Sherry Suib Cohen

AMAZING GRACE

Excerpts from Amazing Grace

It was mashed potatoes to get Elizabeth Taylor, Cher and the wife of the President of the United States to sit for an interview compared to getting Rachel Yutzy to talk to me.

Rachel is a member of the Old Order Amish, descendants of the strict religious sect called Anabaptists who, fleeing from religious persecution, emigrated from Switzerland to America early in the eighteenth century. Today, living in 227 settlements in 23 American states and Canada, the Amish stubbornly resist looking and acting different from the way they looked and acted over two hundred years ago.

To them, change is the enemy that will cause them to lose all that is dear--predominately an all-consuming belief in Christ, family and community. While the rest of the world embraces a culture revering what’s new and easy--the Amish carefully retain what’s traditional and hard--and they do it with joy. With all Rachel’s heart, she believes that the exact ways her ancestors did things is more than good enough for her. She never heard of Sally Jessy. She never heard of software.

One of the things an Amish young woman did in 1737 was to flee from all personal attention to herself, all public recognition: it would be prideful--one of the most terrible moral sins imaginable. While it’s become a cliché that most young people today are searching to “find themselves”, the Amish look to “lose themselves”--to become an invisible member of a group, not a stand-out individual. Finding herself quoted in a magazine article would be a form of pride and it would horrify and embarrass Rachel Yutzy--which is why every name except for one in this article, is a pseudonym.

The only woman I can quote by name is Fay Landis who was my angel, my secret route to the Amish. Fay is a member of the Mennonite church, a less rigid religious order which also traces its lineage to the Swiss Anabaptists. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites consider themselves part of the world which means they have electricity in their homes, own cars and telephones and don’t necessarily adhere to an exquisitely literal interpretation of the Bible. Although religious and simple in her approach to life, Fay has heard of software. She and her husband operate a tiny but welcoming bed and breakfast on their 110 acre dairy farm in the town of Strasburg in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I came to her lodgings through a friend of a friend and Fay, whom the Amish trust, has agreed to try to help me meet some traditional Amish women--providing I convince her (so she can convince them) that I will not reveal their identities.

I’ve already tried by myself to make contact with an Amish woman--and no luck--I strike out on every count as if I’m an ax murderer. The Amish are utterly private and, aside from their business dealings with the world, almost totally unreachable by “the English” which is what they call anyone who doesn’t speak in their private language--a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch.

But then, I find Fay--and that contact has been enough to persuade Rachel Yutzy to spend an hour or so with me.

The Lancaster County Amish are spread out over an area of small hamlets with names like Blue Ball and Intercourse--which sends a lot of dumb tourists snickering to the local post offices to get their postcards home stamped accordingly. I begin my journey to the people whom time forgot in one of these small towns: it’s the weekend after the largest snow of the year and I’m directed to follow a “long country lane” to a farmhouse nestled in the very center of what looks like a million pristinely white acres. I’ve come with my husband Larry--one, because alone, I’d get irrevocably lost in a million snow-covered acres but two, to show Rachel that I’m not a brazen ‘world woman’ traveling alone and I’m to be trusted because I come with a husband to whom I’m probably submissive (oh, right) as all Amish women are to their husbands.

A short interruption here: show me, I demand of Fay one night, exactly where in the Bible it says that women must be submissive to their husbands. It takes her about one minute to whip out the New Testament and point to the tenth book, Ephesians, where it does indeed say exactly that. Humph, I grumble.

Why Won’t They Change?

I knock hard on the door because--of course, I’ve forgotten!--there is no doorbell. A pretty woman in her late twenties answers and beckons us in: it’s Rachel with blonde hair parted in the center and pulled back into a sparse knot at the base of her neck. She wears a solid, dark blue dress that reaches her black-stockinged ankles, a long black apron and a white organdy head-covering with two narrow tie strings loosely hanging down her back. Two little girls dressed like their mother and a small boy in a plain blue shirt with black suspendered pants, his bowl-cut hair in bangs (as all the men wear their hair) are playing quietly on the floor: on seeing us, the children begin to clamber over Rachel, staring with shy interest.

The Yutzy home is surprisingly large and it looks deliciously comfortable. The doorways between rooms are huge to accommodate the two or three hundred people who regularly gather at each other’s home for church services. On wall hooks hang the family’s outside clothes: straw, flat-brimmed hats for the boys (and men) and black bonnets and capes for the girls and women. Later, I find out that Rachel also has two older children who are at school and that this family is not even particularly large: the average Amish woman has seven or more children and Rachel tells me that her 59 year old neighbor has 86 grandchildren. The distinct roles of these boys and girls are operational from birth when announcements in the Amish newspaper identify the sex of the baby by its future occupation--Born to Brother Menos Peachey, a little dishwasher named Mary. The Enos Yoders are the parents of a little woodchopper named Shem.

Rachel and I are soon off and talking. Although years, miles, worlds and my Estee Lauder lipstick apart--amazingly, we are like women anywhere, able to connect. We’re alone: her dairy farmer husband is seeing to his chores in the fields and Larry has wandered out for a trudge in the snow (he’s had strict instructions from me to disappear for a while). I’m drawn to the calm sweetness of this woman: I look hard at her face which resembles that of a beautiful and driven writer colleague, but no--what could I be thinking? Rachel’s tranquility sets them irrevocably apart. These are some of the things she tells me:

The Amish preserve their way of life because, if they didn’t, they’d lose their culture--and that culture, Rachel says is immensely valuable. At night, the entire family gathers in the kitchen which, apart from the bathroom, is the only heated (with coal) and lit (with propane gas lamps) room. Everyone is together, the kids doing their homework, the father reading the paper, the mothers and eldest daughters sewing quilts. They love being together. It’s safe and fine. What would happen to the family if every room was heated and lit? The family would disperse, that’s what would happen--in more ways than one.

“You don’t even think about it,” says Rachel, “you don't even know you’re doing it to be together, to be family-strong: you do it because that’s where the heat is. And, when the heat dies down, the family all goes to sleep.”


And what would happen if there was a telephone? Well, she says, the family would have terrible interruptions(and she says it as if that would be a sin). “A girl would be talking to her mother and the girl’s friend might call--and the mother-talk would be finished,” says Rachel. “And if there were cars, everyone would scatter.”

SHUNNED!

Fay has someone else I must meet and I can’t wait. She is a shunned woman.


The Amish feel that excommunication from the Church is not a terrible-enough punishment for members who commit unpardonable sins like divorce or the purchase of a car. Although they are always welcome back if they repent, and the Amish always hope for the redemption of the shunned ones’ lost souls, to hasten their contrition, they’re shunned and ostracized from the others. Other Amish will try to avoid doing business with them but if a transaction is necessary, the church member won’t accept payment directly from the shunned member’s hand who must place his money on a surface from which the church member will pick it up. A shunned family member may attend a family gathering but can’t eat at the same table or from the same plates as the others. Parents must avoid shunned adult children and church members are forbidden sexual intercourse with their shunned spouses.

It’s a messy business.

Katie Zook and her husband Amos R. Zook call themselves NEW ORDER Amish: they’re shunned from the OLD ORDER Amish church because they committed the unpardonable sin of “assurance of salvation,” says Katie. “The Amish think it’s prideful and boastful (pride goes right to Hell!) to presume we’ll be saved when we die,” says Katie. “But, we do assume it....and so, we HAD to be shunned. It all started when my husband began studying the Bible--and reading and talking about the Bible makes you THINK about Scriptures. That’s forbidden, don’t you see.”

It’s true. The Amish don’t allow Bible study because critical analysis could lead to dissension and pride and something other than a literal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, people who readily quote the scriptures are called “scripture smart” and not approvingly either: flaunting superior knowledge goes against the grain of the Amish disdain for pridefulness. They have absolutely no talent for showing off.

“He wasn’t showing off but my husband couldn’t handle the idea that he wouldn’t be saved,” says Katie ruefully. “I could have stayed in the church if I shunned him, but I just couldn’t do that. So, we’re both out.”

Naturally, she’s bitter and angry, right? Wrong.

“Why would I be bitter? They HAVE to shun me--I understand that. I don’t at all look down on them. It’s our religion.”

“I can face it because I know what’s in peoples’ hearts. My mother-in-law, for example, gave me a brand new, hand-painted plate when we visited with her: I could eat from it because it had never been used and will never be used again. And, she put my separate table right up close to the rest of the family. Her heart doesn’t want to shun me. My children are still members of the Church and I want that for them--it’s the most Godly way and I wish I was still part of it.”

How Come The Kids Don’t Rebel--And Leave?
That’s the huge question. I ask it of Katie.
Why don’t the children of the inflexible Amish just run off and join the real world? Aren’t they desperate for change? How in the world do the Amish keep their kids down on the farm?

The answer is swift.

“They don’t--for a while.” Until a young person commits to being baptized into the church--and that usually happens some time after l6 and before 2l--he has some little-known and extraordinary freedom. It’s hardly ever written about in popular books about the Amish but here’s the real truth:

“When a boy or girl turns l6,” says Katie, “their parents look the other way for a while. In fact, our young people are really getting wilder and wilder: they run around in what they call ‘gangs,’ there’s lots of drag racing, drinking and even very quiet abortions taking place. One young man,” says Katie in horror, “even got a boom box. They’re out in the world sowing those wild oats--and if their parents secretly worry, the deacons reassure them.

“The parents pray. And, it turns out, 4 out of 5 of the teenagers come back. They didn’t change in their hearts. You can’t hardly be Un-Amish if you been raised Amish. They always come back.”

Later, the l8 year son of my Mennonite host explains:
“It always happens. Most of the Amish kids my age are desperate for change: they see what the tourists have and want it all, too. So, they join the world, have fun for a while--and then, they see the world isn’t there for them. First of all, where are you going to go with only an eighth grade education--their wings are clipped before they even start. Second, they come to understand that in their community they’re safe, they’re taken care of: if they have financial problems--the whole church chips in; if they’re sick, there are always folks to care for them; if their barn burns down, the neighbors raise another for them. Out there in the world--no one knows who they are: they’re lost. The deacons know this will happen: the kids come back.”

Amazing Grace

Larry and I have dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stoltzfus, another Old Order Amish couple who sometime invite “guests” to supplement their meager farm earnings. The table groans from platters of ham and “chicken with filling,” cut-glass compotes of corn and home-made applesauce and fabulous shoe-fly pie. The wispy-bearded Amish daddy looking something like a genial Munchkin, joins us at dinner. Mrs.Stoltzfus bustles around in the adjoining kitchen and sits down only for coffee. After dinner, the couple stands up straight together at the head of the table as they do every night (even without guests), and smiling and unembarrassed, sing some hymns -she with a reedy, impossibly-high soprano--he with a slightly off-key alto. It’s sweet, just sweet--no other word for it.

They invite us to join in. In my purse, I secretly tape the singing. Afterwards, listening to Larry and me warble Amazing Grace, I have a sense of having been in another time, another place: hard time, hard place--a place in which I would dread living--but listen, ineffably sweet.

The poet Edmund Spenser wrote of the “everwhirling wheel of change.”

It whirls not for the Amish.

I wish it would whirl a little less for me.

Selected Works

Non-fiction bookS
It Ain't All About The Cookin', a never-before-told, deeply confessional look at the butter-loving, finger-licking Queen of melt-in-your-mouth Southern Cuisine. Recipes too! New York Times #2 Best-Seller
A profoundly intimate look at a long marriage from a strong, witty, irreverent point of view.
Non-fiction magazine article
Inside the Amish community. Winner: American Society Journalists and Authors Best Article of the Year