I’m happy to introduce Jim Cates, author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals, as a new contributor here at Amish America.

Author Jim CatesI know many of us enjoyed reading about Jim’s experiences working with the Amish as a clinical psychologist. You’ll be able to read Jim’s writings here regularly now, in upcoming posts on topics including non-resistance, women’s issues, and the Amish family.

But, to start at the start, today Jim shares the story of the special person who first brought him to the Amish.

Amish 101

Bloggers arrive at their material in many ways. The source for the journey that led me to Amish America frequently called at 4 a.m. Not that he intended to be a source, and not that those 4 a.m. calls were our first interactions. Let me backtrack and place those sleep-depriving conversations into context.

Erik suggested, and I agree, that those reading my comments in this blog may be curious to know: what led to my interactions with the Amish? My personal involvement came through psychological testing with those from the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement, and for expediency I often share that story as the beginning (“Amish 101”, if you will). However, this story is the real beginning. Think of it as my “remedial” Amish experience.

My late wife was a community health nurse, teaching at a local university in Fort Wayne after many years in practice. A “community health nurse” works within the community rather than a hospital, both caring for patients in their homes and addressing health concerns at the public level. As the 20th century drew to a close, there was an outbreak of a communicable disease among the Pennsylvania Amish.

Easily avoided by vaccination, some Amish still resisted this precaution, both there and near Fort Wayne in the Grabill Indiana settlement. As the two groups visited frequently, the risk of cross-contagion was high. The public health need was clear. Vaccinate the Grabill Amish. However, the “public health need” and the Amish perception of what might be needed did not necessarily coincide.

Those in this area of the state working with the problem consulted my wife, and in turn she visited a lay leader in the Grabill community. The choice of liaisons could not have been a better match. She may have been a master’s prepared community health nurse, but she was raised on a farm in Iowa, and knew planting, plowing, harvesting, and working with a variety of animals.

That first visit, she later shared, barely touched on immunizations. Rather, she and the Amish leader discussed soybeans and corn, cows and horses, and agreed firmly and with utter conviction that hogs were the most difficult animal to raise and handle that a farmer could ever attempt. She warmed immediately to this Old Order man and his wife, and they in turn warmed to her. Following a second meeting the need for immunizations in the community was quietly accepted, and a school chosen as the site for the first Saturday of inoculations.

Grabill Amish Community Indiana

The Amish settlement at Grabill, Indiana (Allen County)

The day arrived, and my wife and several of her nursing students were on hand, ready to administer the initial vaccinations. Children and mothers began to fill the school and then the yard, talking and laughing as they approached, but growing quiet and still within range of these English nurses. The leader who had spearheaded the event was there beside her, a reassuring presence, but no one dared to be first. This was, after all, a novelty in the community. Somehow, some way, the ice had to be broken.

And as the tension continued to build, this Amish man turned to my wife with a smile, rolled up the white sleeve of his shirt, and said “I’m ready for my vaccination.” She quickly swabbed a spot with alcohol, pricked the skin with a needle, and swabbed the skin once again. He rolled down his sleeve, smiled at the children and asked in dialect “Who’s next?” The line formed immediately, smiles filling their faces.

From that beginning developed a friendship between my wife and this Amish family that flourished over the years. She began a class in Transcultural Nursing, and each semester made arrangements for the students to visit their farm. It was a highlight for many of these nurses-to-be who would otherwise have known the Amish only by rubbing shoulders shopping, in restaurants, or passing a buggy on the road. And we visited their home as a couple too, spending more than one evening talking and laughing as we shared the gifts of food and fellowship.

And those phone calls? Very suddenly and unexpectedly, my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lived for about a year after the diagnosis, but it was a difficult time, as she was frequently in nursing and rehabilitation centers, fighting to stay alive. Anyone who has experienced a loved one in that situation knows the feeling of dread when the phone rings in the night. And yet, for this man, he was not calling me “in the night.” By 4 a.m. the family’s day was in full swing. He was calling to offer support just before he headed out for his day’s work.

So much in those last few months of her life is a blur. However, as the years pass and I piece together those final days, I can easily recall being jarred awake by the phone. Heart pounding I would answer, to hear that deep, calm voice on the other end asking after our well-being. And that experience reminds me again of the compassion and support that are key to Gelassenheit, the Amish spiritual view. I find myself thankful that my wife shared her experiences with me, and these experiences cued my interest in the Amish, leading me to where I am today.


Jim Cates is author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals, published in the Young Series by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice in northeast Indiana. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.