Some time ago I encountered an elderly Amish man in our local coffee shop. He was eager to talk to strangers, which is rare for an Amish man, and I struck up a conversation. I sat and listened.
I learned that his two children were grown and had left the state; people don’t realize how much the Amish are on the move, taking rocky ground in Missouri and upstate New York and making something of it, starting new communities. But they do use Amtrak and hire vans so they can visit each other. I discovered that this man’s children didn’t come visit often and there was some estrangement, learned that his first wife had died, and that he’d remarried against the advice of his community. His second wife was a long-time bachelorette, and he was her first husband. Therefore she was a good deal more independent than a normal Amish wife, and even though “they warned me,” he said, “She burns my ears.” Suddenly, I understood why he was talking to strangers.
My father-in-law sold agricultural products, fertilizers, etc., in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, (densest concentration of Amish in the world) all his life. He’s 78 years old, and he’s never heard an Amish man talk like this. He was never an insider, as far as the Amish are concerned, but he wasn’t enough of an outsider for them to open up that way. After all, he knew them and knew their neighbors. He might have kept a secret if asked, but he wasn’t to be trusted. He was “English.”
What allowed this to happen? I wasn’t too busy to listen. That’s the first piece. You have to slow down if you want these sort of encounters. The second remarkable thing here is that the man lived in a “we-told-you-so” community where there was not a single empathetic ear for his problems with his second wife, so he took it outside the community. I was far enough outside his community that word couldn’t travel back. I asked his name at one point, and he wouldn’t give it.
If you want to develop authentic community, you have to refrain from creating a “We-told-you-so” culture. When people take their problems away somewhere, going “off to town” to find an outlet, it makes restoration and reconciliation difficult. For an Amish man to share his story with me seems rather harmless, but there’s potential for a much darker side to this phenomenon.