We left subur­bia to be­come Amish and learned what com­mu­nity re­ally means

The Amish be­lieve cap­i­tal­ism ‘should fo­cus fore­most on sup­port­ing families and com­mu­nity’

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - JEFF SMITH AND BILL MOSER

TWENTY YEARS AGO, when Bill and Tri­cia Moser were in their late 30s, they stepped away from their up­per-mid­dle class lives in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and joined the horse-and-buggy Amish. No more BMWs. No more ar­chi­tec­tural ca­reer for him. No more oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy ca­reer for her. No more happy hours with the cre­ative class. No more hair sa­lon. Mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to live out their faith in a more mo­ment-by-mo­ment way, the Mosers chose home­made clothes, built pal­lets for money, tried to learn horse­man­ship and fo­cused time on their chil­dren, their faith and their com­mu­nity. In this es­say, the Mosers share some of the lessons they learned from the Amish:

1. The Amish defy po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cat­e­gories

Liv­ing among them helped us shape our life in a way guided by faith, not by gen­eral so­ci­etal ex­pec­ta­tions. For us, a fas­ci­nat­ing part of the Amish jour­ney was see­ing how the peo­ple of this faith are both ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive and ex­tremely lib­eral all at the same time.

On the con­ser­va­tive side: They hold onto a give-no-ground stance on abor­tion and divorce. They ad­vo­cate ex­tremely mod­est dress. They re­ject of­fen­sive lyrics in pop­u­lar mu­sic. They re­ject gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in cit­i­zens’ lives to the point of re­fus­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices like so­cial se­cu­rity pay­ments or un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits — ben­e­fits most of them pay into and are en­ti­tled to. They are en­tre­pre­neur­ial, with many hav­ing their own busi­nesses. They ad­vo­cate fis­cal aus­ter­ity.

On the lib­eral side, the Amish refuse to fight in wars. They gather to build houses for one an­other, donat­ing their labour. They sup­port one an­other in busi­ness in a so­cial­ist-like way (more on that in a sec­ond). They agree as a com­mu­nity that no­body should be get­ting rich while oth­ers in the com­mu­nity are poor. And while Amish com­mu­ni­ties em­pha­size the con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­pals of fis­cal aus­ter­ity, they do so with what most Amer­i­cans would view as a com­pletely un­ac­cept­able so­cial­is­tic in­tru­sion into fam­ily life: In our com­mu­nity, a panel of church mem­bers reviews any fam­ily’s pur­chase de­ci­sion of more than $10,000. While some­how this way of life de­fies gen­eral so­ci­ety ex­pec­ta­tions, bound­aries and rules, it all makes sense, all achieves unity, all achieves sin­gu­lar­ity un­der the teach­ings of Je­sus, to honour God and care for our broth­ers and sis­ters.

2. Com­mu­nity is es­sen­tial

When we left gen­eral so­ci­ety, we were seek­ing a com­mu­nity of faith where we could im­merse in a shared sense of the Bi­ble, a shared set of val­ues and shared life goals. We wanted to live where our in­ter­ac­tion with faith was not just a Sun­day-morn­ing ser­vice and a Wed­nes­day-evening Bi­ble study, but in­stead a mo­ment-by-mo­ment part of our lives. Liv­ing among the Amish gave us that. When we gather with com­mu­nity mem­bers in a field to cut hay for horse feed, in a kitchen to can ap­ple­sauce for the year, at a home site to build a barn, or even as we watch bug­gies pass our home on their way to school, each mo­ment of that life, that work, that to­geth­er­ness is an ex­pres­sion of our faith. We do not feel the sep­a­ra­tion of church and life that we felt when we were part of gen­eral so­ci­ety, even though we at­tended fine churches.

We found that be­ing part of a strong, tight com­mu­nity ful­filled a deep hu­man need, a need that God cre­ated in us. Je­sus speaks of our need to be part of a com­mu­nity, but our sec­u­lar philoso­phers do so as well. As Wen­dell Berry said, “We have thus come again to the para­dox that one can be­come whole only by the re­spon­si­ble ac­cep­tance of one’s par­tial­ity.” We lived the truth of that state­ment.

3. Cap­i­tal­ism can and should be done in a more hu­mane way

It should fo­cus fore­most on sup­port­ing families and com­mu­nity ver­sus en­rich­ing in­di­vid­u­als.

Though the Amish would re­ject the term “en­tre­pre­neur­ial” as a pride­ful no­tion to avoid, the Amish launch many busi­nesses and have a very high startup sur­vival rate. So­ci­ol­o­gist Donald Kray­bill, who has stud­ied the Amish ex­ten­sively, found 95 per cent of new Amish busi­nesses were still go­ing af­ter five years — far higher than in gen­eral so­ci­ety. But we found that the Amish achieve that re­mark­able cap­i­tal­is­tic suc­cess in part by us­ing prin­ci­ples that could be viewed as so­cial­is­tic.

For one, the Amish help one an­other — even com­peti­tors — to a sur­pris­ing de­gree. A tomato farmer might teach an­other farmer to grow toma­toes, and then they’d sell op­po­site one an­other in the same farm mar­ket. When we first be­came Amish, we bought a pal­let busi­ness from an Amish man, and at the clos­ing of the deal, the seller, whom I did not know prior to the busi­ness deal, re­al­ized that I did not have enough money to pur­chase the ini­tial lum­ber I would need. He sim­ply said, “I will just leave $10,000 in the check­ing ac­count that you can use and you can pay me back when you are able.” In the view of Amer­i­can com­merce, that was a ridicu­lously risky un­se­cured loan with noth­ing signed, no pa­per­work of any kind. In the lan­guage of our Amish com­mu­nity, that was brother­hood.

In many cases, when com­pa­nies do have em­ploy­ees, there are built-in ways for work­ers to earn an own­er­ship stake — sweat eq­uity — so they can share in the prof­its. The com­mu­nity has a re­al­is­tic un­der­stand­ing that a fam­ily needs a cer­tain amount of money to lead a healthy life. Ob­vi­ously there are ex­cep­tions to all of this, but in the Amish com­mu­ni­ties where we have lived, that gen­er­ally means the owner of the com­pany makes less than would be the case in gen­eral so­ci­ety, and the work­ers make more. The Amish see this as an­other ex­pres­sion of Je­sus’ teach­ings of com­mu­nity of faith.

4. Ed­u­ca­tion can hap­pen out­side a school­room

My wife and I both went to col­lege. Our broader fam­ily is highly ed­u­cated. My wife’s brother is a chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer at a univer­sity. My brother’s wife is a ge­net­ics re­searcher with a doc­tor­ate at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. Nearly all of our sib­lings and their chil­dren have col­lege de­grees. So when my wife and I an­nounced we were join­ing a cul­ture that ended for­mal school­ing upon com­ple­tion of eighth grade, it caused much ten­sion within our fam­ily. Ed­u­ca­tion was the sin­gle most con­tro­ver­sial as­pect of our be­com­ing Amish. And while it’s true that our chil­dren have only an eighth-grade ed­u­ca­tion for­mally, as adults they are con­stant read­ers and con­stant learn­ers, and when viewed by a broader mea­sure of “Are our chil­dren suc­cess­ful in life?” the an­swer is yes.

When ar­gu­ing the 1972 Supreme Court case that al­lowed the Amish to leave school af­ter eighth grade, the lawyer Wil­liam Ball built his ar­gu­ment with tes­ti­mony from a county wel­fare agent, a sher­iff and a school ad­min­is­tra­tor, ask­ing questions like, “Are any Amish on wel­fare?” No. “Are any Amish break­ing the law?” No. “Are any Amish a prob­lem in school?” No. The point the at­tor­ney was mak­ing is that we need to as­sess the suc­cess of Amish ed­u­ca­tion from a more holis­tic van­tage point.

Our el­dest son is part owner of a metal fabri­ca­tion com­pany. Our sec­ond-old­est son is run­ning a truss build­ing com­pany. Our third son works at an or­phan­age in Ecuador. Our fourth son is learn­ing to run a lum­ber­yard. Our daugh­ter is a teacher. Our youngest son is just now 18, and his ca­reer will take shape later. My wife and I feel God did not make us to sit in class­room chairs for 13 years and learn mostly from books. Life is more com­plex than that.

Fi­nal note about ed­u­ca­tion. When my brother-in-law, the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, was vis­it­ing re­cently, he asked to see the books of the truss build­ing busi­ness that our son runs, and I could just see him work­ing to get his mind around the fact that my son, who never had for­mal school­ing, was run­ning a com­pany of this scale with such a skill for or­ga­ni­za­tion and ac­count­ing. We are not say­ing ev­ery­body should stop school­ing in eighth grade. That ap­proach is part of the Amish faith, and they have a sys­tem of sup­port built around that. But we do feel Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion can learn from the Amish’s more whole-brain way of learn­ing.

5. There were as­pects of Amish life that weren’t for us

Ul­ti­mately, we left the horse-and-buggy Amish and tran­si­tioned to an Amish-Men­non­ite church, which is based on the same state­ment of faith as our Amish church but dif­fers in some ways cul­tur­ally. We drive cars now and are not so sep­a­rate from gen­eral so­ci­ety. A main rea­son we made that tran­si­tion was the lan­guage bar­rier. The Amish cul­ture speaks Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man, a lan­guage my wife and I were never able to learn — we felt like ex­pats in Amish na­tion. And de­spite a will­ing­ness on the part of our churches to pro­vide trans­la­tion dur­ing church and com­mu­nity mem­bers’ will­ing­ness to speak English to us when vis­it­ing, the lan­guage dif­fer­ence felt like a screen be­tween us and the depth of spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence we sought.

Also, the horse-and-buggy Amish are strongly devoted to be­ing sep­a­rate from so­ci­ety, but we felt a de­sire to share our mes­sage of faith with a broader world, and the Amish-Men­non­ite church we joined is more open to that shar­ing. This es­say is part of our de­sire to share.

6. It’s not easy be­com­ing a horse­man in mid­dle age

You can ask our chil­dren for the de­tails.

Bill Moser is a life­long friend of writer Jeff Smith. The two re­cently col­lab­o­rated on a book about the jour­ney of Moser and his wife, Tri­cia, called “Be­com­ing Amish.” It was re­leased last month. Wash­ing­ton Post

Young Amish men fol­low the cadence of a caller at an auc­tion in Mar­ion, Mich., in 2013.

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