COLUMBA, Mo. (AP) Moses Gingerich doesn’t mind fielding the tough questions.
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 Mid-Missouri, where for years he has served as a mentor for other youths 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 last year about ex-Amish. The show, “Amish: Out of the Order,” is airing again March 9.
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. Columbia is known among Amish communities nationwide as the go-to place for teens wanting to leave. Partly, that’s because there are older ex-Amish already established here who can help them navigate the modern world.
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, a 19-year old 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. For as open as he is about his spiritual struggles, Gingerich doesn’t delve too deeply into the details of his own childhood. He made a decision as he transitioned from one life to another that he was not out to make the Amish look bad. Rather, he keeps the focus on himself.
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 in a home with no electricity and only a first-floor wood stove to heat the two-story house. Modern luxuries such as vehicles and radios were no-nos there – thought to be the devil’s tools to lure the unsuspecting into wickedness.
Farm work was required from sunup to sundown, except for Sunday, the day reserved for church and Bible-reading. By age 6, Gingerich was manually plowing the fields. It didn’t take him long to figure out his English neighbor was getting the job done a lot faster using a tractor. He started asking questions.
“Questions were not popular,” he said. “I didn’t fit into the mold of being a good little obedient Amish boy.”
His rebellious streak continued, and at age 15, someone on the outside sneaked Gingerich a battery-operated radio. For months, he spent Sunday afternoons hiding out listening to Garth Brooks and dreaming of becoming a country star himself. Then he got caught.
Gingerich leaves out most of the details of what happened next, other than to say the church made an example out of him and his battery-operated radio. Hurt, confused and rejected, a 16-year-old Gingerich ran away from home for the first time. He didn’t go far, merely to a nearby farm where he worked in exchange for room and board for six months before returning home.
At that point, Gingerich decided to make a sincere effort to settle into the Amish lifestyle. For the next seven years, he worked as a schoolteacher in his hometown, relocated to the Amish community in Clark and ultimately landed in Yoder, Kan., where he found an Amish community much more liberal than he’d known before.
There, the community let its youths experience rumspringa. A sort of spring break, rumspringa lets young Amish experiment with the outside world before deciding whether they want to live as Amish for the rest of their lives. Not all Amish communities participate in that rite of passage. Gingerich spent his rumspringa on television.
On one side of his cubicle in the Joe Machens Toyota salesroom, Gingerich displays typical office trinkets. Next to family photos and Green Bay Packers memorabilia, he has hung thank-you notes from people saying they actually enjoyed their car-buying experience. One man from Poplar Bluff even enclosed a $50 check with a note explaining that although he ended up buying a vehicle from his hometown dealership, he appreciated Gingerich’s time.
The other side of his small office - the side most customers don’t face - shows off another time in Gingerich’s life. That’s
where he displays a poster of the cast of “Amish in the City,” a one-season reality series on UPN in 2004 that paired Amish youths with urban roommates.
Gingerich was among the five Amish who agreed to spend rumspringa in Hollywood, letting film crews capture their reactions as they tasted certain foods and experienced activities for the first time. In one episode, Gingerich nearly drowned while trying to swim in the ocean. The show received a lot of attention at the time, and Gingerich was considered one of the more popular cast members. He appeared on “Live With Regis and Kelly” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and at one point landed on a list of breakout stars of the year a few slots under actress Rachel McAdams.
Although the TV show didn’t make Gingerich a country music star as he had hoped, it did have lasting implications. The show’s producers later called Gingerich when they wanted to film documentaries on Amish lifestyles. In addition to “Amish: Out of the Order,” Gingerich co-produced “Amish at the Altar,” a documentary about the religion’s ideas about courtship and marriage.
Before giving up his construction business last year and taking his current job, Gingerich was working out details of another TV series. That program was expected to feature Gingerich showing Amish building techniques using manpower only, no power tools. Plans for the series are on hold, but Gingerich indicated he also has pitched the idea of profiling his new life as a car salesman on TV.
Producers call on him because he’s willing to share a glimpse at the private Amish culture, a society where cameras and film crews are not welcome. Gingerich is rare in that regard, Miller said. Like their practicing counterparts, ex Amish typically aren’t interested in sharing details of their past lives with the curious outside world, either.
“If I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Miller told the Tribune. “The ex-Amish are very proud of their privacy. They don’t like people coming in and asking a bunch of questions to them. That’s the reason they left: They didn’t like people prying in their private lives.”
Miller considers Gingerich a sort of protege. He lived with the Gingerich family for a while as he transitioned to a new life. Miller decided to leave the Amish because he wanted an education beyond the eighth grade. He has been working on obtaining his GED while working in construction and participating in bull-riding events on weekends. Although he misses his family, Miller doesn’t regret his decision to leave.
“I’ve learned a lot I never would have,” he said. “I’m on my way to achieving my goals. I’d say, yeah, it’s been worth it – easily. I’m living the type of life my way and not how someone else is telling me to.”
These days, Miller lives in Macon and has opened his home to others.
“I’ve just had two new ‘escapees’ move in with me,” he said. “So I’ve kinda come full circle, helping kids.”
Miller doesn’t struggle with issues of faith. He doesn’t attend a church, and while he believes in the concept of heaven and hell, he’s not convinced leaving the Amish means eternal damnation. During that vulnerable moment caught on camera, Gingerich said he had been taught since he was a tot that those who abandoned their Amish ways are doomed.
“The fear of going to hell and burning eternally is a fear unlike any other fear I know,” he says in the opening of the documentary. “Do I think I’m going to hell for the decision I made? Probably.”
A woman from Columbus, Ohio, who watched that segment sent Gingerich a note earlier this month encouraging him. It now hangs next to “Amish in the City” stories from entertainment magazines on the back wall of his office.
“Please know,” the note from a stranger reads, “the Lord loves you beyond measure.”
Gingerich has experimented with other types of churches, but the leap to a new religion is too steep. Clapping in church, laughing, even smiling, contradicts everything he was taught.
But, he’s quick to say: “I still believe in God - big time.”
By JANESE SILVEY
The Columbia Tribune
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press