What would it be like to be Amish?

NCC students find out

In many ways the lives of the Amish could not be more old-fashioned. They have no computers, TVs or radios. They travel by horse and carriage. Their children attend one-room school houses.

In other ways, the Amish are ahead of their time. They raised most of their own food long before "Farm to Table" became a rallying cry. And they use no electricity. They have never been on the grid.

On October 24, honors students from two intercultural communications classes at Northampton Community College traveled to Lancaster County to learn more about the Amish from the Amish themselves, a rare opportunity since most Amish to not socialize with the "English," their term for people who do not share their ways.

In typical Northampton fashion, the intercultural experience began before the students gathered at daybreak to board the Bieber bus for the two-hour journey that would take them past malls and housing developments to an area where there was farmland as far as the eye could see.

The students came from two different campuses, each with its own culture, but they'd met before when their professors, Donna Acerra and Christine Armstrong, brought them together to watch and discuss a documentary on the Amish in preparation for the trip. The easy camaraderie in the group was quickly extended to visiting professors from China and Peru who had been invited to join them on the field trip.

As the bus rolled out of the college parking lot, the professors encouraged students to put their cellphones on airplane mode "to get the full experience" of living without technology at least for a few hours. "Play tic-tac-toe," Armstrong joked. No one took her up on that suggestion. Some slept. The hour was early. One read The Kite Runner to prepare for another intercultural class she is taking. Most chatted and laughed, much to the pleasure of the professors who had hoped that the trip would further a sense of shared community. "That is what culture is all about," Acerra commented.

The professors interrupted the chatter only briefly to pass out the assignment for the day. Before the trip, the students identified aspects of Amish culture they wanted to learn more about. Acerra and Armstrong paired students from the Monroe Campus with students from the Main Campus and asked each team to focus on a specific topic - observing, asking questions, and discussing their findings throughout the day - in preparation for a report they would present to their class later.

Stop #1 was at a farm that was decidedly non-Amish. The Kreider Farms are home to 2000 cows, 6 million laying chickens and technology that rivals Silicon Valley. A conveyor belt transports 1.8 million eggs a day from the hen houses to an area where the eggs are inspected, packaged and dispatched to market without being touched by human hands. Cows have learned how to step onto and off of a moving carousel to be milked by machine in 4 to 5 minutes per cow. Farming here is not what it used to be, but the chocolate milk the students got to sample at the end of the tour met the taste test.

Now the students were hungry - for lunch and to meet "real Amish." Both appetites were satisfied at the Stoltzfus farm. After a moment of silent prayer, Mrs. Stoltzfus, some of her ten children, and several other helpers including the groossmammi (grandmother) brought out heaping bowls and plates of mouth-watering chicken, Shepherd' pie, applesauce, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and rolls, followed by a sweet treat for dessert - Whoopie Pies! The meal was served in the building where the Stoltzfus' carriages (called "buggies" by the English) are stored and where the Stoltzfuses host a 3-hour church services (mostly in German) and the noontime meal for the 40 families in their church district when it is their turn to do so. The Amish worship in each others' homes and not in churches.

As the older children and other helpers washed the dishes (by hand!), Mrs. Stoltzfus offered to answer the students' questions. They had many! Must the Amish grow all their own food? No, they can buy food, but with large families that gets expensive, so they try to do so only in the winter "if the freezer doesn't reach." Can women wear pants to do farm chores or do they have to wear the calf-length dresses and aprons they usually wear? Some families are more conservative than others. The Stoltzfuses view pants as practical for working in the barn, especially in cold weather. The children are also free to wear whatever they want to bed, but not to church where dress must be proper. In general girls help their mothers with housework, and boys help their fathers with farming, but there is some overlap. How do they keep warm in the winter without electricity? Coal stoves are most popular, Mrs. Stoltzfus said, but wood stoves and gas heat also are used. What is the children's schooling like? They go to one-room schoolhouses through eighth grade. Then they return home to help on the farm "unlike in your world." When the children are in school, they focus on the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), but they also study English because most Pennsylvania Dutch speak German at home. Mrs. Stoltzfus seemed as sad as the students when the time came for the group to reboard the bus. "I enjoyed this," she said. "This is the first time I have had college students here." It was also the first time a tour group brought her gifts. She beamed at the fresh flowers and fruit the students presented.

At the Reihl farm, a farmer who is also an Amish minister met with the students. "Ask me anything you want," he said. "I will not be offended." Again, the questions flowed. The students were quickly smitten with Reihl's candor and humor. Are Amish patriotic? We do not fly the flag because that would be honoring people rather than God, but I consider myself an American. I have respect for our government." Is it important to you to spread your faith? "We do not emphasize evangelism. We try to live a good life and set a good example, so people can see what we believe by the way we behave." In responding to questions about "Rumspringa" (the time when teens are given the freedom to learn about the non-Amish world so they can make an informed decision about whether or not to commit to the Amish lifestyle) and "shunning," (avoiding those who decide to leave the community), Reihl said the media have distorted both. During "Rumspringa," most teens continue to live at home just "being normal teens - doing things their parents don't want them to do," but not running totally wild. And in most Amish communities, those who are "shunned" are not completely excluded from their families. They can come back to visit, and they will be welcomed back into the community if they choose to return. There is also no "Amish Mafia," Reihl said with a chuckle.

At the last farm students got to see the extent to which Amish family members pitch in to do a day's work. Father and mother were both busy with other duties, as were his older siblings, so 9-year old Gideon and his younger brother Matthew showed the guests the woodworking shop, craft shop and miniature horses the family breeds to make a living in an era when it is becoming more difficult to sustain small farms.

Driving back to Bethlehem, the students reflected on what they'd heard and seen. Quay Matyus and Ric Miller agreed that it would be hard to live without iPods and other electronics. Rhag Shick couldn't imagine not being able to jump in a car and drive to the city or the beach on a whim, but Will Haney and Rachel Reahl found the simpler life style appealing. "The people seem to be genuinely happy," Irma Ortiz-Astacio observed. "It seems to be a hard way of life," one of the visiting professors said," but it works for them."

Among the things that surprised the students were how non-judgmental the Amish were. Neither Mrs. Stoltzfus nor the minister appeared critical of the "English" lifestyle. "I have made a personal commitment to this way of living," the minister had told the students, "but I am no better than you."

Elizabeth Michael was struck by how seriously the Amish have thought through the choices they have made. "The people we met have a deep-seated knowledge of what's important to them," she said. "Their goals are clear cut."

Michael had asked both Mrs. Soltzfus and the minister what mattered the most to them. Their replies mirrored each other. "I want my children to grow up in a Christian home, to find a companion for life,and to stay in the church," Mrs. Soltzfus said. "I can't make my children stay Amish," the minister said. "My challenge is to lead a good life so my children want what I have."

According to tour guide Mary Yost, after experimenting with the ways of the "English" during their "Rumspringa," 95% of the Amish youth in Lancaster choose to remain Amish.

Enjoy photos from the field trip in this Flickr gallery.