Amish choices in Y2K

HINKLETOWN, Pa. -- It was hard to see William and Minnie Stauffer in their traditional black clothes, since the only light inside the Pike Church came from a crimson winter sunset over the Amish Country hills.

It was hard to hear the story of how the Old-Order Mennonites came to Lancaster County, since there was no pulpit microphone the cold wooden pews were full of squirming young visitors. But it was easy to hear one of modernity's signature sounds, when a cellular telephone sang out over on the women's side of the sanctuary.

The children on this seventh-grade field trip giggled. Their host smiled.

"Feel free to take your call if you really need to," he told the chaperone. "We don't mind if you use your telephones. But you do need to go outside our church, to do that."

The present keeps threatening to drown out the past, like the trucks that shake this old church as they roar past a few feet away on Highway 322. It's getting harder for the minivans and SUVs to swerve around the horse-drawn buggies. Last year, some locals even faced Y2K complications, since tourists use credit cards, to the tune of $1.2 billion a year.

Many Amish have packed their wagons and moved to farms in more remote areas, far from the outlet malls. There are 20,000 traditional Amish left in the county, out of a population of 450,000. There are about 200,000 old-order Amish in America, living in 23 states.

Amish bishops face the ongoing challenge of discerning what to shun and what to embrace. It's OK to use a modern sewing machine, if it's powered by a special manual foot-pedal. Natural gas and air-compressors can work wonders, when connected to refrigerators, stoves and water pumps.

But if the Amish use modern banks, what about their ATM machines? Modern bicycles are forbidden, but what about roller blades? An Amish businessman may refuse to have an office telephone line. But can his non-Amish partner sit at a nearby desk and take calls on a cellular phone? Is it sinful to sell handmade quilts through a middleman at

Amish parents used to worry about the subtle signals sent by buttons, bonnets and broaches or the intricate rites of courting using bachelor buggies to go to church socials.

Today, some teens see R-rated movies, go to beer bashes and blast out heavy-metal tunes in local bands, during the years before they make their life-defining decisions to join or to flee the church. This wild-oats tradition is called "rumschpringes," which, in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, means "running around." In 1997, press reports of drug abuse led to a shocking memo to Amish parents -- warning them to study the details of their children's live, including looking for needle marks.

The times keep changing, but Amish young people still face the same choice, said Lena Zehr, a staff member at a Lancaster County museum called the Amish Farm. They know they cannot live the same lives as their 17th-century European ancestors or even of their parents and grandparents. But they still have to decide whether they will attempt to reject the standards of the modern world. She estimated the 90 percent join the church.

"Try to imagine what that would be like," said Zehr, facing another two busloads of children from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, or Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, or anywhere else, for that matter. "All your life, you have known that you were different. You were supposed to be separate from the world. Your clothes were different. Your home was different. If you are a little Amish girl, you look like your mother. If you are a little Amish boy, you look like your father."

The children looked around the bedroom in this archetypal Amish home, at the clothes, the quilts, the oil lamps and the old books. A sampler over the bed said: "Heaven is my home."

"If you are an Amish child you are always thinking: Do I want the modern things? Do I want that car? Do I want be one of the new people, one of the English? ... What would you choose? Can you even imagine making such a choice?"