I have quite the memory for stuff I’ve read. It’s actually quite annoying for the people around me – I’m able to rattle of anything you’d want to know about a novel or a short story after one read through. So I can honestly tell you that I remember a particular line from a social studies textbook that I read in grade school: America’s greatest strength is its diversity.
Most people in America are what I suppose would be called bi-cultural. I myself am ethnic Polish on one side and Scots-Irish on the other. Very few of the people I knew growing up could say that they only had one culture in their house. Usually, that manifests as having one set of traditions on one side of the family and another set on the other. For instance, in my house, we were always sure to wear green and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day and then a few days later feast on pierogi and kiełbasa for St. Joseph’s Day.
But every once in a while, diversity decides to be a little more obvious. One of the places where that happens is Ohio. You read that right: Ohio.
Nestled in the heart of Ohio is a swath of farmland, largely held and tended by the Amish. If you don’t know anything about the Amish, here’s a little history:
Way back in the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation, a religious group emerged called the Anabaptists. These people objected to the Catholic Church’s practice of baptizing infants, believing that people should only be baptized as adults. Within this group, another fracture occurred, and a group led by Jakob Ammann splintered off from the main group. This fracture was caused by disagreements over the practices of banning and shunning. At the most basic level, the followers of Ammann – the Amish – believed that the practices should go together. In the Amish tradition, banning carries the same weight as excommunication in other Christian sects (and is often called excommunication in writing), and shunning has to do with social etiquette toward a person who is under the ban.
During the 18th century, warring and persecution in Europe led many minority religious sects to seek toleration in the New World. The Amish, being among the persecuted groups, left Switzerland and the other areas where they had settled (generally German-speaking areas) and moved en masse to the American colonies. Pennsylvania was particularly attractive to them, as William Penn, himself a Quaker, had written religious freedom right into the colonial charter. They settled around Pennsylvania, eventually moving westward, along with many other colonists, in search of good farmland. To this day, Amish communities stretch from Pennsylvania across the Midwest.
The Amish are famous for their unchanging lifestyle. In fact, very little about their daily lives has changed since they first emerged as a religious group way back when. One of their core beliefs is that a simple life allows communion with God; therefore, they renounce many aspects of modern life, such as electricity, motor-powered machines, and telecommunication. Instead of giving in to modern luxuries, they tend their own land; grow, harvest, prepare, and preserve their own food; sew their own clothes and quilts; build their own buildings; and even run their own schoolhouses to educate their children.
One of the most interesting things for me (being the language nerd that I am) is that they still speak German. The Amish in America are bilingual in English and a dialect of German, usually referred to as ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,’ owing to their historical association with Pennsylvania. Nowadays, it’s completely separate from its European cousin, and if you’re listening to it, it sounds like German spoken with an American accent and intonation.
All of this was a long way of pointing out that the Amish people lead very different lives than most Americans. If there is such a thing as a typical American lifestyle – which I don’t believe there truly is – the Amish certainly don’t lead it. And yet, they mingle with the rest of us.
Amish Country, as the area where large communities of the Amish live in Ohio has been dubbed, is a major tourist point. One of the large draws is the food and the arts and crafts, both of which achieve a very high quality in Amish Country. (Pro Tip: Amish bakeries are the absolute best.) So, people hop in their SUVs, drive into the area, use their credit cards to buy handmade furniture, baskets, and quilts, snap pictures on their smartphones (but not of the Amish themselves – do be respectful of their wish not to be photographed!), and load it all into that SUV and drive out again. And it’s nice. People are friendly. Drivers are aware that there are horses and buggies on the road and are generally patient (although some do drive too fast). Cell phones don’t have reception, and people shrug it off.
And this, my friends, is what we need to be reminded of right now. America’s diversity is astounding, and it’s a hodgepodge of different people and different creeds. But if the Amish can figure out how to function in a society that finds them, for all intents and purposes, backwards, odd, and even a tad extreme, then maybe the rest of us can figure out how mingle peacefully also.