How be­com­ing Amish taught me the mean­ing of com­mu­nity

Bill and Tri­cia Moser gave up their sub­ur­ban lives to join the horse-and-buggy so­ci­ety

Toronto Star - - LIFE - JEFF SMITH AND BILL MOSER THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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:

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 pop mu­sic. They re­ject gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in cit­i­zens’ lives to the point of re­fus­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices such as 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 aus- ter­ity, 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.

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 Sun­day­morn­ing 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 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.

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 start-up 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.

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. 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.

BILL MOSER

Former Michi­gan sub­ur­ban­ites found that be­ing part of a strong, tight-knit com­mu­nity ful­filled a deep hu­man need.

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