One Year Later: How Amish Teens Decided

ABC News revisits four teens who were thinking of quitting the Amish community.

September 2, 2009, 1:26 PM

Sept. 4, 2009 — -- Adolescence is typically a time to experiment and test boundaries. But if you're an Amish teenager, you face a confounding choice between family or isolation, tradition or the modern world, faith or uncertainty.

Last summer "Primetime's" Jay Schadler told the story of four Amish teenagers in central Ohio who found themselves at a crossroads. Schadler had followed the teens for a year during the Amish rite of passage known as rumspringa.

This period of discovery, loosely translated in the Amish's Pennsylvania Dutch language as "running around," gives Amish teens the chance to explore the usually forbidden modern world before deciding whether they will forever commit themselves to the Amish way of life.

ABC News returned to Ohio this summer to see what paths the youths had chosen. Had they decided to return to Amish life? Or were they setting a different course, one that would lead them away from their families and community?

The Amish way of life means living according to a strict set of religious rules, with no electricity, no cars, no music and no education beyond the eighth grade. The Amish wear traditional clothes and stay away from the outside, or "English" world.

Baptized once as children and again as adults, the Amish believe that only adults can make informed decisions about their own salvation. The decision to join the Anabaptist Christian Church means they consciously take on the responsibility of following the Ordnung -- the unwritten rules -- that have sustained the culture for several centuries.

The challenge is that if the outside temptations prove more powerful than the world they have always known, the teens will spend the rest of their lives severed from their families. It's a high-stakes choice between the enticement of freedom or returning to the faith and comfort of family and community life.

Four Teens at a Crossroads

According to studies done by Thomas J. Meyers, a sociology professor at Goshen College in Indiana, more than 80 percent of Amish youth eventually join the church.

In 2007, when ABC News first spoke with the four teens (whose last names have been omitted to protect the identities of their families), each was grappling with the question of permanently leaving the Amish community.

"If you don't grow up in the Amish, then you don't know what it's like," said Danny, then 18, who ran away from his Amish family by jumping from the second-floor of his father's farm house late one night.

He negotiated his way through a series of first encounters with the modern world, including remote controls, text messaging and drunken nights, to find that he had escaped one set of rules for another he didn't understand. Danny's internal conflicts about the decision to be or not to be Amish landed him, first, in trouble and, then, in jail.

"They think I'm lost," Danny said at the time. "If I were to die, they think I can't go to heaven. I mean, I might not go to heaven, but not every Amish is going to heaven."

When ABC News first spoke with Lena nearly two years ago when she was 16, she cleaned houses by day and at night texted and talked secretly on her cell phone by candlelight. "You have a big decision if you want to stay with the Amish or if you want to leave," said Lena, the youngest of 11 children. "I'm confused in my life."

Although Lena dressed in Amish clothes, underneath her simple dress and white bonnet she wore a T-shirt and blue jeans. "Well, my dream right now is to leave the Amish and do what I want to," she told Schadler at the time. "I want to do a lot of stuff, and just go out and have freedom for a while, complete freedom."

Lena's act of rebellion was that she planned to get her GED -- a full high school diploma. The Amish traditionally only go to school through eighth grade because they believe that life experience trumps formal education and that young people should apprentice to learn the basic skills needed to make a living.

When ABC News first spoke with him, Nelson, who turns 20 today, drove a souped-up buggy, complete with a stereo system, subwoofers and an iPod charger.

He laughingly called himself a "high-tech Amish." But he also said he is not much different from the generations before him. "It seems like every generation takes it a little further and a little further," he said. "My grandpa told me when he was my age, they had a little radio, but it was a real old type and they still had to crank it to get music out of it."

Harley, 19 at the time, already had left his community when Schadler first spoke with him. He had set out with the clothes on his back and $21 in his pocket. When he first spoke with ABC News, he admitted no second thoughts. "Some people can take it, and some of them can't," he said. "For me, it's like, my best choice I ever made."

Harley had tried to maintain a relationship with his family, he said, but his parents didn't want him to visit very often, as they were afraid he would be a bad influence on his 12 younger siblings.

"My one little brother, he was about a year old when I left," Harley recalled. "Every time I'd come home and I'd walk in the door, he'd run up yelling my name. 'You going to stay at home this time?' And I tell him, 'No.'

"When I first left the Amish, I missed my family like very bad," he said at the time, adding that he still drove by his family's home sometimes. "I try and stay away so to respect mom and dad. They're ... they're disappointed in me."

All the teenagers had to decide for themselves if those family bonds were enough to keep them in the community.

"Basically, the reason I'm staying is my family right now, at home. I know I'd miss them and they'd miss me," Nelson said last summer. "I just like the lifestyle, it's a simple life. Work hard, play hard, it's just fun."

Where They Are Now: an Update

Each of the four youths profiled by ABC News last summer has altered his or her course, some turning back toward the community they know best, others looking farther afield.

Self-proclaimed bachelor and captain of the road Harley, now 21, realized his dream of being a truck driver. But after seven months on the road, he became so homesick that he decided to give the Amish life another try.

"I just decided to come home and try to live the Amish life again. ... Life without family sucks," he told ABC News.

He's now dating an Amish girl and plans to be baptized into the Amish faith in the spring.

Two weeks after the "Primetime" program aired last year, Lena, now 18, moved in with her boyfriend, Ruben, in a house a few miles down the road from her mother. She no longer rides in a horse and buggy. She has traded it in for a red sports car.

"I never really imagined I'd actually drive but I like it now. ... Felt like I got freedom," she said.

The beer bottles and drinking that used to be part of her life have been replaced by baby magazines and late-night feedings. In June, she and Ruben welcomed a baby boy into the world. While she has no plans to return to the Amish, she said she's finally at peace.

Nelson can now be found in Illinois, where he works as a wrangler at a children's camp. He left his family to explore himself and to travel.

The "high-tech" Amish has traded in his buggy for a Camaro, and when he's not updating his profile on Facebook, he's learning what the outside world has to offer.

"A lot of people thought that I was going to stay Amish and then I guess I surprised everybody," he said.

As for Danny, his midnight escape took place two summers ago, but he's never been too far from home.

"Yeah, I'll go back," he said. "Probably be Amish in 10 years ... just for the sake of my parents, I guess."