Along with her sister and two brothers, Mary Schlabach grew up in Holmes County, Ohio, where she was raised in the Amish lifestyle. Although she often questioned certain aspects of her religion, she chose to become a baptized member of the church at age 18, as was the custom.
Still, Schlabach struggled with the church’s “hellfire and brimstone sermons” and the Amish belief system of not knowing whether or not they are saved. And so, at age 49, she decided to leave the Amish culture. But Schlabach isn’t the first person in her family to do so. In fact, her sister is the only one of the four siblings who is still Amish. Both brothers stayed Amish for two years after their baptisms, and are now Mennonite.
The ramifications of leaving the Amish culture vary by family. Schlabach says her family is more rebellious than most, and so she is still able to sit with her sister, her sister’s husband and their four children. However, some Amish will refuse to speak to, sit with or even take money or cards from people who have left the culture. To the Amish, Schlabach says, it’s worse to leave the church after having been baptized than to have never been baptized at all. “You’re not shunned if you just don’t join,” she explains.
Today, Schlabach works with Amish Culture Tours and also mentors others who are non-Amish (the term Schlabach prefers to refer to those who have left the Amish culture). For many non-Amish, they must learn a whole new set of manners and customs to blend into modern society.
Schlabach also speaks candidly about her experiences and the Amish culture. And although she disagrees with many of the Amish beliefs, she is careful to avoid judgment. She welcomes questions and helps clear up any misconceptions one might have about the culture.
For instance, many people think that when the Amish reach a certain age they are permitted to be wild and partake in modern conveniences and technology before deciding to officially join the church. This time to be wild, as many people consider it, is known as rumspringa. However, this time of youthful rebellion is not actually permitted, and to the Amish the term rumspringa actually means adolescence or running free.
Although the rebellious behavior is not sanctioned by the church, it is tolerated to a degree because the children are not 18. While underage, the youth are not yet considered members of the church, and therefore the bishop has no control over them. Schlabach says this is the same reason why it’s permitted to take photographs of Amish children and not Amish adults. According to the bible, “Thou shall have no graven image,” and a photo is considered such.
Some think the rumspringa is a healthy part of the children’s lives and a way to decide if they want to come back. And of those who participate in rumspringa, only about 10 percent do not remain Amish. Although Schlabach did not participate, she says her oldest brother did have a car before he joined the church.
In retrospect, Schlabach wishes she had never joined the church. “It would have made things a lot easier,” she says. However, she does not regret the way she was raised. “I don’t regret growing up Amish. I learned how to live and work,” Schlabach says, adding that she now knows how to live on pennies and values the time her family spends together.