By Kevin Williams
“Oh you shouldn’t have done that”
“Why not?” I asked quizzically
“Because I’ll move here and take this piece and then this one,” the Amish man said with a hearty laugh, eyes twinkling and prominent white beard casting a shadow over the well-worn board. It was the checkers equivalent of check-mate. “Here, I’ll let you take that move back and start over,” he said charitably. I should have known better than to challenge a champion checker player to a match. He creamed me in three straight games, before we headed out into the beautiful Holmes County, Ohio countryside for a great lunch and conversation.
“You’ll find someone for your show, I’m sure of it,” the 70-year-old Amish man said when we parted ways. “And you’re welcome to stay here any time.”
It was a similar refrain I heard from Amish friends across the country over the past six months.
“This show really isn’t a bad idea. It’s probably not right for our family, but you’ll find someone. I know you will, you just have to keep looking,” said one Amish minister in Ohio, his brown beard neatly trimmed and gold-rimmed spectacles gleaming.
And so I did keep looking. I looked among the incredibly kind Amish of Manton, Michigan; I parleyed with an Amish bishop in Virginia at his mountaintop lair, I explored the warren of roads which honeycomb Holmes County, Ohio and I stood on the wind-swept prairies of Kansas. All the while meeting and spending time with amazingly accommodating and open-minded Amish families. I wanted you all to meet the Amish I’ve met, to see them as I’ve seen them. I still want that and if you want that too, I could use your help.
Television lately has had an itch for the Amish. So they’ve scratched it with shows that have become wildly popular like Discovery Channel’s Amish Mafia and TLC’s Breaking Amish. Television has stumbled upon what so many would-be novelists have discovered: put a bonnet or beard on it and it sells. As someone who has worked in relative obscurity over the past two decades to provide a balanced picture of Plain life, I’m excited that there is so much interest in the Amish. I think there’s a lot we can learn from this fascinating religion and culture. I’m not sure, however, if such shows are the way to go about it. Not that TV and the Amish, if done right, are totally incompatible. There have been a handful of wonderfully informative programs about the Amish.
So it was with a real sense of intrigue that I listened to several production companies that approached me last summer about developing a TV series based on my Amish experiences. It was a time in my life when I was – and still am – searching for a way to infuse all of my Amish friendships and travels with deeper meaning. I wanted to do everything my college philosophy degree didn’t teach me: hauling manure, baling hay, chopping wood, and milking cows. I wanted to learn to drive a buggy and immerse myself in the deep spirituality of their ways. I’ve been writing about the Amish my whole adult life, but I wanted – at least for a month or two – to live like the Amish. Not to become Amish – that ship has sailed - but to live like them for awhile and then go back to my day job hopefully profoundly and spiritually refreshed by the experience. I’d become a better husband and future father from it. It would be the most difficult thing I’d ever do, but in the end, I’d come out better for it.
I have many Amish friends who would take me in, but me and a TV crew? That was the challenge.
One Amish man startled me by suggesting: “Why don’t you and your wife just rent out our farmhouse, dress like us and pretend to be Amish, no one would ever know.”
Most outsiders erroneously assume that all Amish have a theological objection to photography but that isn’t the case. Some have theological objections, others sociological qualms, and others none at all. I knew finding a family wouldn’t be easy, but I thought offering a wholesome, insightful show to counter the current crop of TV fiction while deepening my Amish experience was a noble goal. So I undertook a months-long journey which I made at the production company’s behest and my own expense. It was a journey that took me on a grueling, sometimes harrowing search from the upper thumb of Michigan to a bishop’s mountaintop lair the hulking hills of western Virginia. Along the way I learned a lot about myself and even more about the Amish.
In the end, I did find some Amish families willing to take me in and open their homes to TV crews. None of us were doing it for the pay (reality TV pay is paltry unless your name is Snookie), although I will admit the exposure this would give my work would put The Amish Cook column on sound ground forever and that was appealing.
Hollywood, however,wants big, loud personalities and in the end myself and my Amish friends were told we didn’t fit the bill. Big and loud may well work for shows about repo-men, gator wrestlers, animal psychics, pawn shop owners, and cake decorators. But after 20 years of being The Amish Cook’s editor I think people are drawn to the Amish for precisely the opposite reason such aforementioned shows are popular. The Amish represent a step back, a deep breath, a connection to a time when tablets, smart phones, and wifi didn’t rule our lives. People don’t want Honey Boo Boo in a bonnet, they want quietude, serenity and honesty. I don’t think a program about the Amish need be a staid, somber boring documentary, but it doesn’t have to fit the shout-filled cookie cutter reality-show mold either.
In a career littered with the debris of missed opportunities, I’m not sure this one’s over yet. I have a hunch that there’s a tremendous appetite out there for a more cerebral, sensible show about the Amish, one that is fun but also respectful, educational and entertaining. Why don’t you decide by watching the clip yourself? You can make a show like the one I am describing happen by joining our Indiegogo campaign. Watch the clip and join the campaign here. For reasons that will become clear in an upcoming column, the time for me to complete this once-in-a-lifetime campaign is now.
Meanwhile, checkers anyone?