I’ve always been one to explore other cultures — partly because I find it intellectually stimulating but more so because I think it’s just plain fun. It might be the journalist in me that is fascinated by what I don’t understand, but I think it’s mostly for the same reasons that I like wearing cowgirl boots in Nashville and Toms to indie-rock shows. Luckily, I have friends who are equally fascinated by certain other cultures, and we get to explore them together! And let’s be honest, that’s where the real fun begins.
This weekend, we take to the Amish lands of east-central Illinois, and by “we” I mean two of the most delightful ladies I know. These girls know cute and adventure very well. The one is my very best friend in the entire world who is more honest, supportive and loud than I will ever be, and I love her for that. The other is her very best friend growing up (and recently a friend of mine due to our mutual best friend), who happens to be the most fun, inspiring and adorable girl I’ve ever met — and I’m talking featured-in-Brides-magazine adorable.
We each have our own reasons for being fascinated by the Amish. I can’t speak to theirs, but I can talk about mine. My interest took root last fall while I was writing an in-depth feature story for my journalism independent study in college. I knew that not far from the University of Illinois was the largest population of Amish in the world, and thus I knew that I wanted to write about it. I met a darling girl there named Martha who told me her life-story. She gave me the ins and outs of the Amish culture, religion and lifestyle. I had never met a person with more honest and unyielding devotion to her faith. You can check out the story by clicking below to view the rest of this post.
I’m interested to see how this trip is going to go. As you probably gathered by the description of my friends, I’m probably the least outgoing of the group. I fear that I’m probably going to get pulled into some situations I wouldn’t normally put myself in, like stopping a passing Amish family in buggies and asking for rides or chatting with the locals about the details and reasons behind their religion. Don’t get me wrong, I love that my friends pull me out of my comfort zone, but sometimes it just makes me a little nervous at first. So I’m excited to see what exciting stories I have when I come back.
I’m most excited about this trip, because it’s such a fall thing to do, which is why I’m writing about it in my this-is-how-we-do-things blog. Despite my personal fond memories of last fall in Amish towns working on my story, the whole atmosphere makes for a darling fall experience. Here’s why:
1. The Views
What’s lovely about visiting the Amish in Arcola, IL is that it’s a good 40-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of the UI campus, so you have drive into the heart of the country side, which at this time of the year is full of breathtaking views.
2. The Food
Fall wouldn’t be complete without apple butter, pumpkin pie and a few other perfectly selected baked goods, and straight from an Amish kitchen the best place to get it. It’s so fresh and delicious, but there’s also so much to chose from that it’s impossible to leave empty handed.
3. The Great Outdoors
The best part is that you have an excuse to spend a day enjoying the fresh fall air. There’s something about being outdoors in the country side that is like a whole different world. The air smells crisper, the sun is brighter and the trees are brighter are swear. It’s nice to have a reason to spend a day outside soaking it all in.
Martha is beautiful in the purest, simplest of ways. She stands at five and a half feet tall on her petite frame. Her solid blue eyes are bright, but grounded. Her skin is pale, clear and fresh, a perfect complement to her warm voice. She carries herself with a subtle air of confidence, unintimidating and friendly. She’s young, at only 20 years old, and it shows in her high cheekbones and the frequency of her laughter. She’s topped off with a head of golden yellow hair, smoothly pinned back and tucked into a crisp, white bonnet.
Martha’s life is simple, too. Born into the Amish faith, her life revolves around her family, her church and her community in the small town of Arthur, Ill. She was raised to be in the wider world, but not of it. She has a sewing machine instead of a Mac Book. She has a bookshelf instead of an iPod. Her parents are still married and one of her nephews, at 11 years old, works in the fields daily without complaint.
“I might not have all my wants, but I have all my needs,” Martha said, matter-of-factly and without an ounce of disappointment in her voice.
She lives her life among people who share her values and beliefs in a pocket of faith tucked away in the countryside less than 10 miles from the bustle of Interstate 57. Her home looks strangely similar to many of the other houses along the country road she lives on with her parents in a white farmhouse that overlooks acres of the crispy remains of the recently harvested corn crop. Her garage is home to boxy, black buggies with neon orange reflective triangles on the back. Her backyard is spotted with old wooden barns with droopy cobwebs that fall from the ceiling and are alive with chickens, cows and horses. She has two nieces and two nephews who live with her brother and his wife in a matching farmhouse literally 10 feet away. The only phone for either house is located in a shed smaller than her bathroom in the backyard.
Martha’s life is an interesting blend of old and new. Her hand-sewn blue cotton dress falls well below her knees and is fitted with barely visible silver pins. She’s kept warm by a simple store-boughtblack sweater. She wears black Crocs to Rockome Gardens and rubber boots when she works on the farm.
Her home is a time warp. There are no light switches. Rooms are lit by flipping a lever that releases enough gas to start a ball of fire that lights the room just as well as an incandescent bulb. Her basement pantry is lined with jars upon jars of homemade canned peaches, green beans and applesauce. Just outside, her young nieces and nephews clad in suspenders and aprons chase a kitten while shabby cats drink from a tin full of cream. Her bedroom is decorated with a full-length mirror framed in hickory that was built specifically for. She has her own China cabinet full of exquisite China and “tiny drinking glasses” decorated with vacation destinations that she or her friends or family have been to such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
“I love to travel,” she says. “A lot of my friends say that I’m spoiled because I’ve been to so many places.”
In Martha’s family, the bible is their most treasured possession and the word of God is the sole governing body over all that is said and done. As a result, material objects in many cases are seen as a pathway to distractions from faith. The Amish lifestyle, free from many modern technologies, is meant to minimize want and avoid “keeping up with the Jones’” competition in order to devote the most attention to God.
It’s not that the Amish people are anti-technology, as they are often pegged. Their biggest concern is the way that technology imposes itself upon people’s lives. They fear the fast-paced world of technology will create a conflict with their values and morals that are built around family and community.
“We move at a human pace,” Martha says.
Her days are busy and selfless. She works at Rockome Gardens, a tourist attraction inspired by the Amish lifestyle, and gives all of her earnings to her parents, who use the money to help run the household. When she turns 21, she will be responsible for her own finances. When she’s not at work, she’s working at home helping her family with the daily chores such as gardening, cleaning or contributing homemade canned goods to the walk-in pantry in the basement.
“Our regular lifestyle is busy, but we can have fun,” she says. Her favorite pastime is reading, which explains the bookshelf in her room that is lined with
colorful novels. Christian books are her favorite, but she’ll read anything. She’s currently halfway through A Wedding Quilt for Ella, and loves it. She also loves playing volleyball and going to birthday parties. On Sunday nights, she and other youth in the community gather together to sing songs of praise and socialize, which is one of Martha’s favorite times of the week.
But, at the end of the day, her faith is the most important thing.
“To me, faith is to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and he died for our sins,” Martha says. “And I believe that, and that is the most important thing.”
Religion was a part of Martha’s upbringing, but it was never something that was forced on her. She chose out of her own free will to dedicate her life to God within the Amish faith. At 18 years old, she became a member of the church.
“When I was 16, there were lots of things I wish I had, but now, I joined the church and said I’d give it up. Some people have a hard time with that.”
She was not one of those people.
Since joining the church is not required of children growing up in Amish homes, she’s seen many people leave the faith. Martha’s friend, Sarah, grew up Amish, but did not join the church.
“It makes us sad,” she says. “We wonder, ‘What did we do wrong?’ We still respect them as people and respect their faith. We just have to consider that is their thing, and we do ours.”
Martha’s thing is prayer. Her days begin and end with prayer. Her father starts each day with a devotional reading from scripture and praying as a family. She helps prepare breakfast and then spends her days helping her family run the dairy farm or at her job at Rockome Gardens. She tends to her nieces and nephews, works in the family’s garden, sews clothes and many other household tasks. When the sun goes down, the family gathers around the solid wood table in the airy kitchen, thanks the Lord for their food and enjoys a homemade meal as a family. Before bed, the family gathers for an evening prayer.
On Sunday mornings, when the sky is clear and the air is quiet, she looks out onto the horizon, never doubting that God is present and that He created this world.