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An Amish Journey to ForgivenessDiscovering My Anabaptist Roots and Destiny
By Benjamin Girod
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Benjamin Girod
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Chapter OneBeginnings on Sam Hill
My wife, Barbara grew up in the 1950's among the beautiful hills and valleys of east central Pennsylvania, in Snyder County, where the wide, rock strewn Susquehanna River meanders nearby. Raised in a family of eleven children, five boys and six girls, Barbara was the fifth child born into a deeply, religious Amish culture.
Their farm was nestled on top of a high plateau where five roads from all directions led to the top of the hill with valleys round about. This hill, given the name Sam Hill, provided Barbara's family with an impressive vantage point of the farm fields, which bordered dense forests. Wildlife such as deer, occasional bear, raccoons, woodchucks, rabbits, quail, pheasants and squirrels were in abundance. The region was filled with an endless variety of birds and wild flowers, which filled the air with their delightful songs and the fields with brilliant color and sweet fragrance.
The old country school she attended was two and one half miles to the east, set in a green valley. Typically, Amish children attend school for eight years. And for each of their eight years, Barbara and her brothers and sisters walked the two and half mile trail from her home to the school house and back. Every day they carried with them old-fashioned 1-gallon pails containing their lunches, which generally consisting of apple butter sandwiches, an egg sandwich and a jar of milk and occasionally they enjoyed chocolate milk.
Growing up, Barbara was extremely shy and timid. Her quiet and unassuming ways often caused her to be left out as the other children played and interacted on the playground. Nevertheless, She would entertain herself with a keen connection to nature and wildlife. During the daily walks to and from school, she learned to identify many species of songbirds, which were abundant in her unspoiled region of Sam Hill. Along with study of nature, she discovered she had an artistic gift and whenever time allowed, Barbara would venture into the woods, find a suitable place to sit down on a tree stump and begin sketching the scenes before her. Sometimes a Red squirrel would become her object. Other times, wild flowers such as Rhododendrons, Black-eyed Susans and wild Daisies would come alive in her sketches. Other times, a songbird or the distant valleys and mountains were sketched out with great detail. Because she was such a friend of God's creation, wildlife seemed to have no fear in her presence.
Until recent years and the expansion of technology and media, people living outside Amish communities knew little of Amish life. We Amish wanted it that way and we worked hard to keep and maintain our privacy. On the other hand, the Amish were also isolated from the rapid advances of the modern world. Our joys and our sorrows were confined within the communities where we lived.
Sorrow and sadness entered Barbara's sheltered life at age fourteen, when her mother passed away. Barbara was deeply shaken by the death of her mother. It was a traumatic loss, taking her into an unknown and indescribable time of grief and pain and a broken heart.
Aside from the emotional heartache, her mother's household responsibilities were assigned to Barbara. This was a tremendous time of stress and pressure that a girl her age, generally knew nothing about. Most of her older brothers and sisters had grown up and left home by this time, which required that she take care of the younger children. This included cooking meals, doing laundry, mending and tailoring of clothes, washing dishes and many other things inherent with raising a family. Every night for some time, because of the loss of her mother, she would cry herself to sleep. One night in a dream, Barbara heard her mother calling her name. As she continued to call her she woke up, sat bolt upright as she heard her mother's voice calling out to her. In an amazing way, the dream was accompanied by a deep healing and peace, which filled Barbara with a comforting acceptance of the loss of her mother. From that moment on, Barbara shouldered the weight of her responsibility with supernatural grace.
The Amish have always been industrious and self-reliant people, with a strong work ethic. During the time she was growing up, many farmers in central Pennsylvania raised tomatoes for commercial sale. Late summer into autumn found gardens and farms lush with mature fruits and vegetables. The smell of late summer grasses and foliage was pungent and intoxicating. The brisk air meant it was tomato-picking time. Along with other Amish youngsters, Barbara would pick tomatoes for neighboring farmers during harvest. It was backbreaking work, often on their hands and knees, picking from morning 'till night. The Amish young people harvested endless rows of tomatoes, filling hampers, one after another. Many became expert pickers, often picking over two hundred baskets a day. Even so, they had fun, from time to time, taking breaks when an occasional tomato throwing battle broke out among them. This helped unravel the monotony with some fun and laughter.
Later in the fall, the much anticipated apple harvest would begin. Snyder County was filled with apple orchards and the harvest was a popular destination for people to help increase their income. This afforded what seemed like, endless opportunities for apple picking by Amish and Mennonite boys and girls. People traveled from all over the country to pick apples in this famous apple-growing region.
Then there was the nationally known cantaloupe. The rare Snyder County shale soil helped produce a quality and sweetness of these melons, which was unequalled. They were grown, packed and sold by Titus Hoover Enterprises, sent to stores all over the eastern seaboard. There were also the numerous sawmills, and pallet shops all over the county. Work was to be had, for those who wanted to work. Barbara and her family grew up working hard season after season with not so much as a thought about it; this was Amish life.
By age eighteen, Barbara had grown and blossomed into an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. She continued her practice of walking alone along wooded trails, deep in the forest. She was drawn to the beauty of the woods with its mountain laurels and various flowers. Always, there was the challenge to identify some rare bird. Her spirit grew in the presence of God within the isolated beauty of this unspoiled region of Pennsylvania. She could dream in these woods, and dream she did, of a greater purpose for her life, a purpose that would someday reach beyond her lovely Sam Hill and Snyder County. She dreamed of her future and becoming a nurse, longing to share God's compassion with others. As she continued to dream, the Lord would gently guide her forward, and into His incomparable plan for her life.
Chapter TwoThe Risk of Reaching Out
The Amish community where Barbara lived was small, largely isolated from the greater region Amish districts in Pennsylvania. The main reason for this was because her church had reached out to help a smaller church in the area, which was not a part of the Old Order Amish. This resulted in Barbara's Church community being rejected. But being small and isolated wasn't completely adverse since the youth in her community developed a strong and genuine bond. Families did not use automobiles for transportation or electricity for light or heat in their homes. Although no modern conveniences could be found in the community it did not hinder the youth from having great times of fun and developing meaningful relationships with each other. On weekends they would go camping, hiking far into the woods to cabins they had built. Groups of boys and girls could be seen walking the roads together on Sunday afternoons, while jesting light heartedly and playing. Then they conclude Sunday with a worship service, where there was always lot's of singing.
The fall hunting season was a big highlight. They would hunt for big game such as deer and bear, as well as smaller game like turkey, pheasants, rabbits and squirrels. Not only did this provide a much-needed high value protein for families, there was a spirited and energized competition among the tightly knit group. Using their hunting and woods savvy, each member used their skills to harvest the largest deer or bear for the winter's store.
As winter set in, the woods became overlaid with deep snow, which launched the sledding season. What delight this winter wonderland brought to the children and young people in the community. The long roads leading into the valley were often heavily laden with ice and snow during the winter. And with reckless abandon, they competed with each other, flying along the twisting, icy tracks, cheeks red from the frosty cold. Rarely did the sledding season end without some serious accident and injury. Yet, there was the unrelenting pursuit to possess the fastest sled with the shiniest, most glazed runners. It was the thrill of a lifetime to lead and win a sled race on Sam Hill.
In the fall of 1969, when Barbara was nineteen, along with brothers and sisters, she traveled west to visit friends and relatives in some distant Amish communities. For the first time in her life, she ventured beyond the borders of her familiar world.
But I am glad she did. It was on this excursion that Barbara and I met for the first time.
Because of her quiet and delicate nature, she was very hesitant of connecting with someone of the opposite sex. She felt more at home in the Pennsylvania woods near Sam Hill. Many other young men pursued her attention, and with little success, including me. Try as I might, Barbara would not be rushed into any premature relationship and I often felt hopeless of ever gaining the trust and love of her heart. Even so, I felt God was guiding our lives together. Though I could not see it in the moment, there was a stirring, an indefinable hope, that our lives were linked by God's design. Touched by her gentle spirit, I was left totally undone by her exquisite beauty. Barbara, on the other hand was content to wait upon God's guidance until she was at peace in the matter. Not until she received an unmistakable word of divine confirmation, would she give her word and move ahead in any kind of courtship. For me, the waiting was excruciating and intolerable but I was persistent. She had captured my heart and I had decided I would not give up. Finally after some time, Barbara responded to me with a "yes". I was beside myself with happiness because it felt like a flood of joy and peace washed over me.
Our four-year courtship was a long-distance romance, nurtured through a weekly exchange of letters. I lived in Missouri, which was a great distance from Pennsylvania, for a young Amish couple courting. Every September, after the crops were in, I would travel from Missouri to Pennsylvania to visit her. Our courtship forged a strong bond of trust and love as we sat and shared our hearts and dreamed of the future. We had one big problem though. Barbara made it known that she would never leave her beautiful Sam Hill. At the same time, I was committed to family responsibilities, which made it impossible for me to have the freedom to move to Pennsylvania. This was the first of many tests of our commitment to one another.
Amish communities do not institutionalize their elderly or relatives in poor health. For generations, it has been the kinship duty of the immediate family to provide and give them care. I shared in the daily responsibility of taking care of four of my siblings who were wheelchair bound. This was a huge, demanding task, not one I despised but faced as a challenging impasse. Barbara and I agreed to continue our long distance courtship but I knew that was not the permanent solution. One day I was emotionally wrestling with the situation and I received news that she would be willing to come join me, if I would promise to take her back to Pennsylvania at the first opportunity. As you can imagine, I made her this promise with pure delight and joy! We began to make plans for her move right away. Again, we would face tests, which would prove our love and make us strong for God's future plan.
Chapter ThreeLiving Out My Name
Following the biblical example, our parents thoughtfully choose given names in Amish culture. Each name contains depth of meaning and driving influence for lives. My given name is Benjamin. You can read in the book of Genesis how the name Benjamin is connected with the anguish of Rachel, when she gave birth to her son Benoni. But like most names, the name Benjamin contains more color and definition than merely "anguish", it also means; "the son of my right hand". This is the name Jacob gave his son and it has a deep significance and meaning for me personally. Yes, my birth was hard and painful for my mother, yet, she knew, I was destined by Father God for His greater purposes.
My beginnings were typical for a Swiss Amish boy, completely foreign to the people and the surrounding towns near my community in Berne, Indiana. My parents had ten children, and I was number eight, as we Amish are given to large families.
The Swiss Amish communities of Adams, and Allen County, Indiana were tight-knit and isolated even among the greater Amish cultures nationwide. At age seven, I began first grade, where I attended the first newly built Amish school on my father's farm.
My father was a bishop in the church and became a forerunner in developing the first parochial schools in the Swiss Amish community. I completed my first two grades in the school building built by my father and my oldest brother David was my teacher. The State of Indiana had strict academic standards and David was required to go to Indianapolis with a scholar for each grade to test their learning skills. Each grade passed above average. Within two years however, my father received such bitter opposition, both from within the church, and from local authorities, that he had to shut the school down. This was a very troubling time when the persecution finally came to a head after some local thugs burned the School building to the ground during the night.
This was my world, the only world I knew until I grew to the age of ten, when my parents moved our family to Bowling Green, Missouri in the spring of 1954. We quickly settled on a 160-acre farm nestled in the center of another traditional Amish community. Unknown to me, or any of us for that matter, the way we lived and how I grew up was had little resemblance to neighboring towns. My world more closely resembled seventeenth century Europe than twentieth Century America. Compared to the post World War II baby and industrial boom, our Amish community was extremely disconnected and primitive. The outside world was outside and that is the way we kept it and the way we thought it should be.
Every child has challenges when growing up. I've learned that the challenges are not what prevents one from growing but rather how we respond to the challenges before us. The most debilitating challenge I faced was chronic earaches and infections, which cruelly plagued me throughout my growing years. And I had no idea it was developing into a serious and often fatal condition. My misery and illness worsened as a serious depression clung to me from age twelve to sixteen. My dad struggled too, not knowing, nor understanding my problem. Although he tried to help, he was at a loss what to do and at times helplessly threatened to take me to an institution for treatment.
Like other families, our challenges were compounded by daily responsibilities that needed attention no matter what other problems we faced. We all had a job to do and one of my jobs was gathering the eggs from the hen house. One day, my mom asked me to go gather the chicken eggs and I while I was busy searching each hen's nest, my mind suddenly exploded with the crazy notion that I would not live past the age of twenty One years old. Imaginations can run amuck and mine did when I concluded that the twenty-one eggs, I gathered, represented the number of years I was to live on earth. Try as I might, I could not unravel this fearful notion. It wrapped itself around my head like a serpent. Then, simultaneously and with sudden shock, I was gripped with a dark, foreboding, and oppressing terror. It was awful and the gloom that overshadowed me took me to what felt like, the pits of hell, as I stood there holding tightly to that basket of eggs. I even thought I heard a voice confirming this terrible personal prophecy. I now look back on this horrifying episode and realize that in spite of what evil forces were working to halt God's plan for my life, that Jesus is greater than anything we face. And He promised to never leave us and He certainly never left me. His presence was most warmly experienced through my mother's faith and assurance. As a boy, mother was the only person I dared share the fears and torment I was experiencing during these four years of private pain. Never once did she forsake me. I will always remember with love and affection her gentle, giving spirit, constantly sharing and spreading sunshine in my agonizing world. One of the ways she lifted my emotions was her keen ability to fill our house with singing. Like her Swiss parents, she was an expert singer, with a wonderful talent for yodeling, which I inherited. The English word Yodel has its roots in the German word Jodeln, which means to "utter the syllable Yo". Her lovely, clear voice would lift the fog of depression from the darkest day with high, low, high, low pitch singing. God wonderfully used her attention and love to bring hope into my life. To this moment, my fondest thoughts are often fixed on my mother's love and support.
Excerpted from An Amish Journey to Forgiveness by Benjamin Girod Copyright © 2013 by Benjamin Girod. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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