There were several different kinds of Amish people in south-eastern Pennsylvania. Some used the names of their families or particular sects, others were completely different religions, like Mennonite or Quaker, but followed many of the same customs. The ones we saw most wore dark colors, the women with long hair and in long dresses, generally with bonnets; the men in dark pants and shirts and generally with beards. They drove down the side of the road in black buggies pulled by horses, with only reflector lights on the back of the vehicle (as per the state law); they used black so as not to draw attention to themselves, and they would ignore waves or honks as the cars drove around them. The ones I spoke with were kind, direct, and very peaceful. They asked to not have their photographs taken and politely refused to discuss anything about religion (we were missionaries after all, what else did we have to talk about). Occasionally we would stop at an Amish store front, where simple products lined the shelves, most homemade on the farm, everything from hand-carved dolls to hand-churned butter.
Over time, I came to see the other types of Amish. Some drove more colorful cars and had cell phones, claiming they could use technology but only for business. Some were Amish six days per week, but had days off and would come into town in blue jeans and wearing make-up. Many were formerly Amish and had stayed in the area, forming families and learning to interact with others. These kinds of Amish seemed more real to me, they could be just a bit rebellious within their strict faiths. In my time there, I met many Amish, but never taught any of them about the gospel.
I lived in Kutztown, Pennsylvania for three months as a Mormon missionary. Kutztown was a tiny town of about 5000 people, named for its original founder, George Kutz, a few hundred years before. On its outskirts was Kutztown University, which had a population of about 10,000 students, tripling the town’s population by its proximity. Our geographic area, as missionaries, extended around the town by dozens of miles. We had a car in this area, but we were only allowed to drive so many miles per day. If we had to drive to the other side of the area, say to Shoemakersville or Mechanicsville, then we wouldn’t be able to drive on the day following or we would exceed our allotted mileage, having to then be on foot to stay within the rules.
When I arrived in Kutztown, I had been a missionary for 8 months. My early mission had been fraught with forced attempts to fit in, with the mission rules, with the other elders, within myself. But I had just come from a period of time when I no longer cared and I had just let go, largely due to my last companion, Elder Benjamin, who had been so relaxed and easy-going about life. Now here I was in a new area, another isolated one without other missionaries around, and I was the senior companion. I felt like I had something to prove here, in an area that hadn’t seen a lot of baptisms for some time. I wondered if this is the place I might make a difference. And as far as I could tell, there was only one major barrier to tremendous success as a missionary…
My new companion was beautiful. Elder Free was half-Japanese and half-white, and he looked like a guy who could star on a Disney Channel feature, or who could perhaps be a model for an underwear or swimsuit company. He was compact and strong and muscular, with beautiful brown eyes and perfect hair and a wide smile, and it was impossible to not be constantly distracted by him. He was extremely straight, and had a very cool girlfriend back home in Idaho that the wrote to constantly, but he was also unintentionally flirtatious and charming, and he walked around in his underwear shirtless far too frequently. We shared a room, and an apartment, and there wasn’t anyone else around, and it was impossible to not be attracted to him.
I had worked through most of my mission (and, well, through most of high school and after) trying to suppress any sexual energy at all in my life. When I noticed an attractive man, I would simply shut my thoughts off, distract myself, or start praying or singing hymns to turn off the thoughts. I wasn’t always successful, but thus far in my mission I had almost entirely avoided having sexual fantasies, and I had barely struggled with masturbation. But now there was Elder Free, walking around and smiling and laughing and looking beautiful, and it was nearly impossible to shut my hormones off. I found myself getting up extra early and doing push-ups and opening windows to try and clear my thoughts, but I was a 19 year old young man and it was almost impossible.
Still, I worked us hard. I came up with the idea to start doing massive amounts of missionary service in an attempt to win over some of the locals, many of whom were very proud Pennsylvania Dutch families who were friendly but unwilling to discuss religion. I got special permission from the mission president to increase the amount of service work we were doing from 2 to 12 hours per week, and he agreed to give us a shot. We started volunteering in a local nursing home and in the city library, and we offered more frequently to mow lawns or shovel walks or help people move. Elder Free and I both appreciated the exercise it gave us. In addition, I started making calls at the local university, and we got permission to leave copies of the Book of Mormon out for some of the students who might want to read it. We knocked doors and visited members in all of the other working hours, but we rarely taught discussions and we didn’t have any baptisms.
I tried implementing consistent healthy missionary patterns with Elder Free. I would set the alarm for 6:30, read my scriptures and journal, and encourage him to wake up at the same time, but he was reluctant, needed more sleep than me, and liked sleeping in. After a few weeks, he was less responsive and started sleeping until 9 every morning, and I just let it happen, not wanting to push the boundaries, which helped me keep that sense of peace that I’d had with Elder Benjamin, but also made me feel like a bad missionary for not sticking to the rules more frequently. Mostly, though, I enjoyed time to be alone in the morning while he was asleep.
One morning, at 7 am, I could hear Elder Free snoring in the next room, and I felt a streak of rebellion run through me. I put on an old pair of jeans and a sloppy white T-shirt, took off my missionary tag, and went outside. By myself. I was by myself, for the first time in months. I walked down the stairs and onto the sidewalk outside our apartment, my heart thudding in my chest, hoping beyond hope that I wouldn’t see anyone who knew me. I concocted an excuse to use in case Elder Free woke up, that I had to run out to the car for something. But instead, I walked. I walked, feeling free and excited. I walked down the block. There was barely anyone out and no one recognized me. I turned the corner, and kept walking. I made it all the way around the block. And then I walked around the block again. I passed a window, casually glanced in, and saw a gorgeous college-aged man, shirtless, sitting at his desk studying. I walked by again, then again. Fifteen minutes had gone by, and no thoughts of God’s judgment had passed into my brain. I just felt… normal. For just a few minutes.
I walked back into the apartment, and Elder Free was still asleep, and I had a powerful moment of feeling like I had gotten away with something. I had a surge of sunshine in my soul, and realized I needed more of that, more feelings of freedom. Not egregious sins, but ways of clearing my head and releasing the pressure. The next morning, I went out to the car in the early morning, and listened to the contemporary radio station, hearing artists like Ace of Base and Ricky Martin and Paula Cole and Natalie Imbruglia and Smash Mouth. I felt myself again, and made sure to turn the station back off before heading back inside. I started purchasing comic books, checking out books from the library, and scanning newspaper headlines. Then I purchased a GameBoy, with a Pokemon Gold game, something I could easily hide but play in the mornings or evenings to feel more normal. Lastly, I bought a small beta fish, another major rule violation, and I named him Caliban.
I heard of other missionaries breaking rules, some of them major and some minor, and I began to understand why. Some had small television sets, some would go to movies, some would have sleepovers at the homes of members of the ward. Some traveled outside their zones to do fun things, and would lie about the lessons they were teaching. Some got tattoos. Some dated women. I was used to keeping secrets (I was gay, after all), and I was exhausted with feeling like I didn’t fit in. If I could keep my brain busy, maybe I could survive this after all.
Suddenly, I could relate to those relaxed Amish sects even more.