SHIPSHEWANA, INDIANA —
Daily life in Shipshewana, Indiana, is a blend of the past and present. Horse-drawn buggies share the road with cars. Women in bonnets and long dresses shop alongside locals in sunglasses and jeans. While the Midwestern city is a tourist destination, the people aren’t historical re-enactors. They’re Amish, one of the fastest growing Christian denominations in America.
Members of the old order Amish church dress in plain clothes, avoid higher education, and live simply, avoiding things like cars, electricity, and telephones.
Alvin Miller grew up Old Order. But 13 years into his marriage, he and his family joined the less restrictive Amish Mennonite church. He compares the religion to an ice cream shop with many different flavors of ice cream. "You have some very progressive Mennonite down to some very traditional old order Amish. There’s a lot of different gradients to the Anabaptist faith."
The Anabaptist faith stems from the 16th century European Reformation movement, and is the spiritual ancestor of modern Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers. The religion stresses pacifism, missionary service, and the strict separation of religion and government. Believers reject infant baptism, delaying it until the candidate makes a conscious commitment to the church.
Miller attributes the many variations of the faith with allowing members to find their niche in the church instead of leaving. That may be one of the reasons the Amish population has doubled within the last 15 years alone. In contrast, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than a quarter of American college students, roughly the age as Amish being baptized into the faith, don’t identify with any religion.
Miller knows that many people focus on the most conservative sect when they think about the Amish, but he insists there is much more to his religion. "People look at us as a society, a cultural group of people with a lot of rules. Some of the rules, you look at and say that’s a stupid thing, why can’t you have a car? It’s a matter of giving up some of your self will, some of your selfishness in order to be a part of a group. To me there’s many, many benefits."
A community of service
Those benefits have to do with sense of family, community, and coming together to help one and other. It’s a formula that’s worked now for 200 years in this community, and in the United States since the 1700's.
Miller says it was easier in the old days when they had to help each other farm. These days, the economy has forced many Amish to find alternative sources of income such as baking, quilting, and furniture making. While these activities support their growing tourism industry, it’s far from a one-sided venture. The Amish often help those outside their own community.
"There’s a lot of benefit auctions here," Miller pointed out. "There’s one for Haiti, one for Habitat for Humanity, building houses, one for ARC, for people who are disabled. I’m not going to name them all. In 2014 those auctions raised over a million dollars."
Things weren’t always like that in Shipshewana. The Amish here kept themselves apart until 1965, when a tornado leveled the town. Both Amish and English – as non-Amish are known - came together from far and wide and rebuilt the community. In four short months the town was rebuilt better than before and debt free.
"It was an eye-opener as to what can happen when people reach out and just help," Miller said. "Just go do it. That has had a tremendous impact on this community."
Miller says another reason he believes his faith is growing while others are dwindling is because it’s a system that only works if the members really love and care for each other.
"We feel that if we love Christ we are here to do his work. What does Christ’s work look like? What did he do when he was here? He reached out to the down trodden, to the young children, people who were hurting. The question for me every day is Alvin, how well are you doing that?"
Miller points out that everyone can create a Shipshewana wherever they are no matter their religious beliefs, by vowing to do a little more for those in need every day.