Monday, March 25, 2013

Leaving The Amish

Saloma Miller Furlong (photo courtesy of DNR)
Last week our local paper published an article on Saloma Miller Furlong’s visit to Eastern Mennonite University to discuss her memoir, "Why I Left the Amish". As an ex-Amish myself, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the piece, one that may or may not have accurately portrayed her beliefs or values, of course.

According to the article, Saloma made her decision to leave her Amish family and community at age 20 to get her “dream job as a waitress at Pizza Hut” and later to become a published author, one of several things she said she could not have accomplished otherwise. (“Leaving The Amish,” March 16, 2013 Daily News-Record).

A part of what motivated her to leave her family was her having an abusive father who suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She did say he later was prescribed medication and “never abused his family again”, but her emotional wounds were obviously painful and deep. 

My own experience was quite different, in that I grew up in an imperfect but deeply caring family, but I also left my own Amish community (at age 21), not to get away from an unhappy past but in order to attend college and become a teacher. My parents weren't really happy about that, but gave their begrudging blessing, though they were afraid I would meet and marry a Mennonite girl if I attended what was then Eastern Mennonite College (which is exactly what happened!). 

Unlike Saloma, who still seems to see the proverbial grass on the other side of the fence as undoubtedly greener, I recognize both the costs and the benefits of my choice. On balance I don’t regret my decision, but there are many things about the community I grew up in that I will always miss. When it comes to the most primal of human needs for identity, security and belonging, I may never be able to celebrate for myself and for our children as much as I have left behind. 

I do feel I have an expanded life, and our children and grandchildren have increased opportunities to accomplish more things. Whether all of these are, in the end, truly better things is a judgment I'm not yet ready to make. I do want to be sure that in striving to have our children experience more of what we didn't have growing up, that we don't deny them some of the good things we did have--simplicity, community, humility and a set of basic, down-to-earth life skills I largely took for granted growing up in that faith community. 

I felt Saloma's story could have simply focused on an individual leaving a family in which an abusive father failed to get some desperately needed medical help until it was too late to salvage his relationship with his daughter. Instead, the article portrayed their whole community as dark and abusive in a way that I felt was completely undeserved.

The Amish are far from perfect, and are the first to say so. But like a kind of Protestant monastic movement, they teach us the wisdom of not blindly embracing every innovation as automatically bettering our lives and that of our communities, and of following Jesus' example of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving and blessing our neighbors everywhere--and even our enemies--as ourselves. It's almost certain that our planet would be far better off if it were inhabited by far, far more of them.

P.S. For your information, Saloma, there are numerous Amish who are published authors. One of my favorites is David Kline, a self-taught naturalist, organic farmer and Amish bishop from your home state of Ohio. Then there is Linda Byler, a Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) Amish author of best selling novels about her people who remains a member of the group to this day.

To read more of my Amish-related posts, check this link

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