Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Weavertown Amish Mennonite Experience - SUSI RPA 2011

One of the most interesting journey during my five weeks experience in US was visiting the Amish Mennonite community in Lancester, Pennsylvania. I happened to know few information about Amish and Mennonite from one discussion in my American Studies class months ago. It really was an amazing experience since I was involved into a very serene worship inside Amish Mennonite church and invited into a group lunch afterwards. By having dialogue and conversation with them, I was exposed to their concept of viewing life which is very different from other people.

GROUP PHOTO WITH SOME AMISH MENNONITE CONGREGATION MEMBERS

Mennonite and Amish
Perhaps, only few of us in Indonesia know about the existence of Amish and Mennonite. Perhaps, most of us never heard them before. The history of Amish and Mennonite could be dated back to the history of Protestant tradition. The tradition stemmed in one of reformation movement. One of the groups rejected the idea that baptism should be done to infants. Thus, they formed group known as Anabaptist. By this, people were given the chance to choose their own belief or religion, not being determined once they were born.
Menno Simons, a Catholic priest from Holland was an influential writers of Anabaptist movements and was able to unite all of Anabaptist groups. Thus, they were called as ‘Mennonites’ [1].

The parting point of Amish from Mennonite lies on the existence of ‘excommunicate’ tradition in Amish society. Amish people believe that people who do not repent for his sins should be excommunicated (in other words, expelled, banned, excluded) from the society. The separation of Amish from Mennonite was led by Jacob Amman in 1693 [2].

Amish society, the conservative one or henceforth will be called as older Amish, is very close to the outside world. They do not use electricity or even car. "Amish people interpret linking with electrical wires as a connection with the world - and the Bible tells them they are not to be "conformed to the world." [3] They live in a communal society, being disconnected from the outside world. This disconnection stemmed in a history of hundreds of years. Simply said, the outside world and connection to the outside world is a form of temptation and it is the source of evil. Therefore, they cut off themselves from that.

Amish people wear simple, plain and modest clothes. The woman cover their hair, although not necessarily refers to veil as in Islamic tradition. Hair covering symbolizes humility and not being show off to God. They self suffice their own needs. They grow vegetable, produce their own milk or even bread. And, they do not want their faces be covered by media. It is based on Exodus 20:4 "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" [4]. Amish society really still holds religious tradition firmly in their lives. They literally follow the Holy Bible.


“The Amish feel these distinctive clothes encourage humility and separation from the world. Their clothing is not a costume; it is an expression of their faith.’’(http://www.800padutch.com/amishpeople.shtml)

The Weavertown Amish Mennonite Community, Lancester County, Philadelphia 


I was actually surprised when I entered the Weavertown area in which the Amish Mennonite society lived. Some houses had cars and electricity, some did not have one. I previously expected a more conservative Amish society which rejected electricity and cars. However, once I met them, I was still amazed. I joined in a Sunday service in their church. It really was a great experience to join the service. During my five weeks experience, I visited and joined several services at some Protestant or Catholic Church, but I thought, the service in the Amish Mennonite church was the most serene one.

Based on what I observed, the Weavertown’s Amish Mennonite church retained the simplicity and modesty style as their teachings say so. There were no pictures or tainted glass as in Catholic Church. Even, the building resembled a mere house. The church did not have worldly glory attributes. The gentlemen joining the service wore a very modest and neat clothes i.e. white shirt, black trousers and shoes. The women wore head covering and plain and modest clothes in different colors, but still showed humility. They sat on different side. The gentlemen sat on the right wing, while the women on the other. As soon as the service was over, I was engaged to conversation or dialogue as my professors might call it, with some young congregation members sitting on the row in front of me.

I started talking about anything with them. I learned that most of the boys (and the girls) finished school at grade 8. Afterward, they were expected to work in their parents’ farm or ranch. There were only few number who continued to college or even university. ‘Why do you have electricity?’ so I asked Jacob, a young 15-16 year old boy. ‘I heard that Amish society does not have one’, so I continued my question. He then explained that the community he belongs to is not the older Amish community. He explained to me that it  is called as the Weavertown Amish Mennonite or Beachy Amish. He explained to me that his community is in between the older conservative Amish and Mennonite. The Amish Mennonite or Beachy Amish may have electricity, cars, telephones or cell phones. However, they still do not have and may not have television or radio. There are also other fundamentalist difference between Amish Mennonite and older Amish society. The Amish Mennonite does not agree with the idea of excommunication as believed in the older Amish society [4]. Thus, it sets them apart from the latter.

Conversations at Lunch

On keeping the tradition vs. modernity
Television, film, fashion, music and all other worldly products are inevitable parts of the human life. However, the Amish Mennonite community I visited is able to limit themselves from exposing themselves to those worldly products. Unlike the older Amish community which rejects the modernity icons (electricity, television, film and etc), the Weavertown Amish Mennonite uses some part of it. Jacob, the young congregation member I talked to, had internet in his house although he had no television. He told me that internet is allowed to have because parents can restrict and control the amount of information that can be accessed.

In a lunch conversation with one of the Reverend of the church, I asked how the Weavertown Amish Mennonite community retained its own distinctive culture while at the same they live in Western American culture. The Reverend said that it was never easy to keep their tradition because the influence of outside world was really strong. But still, I could feel the optimism within his tone to the young generation of the Weavertown Amish Mennonite community. And I thought that his optimism was very much true. The young generation of the Weavertown Amish Mennonite community might be exposed to the outside world more than their parents. However, they still felt comfortable with who they are. In fact, there was this young computer expert in the community. It shows that actually modernity and Weavertown Amish Mennonite tradition can walk hand in hand. What I observed there is that the community members were somehow able to know each own limitation and try not to crossover it. It might be stemming back from the teaching of Amish Mennonite about humility during the life in the world, and it is literally followed by the community.

On Gender
Another issue was brought up to my lunch table and it was about gender. From what I observed, the Weavertown Amish Mennonite community, as in other places, is a patriarchal society. The role of women are restricted to domestic area, while men play role in public area. However, the Weavertown Amish Mennonite women feel that they have no problem with this concept. They do not feel like there is a gender inequality in their community. They believe that women and men are equal but they occupy different sphere of equality. Thus, in this community, there is no woman leader.

To this issue, I deeply appreciate how the Weavertown Amish Mennonite community views the concept of gender. They disagree with the concept of feminism which plays a great role in shaping the current American culture and society.  It is amazing to see that these women are perfectly fine and demand no other recognition by society. They once even said that the Weavertown Amish Mennonite women are leaders in terms of being educator for their sons and daughters at home, being the moral patron of the family and this makes them equal with men who lead the society in public sphere.

On Challenges
As the other minority group, the Amish community in general got prejudice and discrimination from the larger member of society. A prejudice toward them is that they are less patriotic. It stems from Amish’s teaching about passivism. Amish do not go to war. Nor do they involve in violence. Thus, they are often being prejudiced for not being patriotic. However, it is less known that even though they never go to war, they often participate in humanitarian activities. There were at least three Amish members I met who were involved in helping Tsunami victims in Aceh, Indonesia in 2004. They also said that when it came to war, they did not go to the front line but they tended the wounded and cared for them. However, these humanitarian facts are covered by all prejudice.

Concluding Note
Living in this century, in a highly computerized society with all of worldly temptation is surely not easy for the Weavertown Amish Mennonite Community. But they have proven that they still can retain their tradition for hundred of years, and there are still more years to come. Meeting with them was really inspiring because they were so open. They welcomed visitors who wanted to learn about their tradition and culture. They knew that what they did would be a bridge to let others know about the real Amish Mennonite community. Their openness would help to dispell and untie prejudice attached on them gradually.

Reference:
[2] ibid
[3] Why the Amish do not use electricity? http://www.800padutch.com/amishfaith.shtml
[4]  Why should not make photo? http://www.800padutch.com/amishpeople.shtml


2 comments:

  1. I was just there last November 2010. They sure are a fascinating group of people, so polite and modest. I enjoyed being in the Lancaster area while visiting family (Ephrata, PA), it was nice to see members of the Mennonite and Amish community everywhere I went, too bad I don't live closer to an area like that (although if I did I'm sure I would start packing on the pounds, because they have some of the most amazing baked goods! haha).

    I really like your point titled "On Challenges" and about people not considering them to be patriotic. I see them as probably being more patriotic than most people that I see.
    They produce fresh and healthy produce, dairy, eggs, and meat for people in that area to purchase, instead of chemically treated and hormone grown products, so they are helping to keep the American people healthy.
    They are super friendly, and are willing to help a neighbor in need. There's not much of that going on with more worldly people.
    And them just living in the area that they are creates a bit of a tourist attraction to Lancaster County, which helps to boost the economy in that area...

    Most people define "patriotic" as they see fit. My husband is in the Army and at the different military posts that we have lived at we are often times surprised by what people in the surrounding cities do to show off their "patriotism".
    Many people are unaware that there is a US Flag Code which dictates the correct and respectful uses of the US flag. It is not to be used in advertising, worn on or as clothing, cut or made into things, etc. But all over we see the people wearing the flag printed on their shirt or made to look like a swim suit, made into heart shaped pillows, even lawn chairs with the flag printed on it! I don't appreciate my flag being sat on in the name of patriotism!
    Also we often see people taking the military uniform and cutting it up to make it into a vest, shorts, and the popular thing among spouses of members of the military is to have it made into a diaper bag or purse. How disrespectful! It's not against any law, they are free to do that, but that uniform was meant to be worn as a uniform, it's a symbol of freedom and protection. It wasn't created for someone to disrespectfully cut into pieces to turn it into a fashion statement!

    I understand your point on how they are seen as being unpatriotic because they are unable to serve in the military because of their religious beliefs. And I'm not trying to attack your article in anyway. I just felt like voicing my opinion on how if you take a step back and look at what people commonly view as being "patriotic" and when compared with the Mennonite and Amish behaviors, the latter comes out looking much much more patriotic than the rest of the US.

    Thanks for posting this article, and some of the pictures of your trip, I really enjoyed it!

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  2. hey, thank you for reading my article! The trip to Amish Mennonite community was really special for us, 20 Indonesian students, mostly Muslims. You are right in pointing their kindness and warmness. We were very much welcomed there.

    You can actually start voicing your opinion about "patriotic" by writing on your blogs :) even though today no one reads your blog, i am sure someday many people will. big changes come from small changes.

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