Learning about the Plain community has shaped my path as a storyteller
When I joined the Content team and started reporting on topics in Northeast Ohio last year, there was one group of people I wanted to learn more about: the Amish. First, I learned that the correct way to refer to this group of people is “Plain” people. Using this term includes people who are Amish and some conservative Mennonites. I headed down to Holmes County, where there’s a high concentration of Plain people, with the goal of finding and telling the stories of Plain people that haven’t been told.
The Plain community is fascinating — I think so, and Ideastream Public Media’s audience agrees. The first story I covered was about former Amish women receiving mental health and housing support in Greenwich, Ohio. On the web, it ranked as one of the top five viewed stories in March.
The Plain lifestyle has a clear distinction from the English, those who are not part of the Plain community. The English use electricity, drive cars and wear any style of clothing they choose. Plain people wear distinctively plain clothes and adhere to a simple and traditional style of life excluding many conveniences of modern technology. I discovered that there are more than 40 subcultures within the Amish community. They range from being very conservative to what the Amish consider liberal.
“On the liberal end you have children that can get a car, put on English clothes, get a job at the local factory and continue to live at home,” Joe Keim told me this while sitting in his office at Mission to Amish People, also known as MAP. “But then at the other end of the spectrum, it is a black and white [issue]. If you get a car, we disown you.”
Keim is the executive director of MAP, the faith-based nonprofit organization where Amish women receive temporary housing, employment and the basic necessities to transition to English culture. He told me that one of the more conservative groups is called Swartzentruber. There are various Swartzentruber communities throughout Ohio and the U.S. Within Holmes County, there are even different types of Swartzentruber communities. And depending on who the bishop is at the local church, the level of conservatism ranges. Keim said that very conservative Amish people have a distinctively low dashboard on their buggies.
He grew up in the Old Old Order Amish group and left the church before he was 20 years old. He said in Holmes County many of the Amish come from the Old Order group, a group he was not allowed to marry into because there is a separation between the Old Order and the Old Old Order Amish. Men who are part of the Old Order can wear short-sleeved shirts and just three buttons down the shirt whereas his community only wore long-sleeved shirts and had to have buttons going all the way down the shirt.
“It’s what makes one community different from the other,” he told me.
He said the Old Old Order views wearing short-sleeved shirts as "too worldly" because they're similar to a t-shirt — what an English person might wear.
I visited Rhoda Schmuker at her apartment that’s on MAP’s property. She comes from the Old Order Amish group in Indiana. She showed me pictures on her cell phone that she took of herself when she was Amish. A cell phone was something she was not allowed to have, but she said a lot of young people secretly have one. We sat at her kitchen table looking through photos of her in a plain dress and bonnet.
She told me her family would let her move back home if she wanted to, but the longer she lived in English culture the more she wanted to stay. She does go home to visit, though.
“One of my friends from that community was getting married,” she told me. “I knew both the bride and groom. We’d been in the same youth group. I consider them good friends. So, they invited me to their wedding, and I really wanted to go back for that and we managed it and then I also spent time with my family while I was there.”
Community is a major part of the Plain culture. Making decisions as a group within the church is highly encouraged, and individualism is not supported. When I talked to Dennis Keim (not to be confused with Joe Keim, referenced earlier in this essay) for a story on mental health services within the Plain community, he told me the church is involved 90% of the time when someone is making a choice to seek counseling at SpringHaven Counseling Center in Dundee, Ohio. And the other 10% of the time when the church is not initially involved, he encourages patients to consult with their church about pursuing counseling.
I first met Dennis Keim at the counseling center. He had a white beard and wore a white shirt and blue pants — plain clothing. He’s Amish, and he works as an Amish liaison, someone who connects Plain people to the counseling services. I asked permission to take his photo, but he declined.
Plain people don’t want personal recognition, and most do not allow their photo to be taken. "It's about God's glory, not man's" is a motto they live by.
Business is booming in Holmes County. Some Amish men have designed furniture parts that create a manufacturing solution for a larger furniture company. Amish men start their own businesses to produce these specialized parts. Atlee Kaufman is one of the entrepreneurial designers. I'm visiting his shop in Millersburg this week, Bentwood Solutions. He bends wood to create furniture parts, such as a continuous arm bow for a chair.
Over the past six months, I’ve come to appreciate and have grown only more curious about the Plain culture. I’ve talked to people who live in Amish Country, have Amish neighbors or co-workers and have Amish generational roots from someone in their family lineage. I’ve talked to people who left the Plain community to join English culture.
They’ve answered my questions. They’ve helped me break down the complexity of Plain culture and society. They’ve led me to new sources for future stories.
I learned that Kaufman rides an e-bike to go into town and for exercise, an electric operated mode of transportation. And, I asked myself: How does this lifestyle choice align with his Amish beliefs?
I’m digging into the story to find out. Stay tuned for the answer.
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