The gathering dusk allowed only an outline of the man. Some of the Amish have allowed electricity—not here.
The barn office was well kept. For an hour and a half, the oldest son had sat at his busy desk and listened to his father’s words with perhaps a single utterance of acknowledgement. Wary of my presence, they were polite yet cautious. I had not intended to ask this question, yet toward the end, it jumped out like a cat out the door.
“What is the greatest threat to the Amish Community?”
The quick, solid reply bounced off the stalls like a horse shoe. I, completely taken aback, sat in the dark stillness and waited for him to continue.
“Not needing other people. Do you know what I mean by that?”
I wondered if he referred to young people feeling that they don’t need to be part of the community.
“That’s exactly it. Back in the day we’d have a thrasher come through, we would cut the hay together and get ready for it . . . we’d do the harvest together, we do the canning together . . . Today, there is not a big percentage of this community that are full time farmers—and even then they have to supplement their income. You know. . . the inter-dependence—that mutual need—is the fabric of the community.
“As these young folk interact less and less they either don’t have time to offer any help to their brothers, or they don’t ask for or need any help. That weakens the fabric of the community.
“Over on the other side of the town there is a young couple that is going to get married. Now—in the old days we would have probably come together and built a house for the couple. Today? He’ll probably hire a crew to build it. Part of that is because nobody has time. They’re all working for the boss man anyways. And so this is a real problem as far as feeling a strong bond of community.”
They recognized that there was an inherent size of community, beyond which things become dysfunctional. Today there are many areas that have significant Amish populations. They will have at least one, often numerous churches. Each church serves a community that seldom exceeds 50 families, often less. All the members know one and other and have committed themselves to ideals that they share. While various church communities may have liberal or conservative leanings, they all ascribe to a particular view of the bible and hold the importance of family, community and church.
This insular approach to community was born out of repression and prejudice experienced in the 1700 and 1800’s in Europe. Over the years has been pretty effective in maintaining a system of community that would support their fundamental values by knitting the fabric of community with honesty, sacrifice and interpersonal commitment to those shared ideals. The focus on simplicity and hard work then is more than a choice, it becomes a necessity. When you see that the gadgets and conveniences of materialism will foster more individualism which will ultimately shred the fabric of community, then insulating the community from those forces is necessary for survival. Simplicity, then, is simply a result of that decision and hard work is then required.
Many have tried to adopt the stringent Amish way of life, and it has proven too difficult. Many have dabble with the consensus form of decision making which, like the Native American form of consensus, has often also proved too difficult. It is very hard to renounce comfort and convenience for a lifestyle that involves discomfort and inconvenience; it is very hard to renounce independence for interdependence. Once we don the cloak of independence and adopt the ingrained modern-age conviction that “I can do and have whatever I want” then it seems to be a pretty big challenge to rein ourselves back in so as to have the honesty, respect and humility required to weave the fabric of community.
—J. Baker, Asheville, NC