In a community that values outward uniformity, it can take some courage to stand out.

amish-males-thumbnailIn today’s post, Serving The Amish author Jim Cates details the challenge of recruiting Amish leaders to help guide a fledgling alcohol program for Amish adolescents.

As Jim describes below, finding those leaders wasn’t easy–but was pivotal to the program’s success or failure.

It Was Such a Clever Idea!

As a psychologist, I spend a portion of my time administering intelligence tests. So let me begin this post with a simple one to assess your abilities. Which of the following combinations does not belong together? Ready? Peaches and cream. Oreos and milk. Cheeseburgers and fries. Amish and innovations.

If you chose Amish and innovations you are extremely intelligent, based on this limited quiz. And I also need to be careful about writing when I’m hungry, but I digress.

Actually, as any regular reader of Amish America knows, it is a prejudicial oversimplification to say “Amish and innovations” do not belong together. It is fair to say however, that innovations are much more slowly studied, considered, and welcomed (if at all) than they are by mainstream culture counterparts.

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So as a group of us took on the daunting task of creating an alcohol education program for Amish adolescents in the Elkhart-LaGrange area, we were keenly aware that we were peering down the muzzle of over 300 years of tradition that could easily explode in our faces if we were not careful.

And yet one idea appealed to us quickly and readily. Existing programs placed Amish youth arrested on alcohol possession or consumption charges with English youth, in English programs. Accordingly, what they learned and what they experienced was, in their perception, “of the world.” They failed to internalize the information, the lessons, or the emotional experience.

We could offer programs limited to Amish youth, but that was only a partial solution. English professionals leading the groups would, in their view, still create an “English” program. Our dilemma became how to make it an Amish program they could internalize and use.

The solution was inspired, an “Aha!” moment that was an answer to prayer. If the groups were co-led by Amish and English leaders, they had the potential to “be” Amish. Wonderful! Problem solved! Now, just one obstacle, looming like the Rocky Mountains in our path. Where could we find Amish leaders?

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We preferred young adults who could relate to our adolescent group members. That worked for us in two ways. First, they were less likely to have large families to tie them to other responsibilities. Second, they were less likely to have the watchful eye of the community reminding them of their place, and thus have internalized the strict values of tradition.

And yet, we faltered at every step. Repeatedly we approached potential candidates who heartily approved of the plan. We were told again and again it was a wonderful idea. And again and again no one was willing to take the risk of actually being a co-leader. What if the bishop disapproved? What if family was unhappy? What if the church looked askance? What if the community found fault with the classes, and they had been involved?

We were closer and closer to starting the program. A curriculum was in place, we had English professionals lined up, and the tacit support of the Amish community was behind us. And yet we still lacked Amish co-leaders. No one, it seemed, was willing to be the first to step out and risk the censor that could occur. We had a good plan, but one that might never be implemented unless we could find someone with the courage to step out on faith.

And then we were given the names of two young adult men. They both taught school, and were good friends. They were well-respected by peers and elders alike, well-liked by their students, and admired by the parents whose children they taught. If we could get them, the quiet but supportive voices whispered in our ears, we would indeed have a coup.

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And if wishes were horses we all would ride, I thought pessimistically. I had been down this road too many times before only to hear “Wonderful idea! Hope you find someone!” Nevertheless, I started the series of calls back and forth to phone shacks (no surreptitious cell phones here) and arranged a meeting at one of their schools on a fall afternoon.

I found them everything I had been told. They were intelligent, far-sighted, introspective, and charming young men. They also held a deep concern for the youth of their settlement. They listened closely to the plan, and thankfully, did not immediately say “no.” However, also in typical Amish fashion, they gave no hint whether they would seriously consider our plan or not.

At that point I was as desperate as a long-tailed cat locked in a roomful of rockers. What I meant to do was casually suggest a second meeting with the English professionals who would be leading the group. Looking back, it seems like I was on my knees, tears streaming down my cheeks, pleading with them to meet with our professionals. Whatever the truth of that incident, they agreed politely. The second, expanded meeting occurred, and the chemistry was there between English pros and potential Amish co-leaders. To my relief, they said yes.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Take-off was not the smoothest that has ever been achieved, but our program was airborne. And after a time, our first two co-leaders signaled their weariness, and asked to be relieved. They assisted us by meeting with potential Amish replacements, greatly smoothing the path for future leadership to work with us from within the community, a collaboration that continues to this day, almost ten years later.

And where are these two courageous young adults now? Both married, both with children, and both leaders among the Amish. In keeping with their humility, I know they prefer I not use their names or otherwise identify them any more than I already have. Still, their willingness to take a risk, their compassion, and their advocacy for youth is a gift that has meant so much for so many across the years. Thanks fellas. Couldn’t have done it without you.


Jim Cates is the author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.

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