The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.
By Kathy Alexander, head publicist
As I prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I peppered our authors, all leading experts in the field, with questions. What should we wear? When we have dinner in Amish homes, will we sit at the same table? Any major no-no’s we should avoid? I certainly didn’t want to unknowingly offend our hosts! Their instructions were: wear dark colors; avoid makeup or flashy jewelry. Beyond that, we should be ourselves—but don’t use the word “publicity.” (Note to self: Leave my business cards at home.)
Finally, the day arrived. I couldn’t believe how excited I was. I’d visited Lancaster County numerous times in my life, but it had always been as a tourist or as a shopper (there are great outlets in the area). Our authors had arranged for us to tour a couple of farms, a wood shop, a stove factory, a quilt shop, a bookstore, a school, and an Amish restaurant; we’d also have dinner with a couple of Amish families. They’d even obtained permission for me to go for a buggy ride and to help with the chores: feeding and brushing the horses, sweeping out the barn. Normally, this is not what I would consider fun, but, in this instance, it was all part of the immersion experience.
I went to Lancaster looking for the differences between the Amish and the non-Amish world, and there were many: the presence of gas lamps, horses and buggies, and homemade clothes in muted colors that all looked alike; the absence of family pictures, street lights, TVs, and radios. What I didn’t expect was the openness! Our hosts welcomed us into their homes and workplaces as friends. When we entered a house, they brought out a stack of folding chairs and put them in a circle so that we could talk. They explained how they converted 120v electricity from 12v batteries, how they purchased material for quilts, how far they shipped their products, how they taught their children, and on and on. Nothing seemed to be off limits.
They had only one question for us: “Have you seen the show about the Amish mafia?” They were very concerned with the way the media was portraying the Amish, and had no way to counter the perception. Our authors, Donald B. Kraybill, Steve M. Nolt, and Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on our immersion trip here), have studied the Amish for over twenty-five years. They have assured me that the Amish mafia is a fabrication of the media.
Now, as I look back on the experience, my lasting impression is not of the differences that I found but of the similarities. The Amish belong to a close-knit community. They love their family and friends, and cherish their children. They are also very happy to help others. In shop after shop, I saw mimeographed flyers asking for volunteers to help rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy (the Amish had hired buses to take them to New Jersey and New York). They also have an annual fundraising event to help the people of Haiti (and no, they have no mission in Haiti to recruit new members). They do these things because someone needs help, and they are happy to provide it.
What an absolutely eye-opening experience. I can’t wait for our new book to come out. There is so much more I want to learn about this loving people.