Five discoveries about Amish families, communities

By Jeanette Harder, Dove's Nest Board President

As a representative of Dove’s Nest, I was invited by the New York Office of Children & Family Services (OCFS) to help them relate to the growing population of Amish and Old Order Mennonites in their state.

While two-thirds of the Amish live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, they are also rapidly growing in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Kentucky. In fact, the Amish are growing faster than nearly any other subgroup in the U.S., with a population of 300,000 currently and some projecting that number reaching 1 million by 2050.

Carol Knieriem, a Dove’s Nest board member, and I visited New York in May. Thanks to some brave families who invited me in, we spent many hours in the homes of Amish and Old Order Mennonite families across the Empire State. I quickly came to understand that what I read in the textbooks was indeed correct: the core values of people in the Plain communities are very different from those of the rest of us. While most of us value critical thinking, diversity, freedom, technology, and progress, they value community, humility, obedience, self-denial, and acceptance. Once I understood these values, what I had previously deemed to be inconsistent and backward suddenly made sense in light of their faith. 

1. To my surprise, I found that …

There is an immense amount of diversity among Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. While most of them use horse and buggy for transportation, spurn the use of electricity, and dress in a way that seems peculiar, the differences between groups are quite striking. Their lifestyles are different, but so is their openness to outsiders and their level of embracing technology.

2. To my delight, I discovered that …

Some of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites have become foster and adoptive homes for “English” children. (All non-Amish people are considered “English” by them.) Even though they’d much rather keep a far distance from “social services,” they’re willing to risk it because children need safe homes. And yes, this brings up many interesting questions around clothing and education and transportation and faith, doesn’t it? It is quite remarkable how these families have adjusted their lifestyles to accommodate children who come with special needs. This became a positive way for me to begin my work with them—helping them recruit more foster and adoptive homes and helping them connect with Amish and Old Order Mennonite families in other parts of the state who are doing the same thing. Thanks be to God.

3. To my consternation, I came to realize that …

Far too many children in Amish and Old Order Mennonite are getting hurt and even dying from accidents in their homes and on their farms. The number one killer is run overs, whether it’s from an out-of-control horse, a wheel coming off a buggy, or a steel-wheeled tractor. I’m also hearing about drownings when unattended children tumble into streams and rivers. And there are fires from woodburning stoves and oil and propane lamps. So while many of these incidents could be deemed tragic accidents, I do wonder what the role of the large number of children in families plays in the parents’ ability to supervise their children. And as I recall the number of safety hazards I encountered growing up on a farm, I wonder how their pioneer-style of farming may make them even more susceptible to injury. So when children get hurt and even die, is it abuse and neglect or a tragic accident?

4. To my relief, I experienced …

Amish and Old Order Mennonite parents who love and adore their children—who would do anything to keep their children safe and raise them in a way that is consistent with their faith.

5. … but they are so misunderstood.

The faith practices of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites bring them to accept the providence of God in a way that seems like apathy and abuse to many of us who are English. When a child is injured or even killed, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites will likely state that it was God’s will for this to happen. This makes them appear uncaring and not protective. On top of that, they also display stoicism that may lead us to believe they didn’t care about their child in the first place, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

My role in training the OCFS workers was to help them understand the values and faith and traditions of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. I explained that translators are often necessary since English is not their first language, that the U.S. Supreme Court allows them to educate their own children in one-room school houses, and that indeed their education ends at eighth grade. I taught them about how the Amish and Old Order Mennonite make decisions at the community level and not at the individual or family level and about the importance of including church leaders in all interactions and decisions.

While the Amish and Old Order Mennonite families and communities may be very different from our own, let’s consider what we can learn from them. Different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. Pray for me as I continue to help social services relate to this unique population while also building relationships with Amish and Old Order Mennonites so they in turn can keep their children and youth safe.