Spring 2009 Issue
When Barry’s Stephen Anderson spent the summer living with the Amish in northern Indiana, he may as well have been studying a lost tribe deep in the Amazon
By Richard A. Webster
In the summer of 1989 Stephen Anderson, interim dean of Barry’s School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences, disappeared into the Amish farmlands in northern Indiana’s LaGrange County.
For three months he was completely cut off from the modern world as he studied the intensely private lives of the Amish.
He had no contact with his wife or children. He lived without phones, televisions and radios. The only news he received came during a supply trip into town just a few weeks into his stay. He managed to catch a glimpse of a newspaper headline announcing the Chinese government’s violent clampdown on the student revolts in Tiananmen Square.
That night Anderson tried to discuss the news with his Amish host family but many of them had no idea what a tank was much less a “Red Army.”
“It was amazing to me how they managed to completely separate themselves from everything else,” Anderson said. “As far as they were concerned the outside world didn’t exist.”
Living the traditional Amish life dominated by religion, austerity and hard work was difficult, Anderson says. He woke up tired, worked all day, and went to bed exhausted. But unlike their counterparts in the modern world he noticed that the Amish seemed to be completely at peace with themselves.
What is the secret to their happiness? In Anderson’s opinion, it’s nothing short of their rejection of everything 21st century American society tells people they need to be happy. And in the 20 years that have passed since he first entered their world, Anderson has tried to incorporate some of the Amish philosophy into his own life and to impart upon his students the lessons he learned that summer.
“Most people have a hard time disconnecting happiness from material possessions,” he said. “We think somebody that is always working and praying can’t be very happy. But the Amish base their lives on something more. And that’s something I try to apply to my life every day.”
No cameras allowed
The rules for Anderson to enter the Amish world were simple: he could not bring with him any technological gadgets such as a tape recorder or camera. He dressed down, simple shoes and shirt, blue jeans with no belt. His only mode of transportation was a bicycle. Anderson worked with the family from sun-up to sun-down. He lived the life of an Amish man but was never accepted as one.
“They were very distant,” Anderson said. “The father was nice to me and we got along fine. The mother was accepting of me and would talk to me but in a very guarded manner. The children were also very polite and respectful but very distant, especially in the beginning. But the other Amish, they would have nothing to do with me. They called me ‘the stranger.’ ”
The Amish believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. They reject anything that distracts from God and family and that means the trappings of mainstream American society.
As a result the Amish keep themselves separated from all non-Amish, known as the “English,” because they believe it is impossible for the church to maintain its beliefs if its members associate with people who have different beliefs from them, or no beliefs at all.
The separation between the Amish and English worlds is so complete that most Amish probably have no idea that the United States recently elected its first black president, Anderson said.
“They have no interest in the election. It holds no significance in their minds,” he said. “It’s this indifference to our world that I found so interesting.”
Given their fierce resistance to the outside world it took nearly three years for Anderson to convince the family to allow him to stay with them for a summer.
“They asked me why I wanted to live with them and I said I wanted to learn more about them. That was it,” Anderson explained. “I was always fascinated with the Amish. I was interested in their work ethic and what they did for leisure and how their communities worked.”
So why did they eventually relent and allow him to move in?
Anderson believes it was more an act of kindness than anything else. He had spent three years developing trust with the Amish and this was the equivalent of an olive branch.
Dr. Cari Autry, an assistant professor of recreation and tourism management at Arizona State University who has helped Anderson compile his research on the Amish, says Anderson’s ability to gain the trust of this extremely reclusive group is a testament to his perseverance.
“For that family to bring him into their world showed that they had a tremendous amount of trust in him,” Autry said. “It’s the same as if someone goes to study a tribe in the rain forest. It gave us a unique insight into a hidden world that seems to be based on a profound generosity between the members.”
Living in a material world
Over time, the host family warmed to Anderson but remained steadfast in their desire to remain a mystery to the rest of the world.
One day while Anderson was having lunch with his Amish family, just for conversation’s sake, he asked if he were to write a book about them what they would like it to be called.
“There was dead silence,” he said. “People stopped eating. They didn't say anything and they all turned from me and looked at their dad. He sat there with his head down looking at his food and it seemed like forever. He finally looked up at me and said, ‘We don't want you to write anything about us.’ I felt terrible. But that’s how serious they are about that.”
Anderson kept his word to the Amish that he would never publish a book on the time he spent with them. But he has written an unpublished research paper and uses his experience as a basis for teachings in the classroom and in presentations he gives around the world.
In September of 2008, Anderson gave a presentation titled, “The Amish and Social Capital,” at the International Conference on Social Capital and Social Inclusion in Buggiba, Malta.
His speech, based not only on the three months he spent living with the Amish in 1989 but also on 20 years of ensuing research, explored the Amish devotion to personal relationships as opposed to material gains. This creates a stronger community in which people are more willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
“They don’t have insurance, so if any member of the church or even another church is hospitalized and it costs a lot of money, they all chip in and pay the bill, even if it’s as much as $200, 000,” Anderson said. “We don’t do things like that and there are even obstacles in society that prevent us from doing that.”
The main obstacle in contemporary society is a blind devotion to material wealth, Anderson said.
“We have become consumers, as if we are born to buy. And in order to support the behavior we must work, spending many hours on the job and commuting. We don't have time for our families, friends or neighbors.”
The simplicity of the Amish way of life also eliminates many of the hassles of the modern world.
“Just this morning this woman on campus was all upset and angry and I asked her what was wrong,” Anderson said. “She said she was on her way to work when someone pulled out in front of her. Horns were honking and she was upset as a result. Well, when you go out in the morning and you’re milking the cow there’s no road rage.”
Although Anderson envies the Amish way of life and tries to live up to their ideals, he is quick to admit how difficult it is for himself or any other “English” person.
“Like so many people, I live in a controversy with myself,” Anderson noted. “On one hand I think I am rather simple, but on the other I enjoy my cars and motorcycles and my boats and my televisions and everything else. But I would prefer to live a more austere lifestyle and to some degree I have lived as much as I can that kind of lifestyle. I live on a sailboat here in Miami without a TV, a microwave oven, blender, coffee maker and other items. I do not use ice in my drinks. I find many luxuries unnecessary and wish I actually used less.”
As Anderson struggles to move away from the trappings of the modern world, the new generation of Amish teenagers is quickly embracing it and all of its toys, some as vigorously as their English counterparts, Anderson said.
“I met this one boy who was 15 or 16. He was riding a motor-scooter. I asked him why he was riding a motor-scooter and he said, ‘Why not? I haven’t been baptized.’ ”
As Anabaptists, the Amish reject the baptism of children. They believe that being saved by God should be a conscious choice and only adults, typically around the age of 18, can choose to be baptized. And once baptized they must live according to the strict Amish code of life.
But until they make that choice they are free to engage in forbidden behavior, a period of adolescence typically known as rumspringa, or “running around.”
“They can take a train to Chicago, get an apartment and a job as a bartender to make money,” Anderson said. “It’s not encouraged but it is tolerated.”
In the past 20 years Anderson has seen Amish youth purchase everything from rollerblades and go-carts to $10,000 fishing boats with 60 horsepower motors. And they enjoy these “toys” as much as any American teenager.
When Anderson asked the young boy on the motor-scooter when he was going to choose to be baptized, the boy grinned and said, “When I get tired of riding this motor-scooter.”
And as more high-tech gadgets work their way onto the Amish farms of LaGrange, Indiana, Anderson fears that Amish children like the teenager on the motor-scooter will choose to wait longer and longer before being baptized. Until, eventually, they decide to forego their Amish heritage altogether.
“It’s getting harder for them to keep the modern world out. But I suppose that’s just part of a progression. We have religion and are handed down rules and we typically go along with it because that’s what mom and dad did. But as adults we look at some of those rules and say, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ Still, I see all of this commercialization creeping into their lives and it makes me sad because their lives are so beautiful. But it’s hard to hold on.”