- All images © Mary Swander. All rights reserved.
What Would the Amish Do?
I glanced over the crowd, recognizing most of them as my neighbors: the
Yoders, Millers, Benders, and Ropps, the Gingeriches, Weavers, and Masts.
But one Amish man caught my eye, a handsome fifty-something fellow with
a shock of jet-black hair. He sat in the men's circle, joking and laughing
with the others, his blue eyes dancing with intensity. Who was he? I'd
never seen him before. Maybe he was from out of town Indiana or
Ohio. Many of the Amish and even some of the former teachers had traveled
great distances for the Fairview School Reunion. But no, the strange man
had arrived earlier in the day driving his own horse. He lived in the
We squatted on the short, wooden benches under the canopy of the tent
in the middle of my pasture, balancing our meals on our laps. On that
sunny Saturday afternoon, my Amish neighbors filled the old baseball diamond,
their horses tied to my fence, their children swinging from the old iron
rings of the playground equipment. A fifty-foot-long table overflowed
with a potluck dinner: hot dogs and hamburgers, three-bean salad and custard
pie, meatloaf, sliced tomatoes and zucchini bread. The men sat on one
side of the table, their straw hats tossed in a pile by the garden gate.
The women sat on the other side, their bonnets piled on top of the bureau
in my old one-room schoolhouse. I
plopped down in an old lawn chair in the middle of the women's section
and reached for the squeeze bottle of homemade ketchup that was moving
down the line from grandma to daughter to granddaughter.
Just before noon, the Amish had pulled up to my schoolhouse in their
buckboards and buggies, toting their picnic baskets filled with food from
their farms and gardens. My neighbors rounded the flag pole, the red,
white and blue Iowa flag billowing out into the breeze. A seventy year-old
man, one hand holding a casserole dish and the other covering his heart,
stood still in my driveway staring up at the flag. "I pledge allegiance,"
he began as if he were seven years old again.
Others made their way around my garden, nodding their approval to my
neatly planted rows of fall vegetables, the collards, kale, spinach and
peas just beginning to peek above the soil.
"Who cleaned up your garden?" Ada Yoder asked, glancing at
me from the corner of her eyes, her mouth turned up in a sly smile.
I had spent the week pulling up the remains of the summer garden, taming
the wildness of the peas, lettuce and spinach that had gone to seed. But
my pride in my unusually neat garden gave way to curiosity about the stranger.
Who is that man over there? I was tempted to ask Ada. I felt myself falling
into the persona of the small town biddy who needs to know everyone
what they do and do not do every day of the week.
Under the tent in the women's circle I held my tongue, my eyes scanning the stranger in detail the tightness of his chest, the firm roundness of his muscular biceps and triceps. Many Amish people are exceptionally good-looking, fit for the movies. But most Amish, having never seen a film or even a television show, are completely unassuming about their striking physical appearance.
The stranger was no exception. His dark eyebrows knit together over a
face that so resembled Clark Gable's that you could imagine him on a matinee
poster, bent over Scarlett O'Hara ready for a long, forceful kiss. The
stranger had that same knowing, Rhett Butler stare. Clean shaven, the
stranger's face told me he was a single person, something unusual for
an Amish man his age. Who could this be? I asked myself.
Suddenly, I knew. My palms began to sweat. Unlike Scarlett, I couldn't
think about it tomorrow. Today was today and the stranger stood there
in my yard. The stranger was Jesse. Jesse the buggy maker who had been
shunned. The man who had gone so far beyond the bounds of the Amish lifestyle
that he had been pushed out of the culture, isolated, left without an
income or a social life. The Amish never talk about shunning to someone
like me, an "English" person. And I don't ask. It is a deeply
personal business. I never really knew the details of Jesse's transgression.
Gossip among the English suggested bad business dealings. But I knew enough
to know that it takes a grievous action to get shunned. And I knew that
Jesse's shunning had affected the whole neighborhood.
A couple of years ago, I had awoken in the middle of the night, smelling
smoke. I scurried around my schoolhouse frantically pulling on clothes,
searching for fire. I checked the basement, grabbed a flashlight, stumbled
outside and checked the propane tank, then the pasture. Finally, I concluded
that the smoke was coming from the south, carried by the wind. Someone
burning rubbish at two o'clock in the morning? I went back to sleep. In
the morning I discovered that one of my neighbors' barns had burned down.
No one could figure out why.
A few weeks after that, another neighbor's shed caught on fire, the flames
leaping toward his house, licking the window where his two young daughters
slept. The neighborhood went on edge. Up and down the road, around the
neighborhood, the word traveled. The house could have burned down, too
those young girls could have been killed. We were clearly the victims
of arson. And several weeks after that, a can of gasoline and drenched
rags were found near the door of the functional one-room Amish school
just up the road. I lay awake at night. My heart felt as if it were sinking
into a pothole in the middle of my chest. Now they're burning down schoolhouses,
Next, a fire broke out in the night at the General Store, and the storeowner
caught Jesse at the scene.
was taken before the elders, where he confessed and begged forgiveness
not only for the arson but for his other past deeds. He admitted that
his shunning had made him so angry that he sought revenge. To beg for
forgiveness in front of the Amish is a humiliating act, but once it is
done, all is wiped clean. The shunning was lifted, and Jesse mended his
ways. He began making his living as a buggy maker again, and there he
was at the Fairview School Reunion sitting among the people of the neighborhood.
When the Nickel
Mines school shooting took place in Pennsylvania this fall, the whole
world was stunned by the Amish reaction to the event. The Nickel Mines
Amish were immediately concerned about the welfare of the killer's family.
They attended the killer's funeral and met with his family.
"If anything good came of this horrible event, " I told my
Amish neighbor, "it was the example the Amish gave the world."
"Oh, yes," she said, "I suppose you people would have
sued the killer's wife."
"Well, if we can be a witness, then..." her voice trailed off.
I explained that an acquaintance had been so impressed by the Pennsylvania
Amish that she formed an organization called The
Office of Good Deeds to promote compassionate behavior towards others.
She even had bumper stickers printed up asking: What Would the Amish Do?
When another Amish neighbor heard this news, he quipped, "And I
suppose the English will put that sticker on their bumpers right next
to: Support Our Troops."
The concept of Amish forgiveness at the Nickel Mines School may have
amazed the world, but it didn't surprise me at the Fairview School. The
Amish culture so unlike our contemporary society is bonded
together not only through exchanging news and seeds over the garden fence,
but through every single aspect of life. Theirs is a society that understands
the significance both of cementing bonds and of breaking those bonds,
of what may result when one individual becomes isolated from the fabric
Jesse broke the bond of trust in the Amish society. Then he was purposefully
isolated from the group, all Amish support severed. Ironically, in turn,
his isolation, which was supposed to teach him a lesson, only drove him
to escalate the conflict. Yet at the moment of his apprehension, wisdom
prevailed. The Amish didn't have him arrested. They didn't seek revenge.
They didn't run out and burn down his barn. They gave him a chance to
ask for forgiveness. And they quickly forgave.
I imagine that the Nickel Mines Amish had had practice with forgiveness.
I imagine that they had seen it play out in their own communities. They
must have had experience with their own transgressors. They must have
put out their own barn fires. And when they were faced with one of the
biggest challenges of their lives the deaths of their own offspring
they were ready to practice one of the central tenets of their
faith: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass
I had seen forgiveness play out before me in my very own pasture, under the tent on an afternoon filled with stories of young children playing softball and learning their sums, sledding down the hill and over the frozen creek, reciting poems and singing carols during the Christmas pageant. I felt forgiveness as the plates of raw garden vegetables and dip went around. But it took awhile before I myself could embrace forgiveness. Finally, with a deep breath I took it into my own hands when the bottle of ketchup passed from neighbor to neighbor to storeowner, from one woman to another, and finally I reached across the table and placed it gently in Jesse's palm.