Jeanette Harder is a member at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Neb., and the board president of Dove’s Nest. She lives in Omaha, Neb.
As a representative of Dove’s Nest, which equips faith communities to keep children and youth safe, I was invited by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) to help them relate to the growing population of Amish and Old Order Mennonites in their state. While two-thirds of the Amish live in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, they are also rapidly growing in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri and Kentucky. The Amish search for farmland now has them living in more than 30 states and the province of Ontario. In fact, the Amish are growing faster than nearly any other subgroup in the United States, with 300,000 currently and some projecting that number reaching 1 million by 2050.
My being Mennonite was about all OCFS needed to make me a good candidate to provide them with training and a connection to the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in New York. I told them from the outset that I was a different type of Mennonite from what they envisioned and that I’d never even been in a buggy. Though surprised, they still invited me to the work. With encouragement from the Dove’s Nest board, I moved ahead with the work. Little did I know I would learn more than I would ever be able to teach.
I started my crash course in all things Amish by reading everything I could about their faith and culture. I interviewed experts in the field, and before long, people from the Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities in New York were calling and writing me. In May, I went to visit them and spent many hours talking with Amish and Old Order Mennonite families across the Empire State. I prepared training materials and received feedback and encouragement from my newfound friends. They were so supportive of my work that they joined me for each of the three training days.
Here are the lessons I learned from the Amish:
1. I don’t need to claim power and prestige. “Some people say I am the superintendent of schools.” Seriously? “Some people say”?
This remark was made by an Old Order Mennonite as he was addressing 50 OCFS workers. I couldn’t help but smile at his humble statement. In my world of academia, people strive for positions of power and prestige, and when they attain such a position, they embrace it with gusto. What would happen if I didn’t verbally or visibly claim power? Can I earn the respect of others through my servant actions rather than through smooth rhetoric and polished appearance?
From my Amish brothers and sisters, I am learning not to think of myself more highly than I ought (paraphrased from Romans 12:3).
2. It’s important to talk with others before making a decision. “I need to talk with the ministry.”
Through my work, I invite the Amish to consider how they might relate to the “English” (all of us who are not Amish) in ensuring the safety of children. Before they will accompany me to meetings with social services, they need to talk with the leaders of their church community. I’m curious what these conversations look like and where they take place. Sometimes the conversation leads church leaders to join the conversation, and sometimes they do not.
Too often, I rush to make decisions—not always taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of others. If I thought more often about the effects of my behaviors on others, would my actions have fewer “unintended” consequences?
From my experiences with the Amish, I am learning to consider more carefully the thoughts and feelings of others before making decisions, for it is in coming together that “we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
3. If the world around me needs me, then I must respond. “If the English need foster homes, and the English want us to provide foster homes, then just let us know, and we’ll do it.”
And sure enough, they’re doing it. Not only are the Amish and Old Order Mennonites stepping forward to care for English children, they are making significant changes to their ordered lives to accommodate the needs of children with special needs. They’re willing to run the “risk” of inviting social services into their private family lives in order to have the privilege of caring for children who need a safe home.
Am I so willing to sacrifice my privacy, my very way of being, in order to care for someone in need? Or will I only reach out to others when it doesn’t inconvenience me? And what if that person in need is different from me? Am I still willing to reach out and lend a hand? From the Amish I am learning to step out of my comfort zone to serve others. Through God’s grace and strength, may I be God’s faithful steward (paraphrased from 1 Peter 4:10).
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