The Amish are often laughed at and misunderstood. This is the story of a gay man who does not regret his Amish upbringing.
In the mornings the bedroom glows gold, sunbeams streaming in through the window framed by linen curtains.
My bed is a single mattress pushed against the wall, Mom and Dad’s bed in the center with dark wooded closet doors on the other side of the room.
Mornings begin with Mom bustling in to wake me up, her warm coffee-colored eyes smiling, smoothing her apron. “Ach James!” She would exclaim in her Pennsylvania Dutch brogue “bish du sloffa?”
Are you sleeping?
By contrast Dad’s ocean-blue eyes glanced at me over the breakfast table with a stern air. Did I finish my oatmeal? Was my homework completed? Was I reading under the covers with a flashlight again?
Yes, yes and maybe.
After morning chores and breakfast Dad settled into the living room rocking chair to watch out the window for the school bus.
“Du comte bus.” Here comes the bus.
Here comes the bus and out the door, down to the mailbox I would race, every school day from kindergarten until graduating the eighth grade.
Amish living is about plain living and obedience to the church. My parents remained lifelong members even after all us children left, I being the baby of the Schwartz family. Our Amish status almost changed one day when I was about seven or eight. Amish living is about plain living and obedience to the church. My parents remained lifelong members even after all us children left, I being the baby of the Schwartz family. Our Amish status almost changed one day when I was about seven or eight.
Amish that break church rules are shunned placed in “the bann.” No one will talk, eat with, accept a gift from or visit with one until one make things right with the Bishop and a confession of wrong-doing before the entire church takes place. A vote is then taken whether or not to reinstate.
I came home from school one day to our farmhouse with its many windows and hardwood floors. Mom had just purchased a large, woven circular rug that nearly took up the entire room. Mom smiled as I happily flopped around on the rug in front of the oil-stove with my nightly reading. “Nightly” as in three or four nights.
How cozy to curl up in front of the dining room stove and delve into my books after school. Soon after, when I arrived home from school the new rug (and my new reading nook) was gone. The dining room hardwood floors gleaming as before. I am immediately upset.
Apparently, an Amish visitor reported back to the Bishop about our new rug which was deemed too “worldly” (like non-Amish carpet). A chastised Mom brushed off my wails of outrage.
In the early 1900s the Amish were more integrated with mainstream American society as everyone drove horse drawn carriages.
Through the years Amish opted out of Model T cars, electricity, television, telephones and higher education. Plain living, Christian simplicity and family prized above all. Shunning is a way to punish those in the community that are not conforming and / or disobedient. Today the Amish seem even further removed from society with the advent of Snapchat culture, Foursquare check-ins and Pope Francis asking “Who am I to judge gays?”
Amish Bishops have no such qualms.
Being gay is considered sexual immorality, they will not marry same-sex couples even in a marriage equality state, and any questions can be answered courtesy of Leviticus.
My world is Mom; I hang on her dress hem at all times. I rush home to her from school, chattering merrily away as she prepares dinner. She is as kind and loving as Dad is jovial and fun loving. In the back yard she tends a large vegetable garden and cans of corn; green beans, beets and homemade fruit jellies, stored in the cellar. She is constantly cooking and cleaning the two story house, scrubbing the floors, while Dad is in the fields until late at night.
Spring is a flurry of cleaning, Dad on his plough, the rich Midwestern soil churning in ribbons behind him. I grab a book and disappear up the apple tree in the back yard. During the summers I help Dad bale hay, driving the tractor.
On Saturday nights Mom pops a bowl of popcorn, Dad peels apples and we sing hymns and Mom plays the accordion in the living room.
On our church Sundays (services are bi-weekly, off Sundays are for family time or visiting), I sit with her at church and won’t hear of sitting with the other boys. Men sit with men, the boys with boys, women with women and girls with girls. One must be hardy to sit for hours through Amish church services on hard wooden benches. I am taught to sit still and listen to the seemingly endless German preaching which I didn’t understand but would somewhat learn over time. When I do sit with Dad I must sit straight and not fall asleep. When I refuse to sit still Dad takes me out behind the barn and thrashes me. When I finish wailing he ushers me back inside.
Amish understand it can be difficult for children to sit through the long preaching and midway through services several cake pans divided into rows of homemade sugar cookies, Saltine and graham crackers are passed around. I greedily snatch three cookies; Dad slaps a cookie from my hand back in the pan.
The Gregorian-esque hymns composed by our Anabaptist ancestors while imprisoned in Europe are slowly sung and beautiful to hear, less so the droning sermons heralding fire and brimstone.
While the Amish can freely leave the community the reality is leaving behind your family and entire faith community. How many people can do that? Cherry-picking Scriptures, minimal contact with the outside world and community conformity keep the Old Order in order.
No, you cannot have a TV, a same-sex partner or carpet in your house… or overly large rugs.
A precocious, outgoing boy, I submit to Mom’s haircuts without fuss. I wished I looked more English and fiercely dislike wearing my straw hat; I dislike my bowl haircut, plain home-spun clothes and wearing galluses (suspenders) especially later during my sullen teenager phase. Why can’t we have a car, electricity, a TV?
That is not for Our People.
All the holiday celebrations at school fuel me with additional questions including the classic, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?” I was upset everyone seemed to have a tree and cheery holiday decorations on our road but us Amish. To which I received a classic Amish parenting response: “That is not for Our People.” Our People, Our Way. Every Amish person hears that growing up.
I beg and beg until Mom cuts a tree shape out of cardboard, spray painting it gold and decorating it with cut out candles and sleighs from greeting-cards. This is a favorite memory of Mom and our last Christmas together.
My childhood comes to an abrupt end with the autumn winds of 1987, not with a bang but with the creaking of the rug-less dining room floorboards. It is very late, well after midnight. Mom’s shadow shuffles about in the darkness by the oil stove as she settles into a chair. I hear a sharp gasp and moan of pain. Of agony. “Mom!” I scream and rush out of bed, to her side. I’m dramatic like that.
“Ach James” Mom sighs as I bury my face against her, “go to bed.” I refuse and drowse in the darkness as she rocks back and forth, rubbing her back.
Thus begins a near nightly ritual. Mom moaning and rubbing her back while I try to help.
Dad no longer snores through the night. He lies silently and alone in their bed, for the first time I hear him crying.
Mom is now in the hospital more and for longer periods. She shows me the scar where her breast was and explains what she can.
I don’t understand death at all. I dislike the shiny wheelchair suddenly in the house.
I have ex Amish family who suddenly seem to be around more, conversations abruptly stopping when I bound into the room, doll in hand. I am allowed to spend the night with my non-Amish cousins to my great delight. I don’t stop to question why I am allowed this treat. We play Barbie dolls and watch cartoons on TV. I try out my cousin’s curling iron in the bathroom, forgetting to turn it off.
“James, were you playing with the curling iron?”
“No.” I smooth a new curl. I am having such a great time I don’t want to leave.
Dad takes me by the hand when I arrive home, tears in his eyes. “Mom died” his voice is ragged.
I feel my heart drop, break, and disintegrate. She lies on a hospital bed in the living room, beside now silent oxygen tanks.
Dad too will leave this world on the very same spot, twenty three years later.
I am numb with grief. The funeral seems to go on forever. I tune out the preachers who drone on in high German but sit still as I’ve been taught to do. I sob silently and am not alone. The packed room seethes with repressed emotion. Mom’s funeral is attended by hundreds. When at last I am led by the casket, time seems to stand still.
This is the last time I’ll see her face,
this is the last time I’ll see her face…
My splitting headache returns. In the Amish culture hugging and showing affection is rare. Mom may have passed away but certain stoicism is expected from me.
I sit hunched over.
Someone remarks that I’m “white as a sheet.”
Their voice sounds far away.
This is the last time… This is the last time…
The following weeks and months are punctuated by soft spoken visitors. Dad is a man of few words and now barely speaks. There is nothing to say. I wake up with headaches and cry myself to sleep for months. I imagine curling up with Mom in her casket, a morbid thought which soothes me to sleep. Or most often, I ward off sleep by reading all night and go to school exhausted. At school I go through the motions, much like church. Other Amish children stare at me in open pity. One boy obviously has issues. After services one Sunday he kicks me. “Ha ha, your Mom died.” I walk away. He shoves me into the mud and kicks me in the head for good measure.
His shrill chant burns through my brain as I go to sleep at night. Ha ha.
A van load of Amish pay a visit one day. While everyone is in the living room visiting I take a pair of scissors to the numerous bonnets on the front porch, cutting out the backs for no reason whatsoever, other than the idea had suddenly occurred to me. An early artistic statement?
The Amish women are shocked but try to turn it into a joke. Well, most.
I am promptly spanked by Dad and sent to bed. All artists must suffer for their art.
Structured on the Ordnung (German word for rules or order) Amish life is based on the New Testament’s spiritual principles. A foundation that dictates what is and is not acceptable within the community. The Ordnung shapes the Amish lifestyle from style of buggy and dress down to the width of a man’s hat or length of a woman’s dress.
When you are baptized and join the Amish you are making a promise for life to be an obedient church member and live within the community guidelines. Therefore, when a member breaks the rules the community shuns them until they repent and are voted back. This is the Amish Way of maintaining the purity of the church.
Many Amish are deeply superstitious Mom was. A bird hitting the window, for example, meant someone you knew had died.
The world is viewed as a wicked and sinful place to be feared, best to keep as separate from it as possible. I could never see it as such. Yes, the world was full of pain and suffering but it seemed like a sin to separate from society, rather un-Christ like.
“Rumspringa” (running around) and reality TV shows aside, all Amish in their teens or twenties must decide whether to be baptized in the church or leave. Roughly eighty-five to ninety percent choose to stay.
I came out of the closet in my early twenties to be true to myself and choose not to worry about other people’s judgments and opinions.
Mom and Dad loved me and that’s good enough for me.
In today’s post DOMA, DADT, Prop 8 America some Amish have begun discussing the issue of homosexuality.
LGBTAmish.com is now the first online outreach, offering support and resources.
For the first time LGBT Amish were supported at a Pride event August 23rd, 2014 at Michigan Pride by yours truly and Miss Kalamazoo Pride 2014 Ladonna Divine.
Mennonites are also moving forward on LGBT issues. My book of poetry The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America (inGroup Press, 2011) was a tool for several counselors helping gay Amish / ex Amish teens, I was pleased to learn. Mennonites are also moving forward on LGBT issues.
Fundamentalist attitudes and intolerance prevail but dialogue and support are an important first step towards a day when the Amish welcome home their shunned gay and lesbian children, a day when a gay Amish teen does not have to choose the Amish closet (built from English timber) and a day when the church (itself founded on reformation) recognizes the love of a few is equal to their hetero majority.
Only two words are needed: welcome home.
My parents are from a generation that had little and was expected to work hard to provide for their family.
Born in a time when there was little difference between Amish and their farmer neighbors Dad saw a near century. He had a third grade education, lived through during the Great Depression, jumped train cars and hitchhiked to get around in his younger years and made a life as a farmer, carpenter and brick-mason.
He lived to see President Barack Obama elected, LGBT rights –my rights- become a global issue as the tides turned and watched the world pass by from his rocking chair.
Sitting down to a simple dinner, even my cooking, made him happy. His family values not a catch-phrase but family and friends at the dinner table after a hard day’s work, a smile and time for everyone. An Amish woman stops me in public one day just to tell me “how much we miss seeing your Dad in church, it’s just not the same without him.”
I am fortunate to have witnessed a time when family gathered under the shade tree after a day of work to visit with each other, the ice-cream was homemade and the pace of life slower. A day that began with sunbeams streaming through the windows and coloring the room and hardwood floors gold.
Photos courtesy of the author.
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