family had their own baler and could do the job themselves.
Ivan mused on how money has a way of becoming the driving force in our lives even when you don’t mean for it to be. At the end of the day, money has a strong influence, even for the Amish. He said that there aren’t that many Amish farmers anymore because there is more money to be made in building barns or doing other jobs off the farms. So their young people are being swept away just like ours. They aren’t actually leaving their farms and communities like our young people are, but a part of their hearts and a good bit of their livelihood seem to be.
It was interesting to see how blurry the line between the Amish and English cultures is becoming. I had imagined that somehow the Amish were immune, free from these things. I had no idea that even the Plain people have some of the same struggles that we, not-so-plain, folks have.
As my visit with Ivan and Emma ended, I found myself encouraged in my own journey, and realized how similar our worlds are, even if they still seem to be about 100 years apart. We are both trying to move towards what is best for our families in the service of God, and often those choices are in complete conflict with the direction ‘the world’ is pulling us. In reality, life is about managing the delicate balance between the two.
I look forward to coming back to Ohio again one day soon. Hopefully in the fall when the autumn leaves are turning and it’s harvest time. And I hope I find myself in more living rooms, getting to visit with more of the fine people who live there in Amish country.