Growing up conservative Mennonite, I’ve heard many discussions on separation and nonconformity. Though I’ve embraced a separated lifestyle, that decision doesn’t come without questions.
What is true heart separation? Are outward forms only a hindrance to a Spirit-led life, as so many of my acquaintances claim?
On Facebook, I watch their transformation — young women in cape dresses and coverings morphing into young women in jeans and hanging hair — and wonder if there is value in outward, visible, structured separation.
My Amish neighbor, Curtis Duff, has decided there is. This may not seem surprising — except that Duff is a rare Amish convert who grew up “English.”
An ICU and ER nurse for 34 years, after retirement Duff still teaches critical care classes to hospital staff, as well as occasional paramedic classes at the local college. Tractors are a common form of transportation among members of Duff’s New Order Amish church, and we often see him heading toward Oakland, Md., in his blue Ford tractor with a trailer pulled behind.
I wanted to find out what this intelligent, resourceful man sees as so valuable in separation that he changed his lifestyle and learned a new language to get it. One day, at my request, Duff parks his tractor in my driveway and makes himself comfortable on my couch. “I’m interested in hearing . . . I guess, why you joined the Amish,” I say. So Duff tells me his story.
He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and came to faith in Christ through hearing Billy Graham speak on television. He was baptized in a Lutheran church on the same day that an infant was baptized — a fact he recalls with gentle humor, considering his current Anabaptist beliefs.
As he began to study the Word, “I was finding things I was reading in Scripture the Lutheran Church was not doing anymore.” As he researched denominations, the Anabaptists attracted him as people who practiced biblical principles. After his mom met a Mennonite couple at a bank, Duff biked 30 miles to Plain City to attend their church, the tie his mom insisted he bring stuffed in his pocket. He had heard Mennonites did not wear ties.
Impressed by the hospitality, Duff continued to attend the Mennonite church until he grew dissatisfied with its liberal trend and migrated to a Beachy Amish church and finally to the New Order Amish church in Oakland. Seven years after joining the Amish, he married Daisy Yoder, and together they raised four children.
Duff’s voice is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes passionate as we discuss what he sees as the value of separation. One value, he says, is “the fact that we are members one of another. A separated society tends to be able to maintain that better.”
The Amish are known for helping each other, but that should be a Christian principle, Duff points out. In mainstream Christianity, “it gets lost because they have accepted the society’s standard of being individualistic.”
As if to illustrate his point, Duff’s phone rings, and he talks with Allen Peachy, who fell 10 feet from a forage wagon and tore his arm open. Duff cleaned the wound and got an antibiotic prescribed to prevent infection. Allen was just calling to check in.
Free of charge, Duff regularly checks pulses and lungs, cleans out ears, binds wounds and does a multitude of other nursing tasks for his neighbors and fellow church members. “This is what God has allowed me to learn,” he says when I ask why he is willing to give so much of his time without pay. “This is where he’s put me, and I need to use the talents I have for the brotherhood or the sisterhood.”
Another value of separation, Duff tells me — specifically, separation in dress — is its ability to earmark God’s people. “I went to Europe and people asked me, ‘Are you Amish?’ It gives me an opening to explain what we believe” — his beliefs as a Christian, not just as an Amish person, he emphasizes. Amish is only one Christian denomination, a “part of the family.”
Duff chooses his Amish lifestyle in obedience to Scripture, noting the trends he sees in neighboring Mennonite churches. Members of one church come around in shorts and tank tops, “and to me that’s very immodest.” In another church, remarriage after divorce is allowed, and not just for people coming in from non-Christian backgrounds. “They were married to Mennonites; they got divorced; then they got married to other Mennonites.”
“What I see has happened,” he says, “is that as you lose the outward expressions, the next level of erosion is the underlying foundations,” or the scriptural teaching itself.
I respect Duff for both his kindness and his conviction. He holds to the identity of a separated people and gives me insight worth holding as well.