A look into the Amish world

Georgene Rice interviews Ira Wagler, author of the book “Growing up Amish”. He grew up Amish, left at age 17, went back and forth several times, then left again for good at age 26. It takes off some of the rose-colored glass impressions that the Amish make.

Georgene: Wagler’s story of restlessness looks accutely at the clash of family ties. He was torn between the freedom of the outside world and the message of abandoning one’s Amish heritage resulting in eternal damnation. It’s very interesting to hear a truthful account of life in an Amish community that differs in some ways so dramatically from the romanticized view that is often presented by Hollywood and the fictional writings that are out there. Give us an idea of what it was like as a small child to grow up in an Amish community.

Ira: Our father moved us from Ontario, Canada in 1976 to Iowa. This 2 mile square piece of land was the community where I grew up, with other families. Once in a great while we went to town which was a huge adventure. It was a happy childhood. It was the only world that I knew.

Georgene: You dedicate your book to your mother and write very respectfully about your father. Tell us about your parents and the Amish heritage they passed down.

Ira: They grew up in an Old, larger community in Southern Indiana. In the larger communities youth tend to run around wild, drinking and that sort of thing. Our parents were determined not to raise their children where these practices were present.

Georgene: That may surprise to a lot of people due to the notion that it’s an isolated community where you are not exposed to the outside world. They expect it wouldn’t be a challenge that an Amish parent would face.

Ira: It’s not that we are not exposed to the outside world. There was commerce from our farms. In the larger communities things are not as tightly controlled.

Georgene: What does it mean to be from an old Amish community? I understand there are distinctions.

Ira: The Old Order Amish is the main body. If you meet the three rules of no electricity, telephones, or a car, you can fit into the Old Order. Then there are large variations from community to community at that point. The New Order is more progressive.

Georgene: It was interesting to read about the “fussing” that went into what you wore, and that you could have a beard but no mustache.

Ira: If you are married you must have a beard but no mustache. We don’t know where that came about, just as with buttons but no snaps and the variation in the size of women’s head coverings and length of their dresses.

Georgene: When a child, at what point to did you begin to question the traditions in which you were raised, or long for the outside world, the “English” as you call them?

Ira: By 12 or 13 I probably knew I was going to step out and see what was there. But, even with the first couple of times I left, my intention was always to go back and stay within the community. That is the tension I refer to in the book until I found some resolution.

Geogene: How does the community view that curiousity, where you leave for a period of time and then come back? Is it viewed as rebellion or is it expected?

Ira: There is a big misconception that Amish parents allow or even encourage their children to try it to see what they want, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Those who step out are referred to as “wild” Amish youth.

Georgene: Once you had left and then came back, how were you viewed by the community. Do you need to be initiated back into the community?

Ira: No, because at that point I wasn’t actually a member. You may be viewed with a little skepticism, but you are welcome, as long as you are sincere. When I was older and and joined the community, then left, coming back was a lot more complicated. After a couple of months of being gone I was sent a letter requesting me to come back. When I did not, I received a notice that I was excommunicated from the church.

Georgene: What did that mean to the relationship with your immediate family?

Ira: When I came back to visit they would socialize with me. The only big thing they had to observe was not to eat at the same table as me. To observe that, Mom would always set up a little table off to the side, but we ate the same food, with the same dishes.

Georgene: What was worship like in the Amish community? Was that a meaningful time for you?

Ira: The Amish hold a church service every two weeks for 2 ½ to 3 hours. Off-Sundays are for socializing or being at home. The Service is held in a member’s home. They have a covered wagon with lots of benches and taken from home to home. It service is quite involved. The songs are ancient, like beautiful, melodic Gregorian chants. After songs a preacher may speak for about 20 minutes, someone reads Scripture and then the main preacher preaches the main sermon. That lasts about an hour and is followed by prayer and another song. Presently, I still have close Amish friends who sometimes invite me over to service and I enjoy it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful time.

Georgene: What motivated you to leave and then come back again?

Ira: Leaving was simply seeing the outside world and thinking I wanted to be like them. They didn’t dress the way we did or cut their hair like someone put a bowl on their head. But you believe once you leave that you step outside Salvation and are lost. You are gambling your soul that you will not be killed while you are outside the Amish community. Of course, wanting to return to my family also drew me back.

Georgene: What lead to your ultimately not returning.

Ira: The last time I returned, I went to a larger community. I thought I’d try it one more time and no one there would know me. While there, I found I was still despairing that it wasn’t going to work, but I knew if I left my soul would be lost. So, for the first time in my life I cried out to God, and said, “If you hear me, I just want to do what is right?” Then I met an Amish man who became a good friend. He had connections to the outside and he lead me to the Lord. At that point, I knew it was my decision whether I stayed or I left. It was okay either way because my relationship with God was not tethered to my being Amish. Once I really grasped that, that is when I could leave with peace. Now I know God is always there.

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