March 26, 2011

Leaving the Amish life behind

Moses Gingerich, who left his simple farm world for modern America, helps others do the same.

By JANESE SILVEY The Columbia Tribune

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Moses Gingerich doesn't mind fielding the tough questions.

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Moses Gingerich surveys the Joe Machens dealership in Columbia, Mo., after preparing a vehicle for a customer. Gingerich, who left an Amish community in Wisconsin, works as a car salesman and mentors other ex-Amish who are trying to adjust to the modern world.

The Associated Press

Do you go to church now? "No." Do you still believe in God? "Yes." Do you think you're going to hell? "Probably."

He gave the last answer on national television. He was feeling a little vulnerable when he said that, Gingerich admitted over a cup of coffee on a snowy January morning in Columbia.

Sometimes he doesn't actually believe God will send him to hell for leaving his old life. Other times, he doesn't know what to think.

Gingerich has lived in so many conflicting environments, it's no wonder his thoughts about God and heaven and hell get a little jumbled at times.

After leaving his childhood in a strict Amish community in Wisconsin, Gingerich spent his 24th year as a reality television star. Then he moved to Missouri, where for years he has served as a mentor for others who have left their Amish roots.

Today, Gingerich is a car salesman who doubles as a sort of link between the "English" and the "Plain People."

You might recognize Gingerich's name, although he just recently added the "s" to his birth name, Mose. He was featured in a National Geographic Channel documentary about ex-Amish.

The documentary profiles the struggle young Amish men and women face when they're not quite sure whether they want to practice the faith for the rest of their lives. The program spotlights Columbia as a safe haven for Amish teens wanting to explore the modern world and decide whether they want to live in it. Some stay here while others return home, making the city a sort of revolving door for Amish youths.

There are roughly 10,000 Amish living in Missouri; most of the nation's 250,000 Amish live in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, The Associated Press reported in December.

For years, Gingerich has served as a mentor for Amish youths here. He has let more than 20 young men live in the basement of his Holts Summit home, even as he supports a wife and three children upstairs. Until last year, Gingerich also owned and operated his own construction company, allowing him to hire Amish teens until they could find their own employment.

It's important to help these youths as they try to navigate a world they've only seen in passing, he said. Gingerich doesn't try to persuade them to stay on the outside, but he wants to make sure that during their leave from Amish security, they don't get caught up in dangerous behaviors.

Those not born Amish -- the "English," to use a common Amish term for outsiders -- might not understand how tough it can be for kids deciding whether to swap their simple lives for a more modern one. But along with strict rules, long workdays and a lack of modern conveniences, Amish communities provide strong family networks and simple pleasures such as Sunday-night singing.

"The biggest adjustment for me, personally, was not being able to see your family at all," said Amos Miller, 19, who recently left the Amish in Clark. "Your family ties are pretty much cut."

Gingerich understands that. His family has essentially shunned him. That's why he's eager to lend a hand to others searching for a new life.

As open as he is about his spiritual struggles, Gingerich doesn't delve too deeply into the details of his childhood. He made a decision as he transitioned from one life to another that he was not out to make the Amish look bad.

Gingerich describes himself as a curious child, which made him a sort of oddity in his Greenwood, Wis., community. One of 13 children, he was raised on a 250-acre farm with no electricity and only a first-floor wood stove to heat the two-story house.

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