They speak a foreign language. The women wear head coverings. They cluster in tight communities and refuse to assimilate—a central tenet of their faith insists they remain separate. And now they are migrating to northern Michigan in growing numbers. I am talking of course, about the Amish.
Though their population is relatively small, the Amish are the fastest growing Christian sect in America. Today an estimated 300,000 live in 31 states, but their large families and the fact that 85% of people born Amish remain Amish will drive that number up to 1 million by 2050. By contrast, church attendance numbers in nearly all other Christian denominations are falling across the U.S. Michigan ranks 6th in Amish population with about 16,000 Old Order Amish—up 44% since 2010.
As their population grows, the Amish are likely to do what they have done for centuries, and what we see them doing today in northern Michigan. They will seek ignored, abandoned, and cheap farmland where they can expand with a new church community, work with each other to build and repair homes and barns, improve the soil, plant, harvest, raise families, open small shops, and continue their ancient cycle.
Long ago somebody came up with a nickname for the Amish, “the quiet on the land,” a name that so beautifully evokes that sense of peaceful separateness. But to make a living, to survive, to gather and go to church, the Amish cannot remain entirely separate. We interact with them as we slow to pass their buggies. We buy their tomatoes and sausage at farmers markets and in Amish stores. We sell them lumber and nails. And we are asked to accommodate their presence.
In Manistee County recently, locals became concerned about the risk of buggies being hit by cars and trucks and they erected buggy road signs that are ubiquitous in Amish areas across the nation. Thank goodness for the gesture, because Amish–motor vehicle accidents are shockingly common across the United States, and nearly always tragic.
But as Amish populations grow in a given locale, other issues arise that cause friction, and though often humble in nature, the issues tread our fraught constitutional border between church and state. Issues communities have dealt with recently: should Amish horses be required to wear diapers so horse poop won’t make roads slippery and unsafe, and small downtowns smelly? Or does requiring such technology constitute religious infringement? Not every Amish person can afford to buy a farm, so when they move into a subdivision, should they be able to have a couple of horses even if zoning says no horses? Some Amish communities insist their members’ buggy wheels are made of steel—no rubberized outer tire allowed—and steel wheels wear roads quickly. Should Amish be required to use wheels that preserve asphalt? Should there be an Amish road tax? Is that a violation of church and state divide?
All of these issues will be northern Michigan issues as time goes on and Amish communities continue to expand here. To me, these issues are small, miniscule, infinitesimal, compared to what the Amish bring to our place. Their slow-moving buggies, bonnets, prairie dresses, homemade pants and suspenders are living, 3-D reminders of the power of human connection, that family and neighborly bonds are essential, time-proven ingredients in a community that endures. To stay strong, these bonds must be nurtured, tended.
An important thing to know about the Amish is they don’t reject all technology, but they are obsessively intentional about technology and assess new tech based on how it will impact the community.
Will a hay baler that allows a man to work alone weaken the community because he doesn’t have to gather community members to work together?
In America, our dominant narrative is, “If the individual is strong, the community will be strong.” The Amish turn that upside down: “If the community is strong, the individuals will be strong.”
The Amish are not perfect, of course, and few of us would accept the rules, restrictions, and conformity of Amish life. But we can look to their ways and borrow the best. Turn off the cell phone, look a loved one or a friend in the eye. Have a conversation. Share a meal. Keep the well-being of our family, our sisters and brothers in our community, foremost in our minds. And when we have to slow for a buggy to let oncoming traffic pass, let’s embrace it as a moment to consider our own pace and connections.