Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Post 4-Poverty and Wealth--The Anabaptist Enigma

What makes conservative Anabaptists so financially successful?

A couple months ago I sat with some 450 other people in Halsey Mennonite's gym and listened to reports on the various ministries of CAM-West.

Based in Ohio and organized by the Beachy Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, Christian Aid Ministries has become an enormous charity. They funnel the vast resources, generosity and efficiency of conservative Anabaptists into a central organization and then distribute aid all over the world. They send homemade comforters to North Korean tuberculosis centers, gather truckloads of almost-expired medicine and send it to clinics, pack food parcels for emergency aid, and dig wells in Kenya.

They package and distribute thousands of seed packets so people can grown their own food, rebuild after natural disasters, teach women in Eastern Europe to sew, and slip quietly into places like Yemen and Iraq to offer emergency aid.

And a lot more besides, in eye-popping numbers.

CAM-West is a branch of CAM, founded a few years ago. Mennonites in the West had lots of willingness and resources, but we are a long way from the CAM warehouses in the East.

So now the North Korea projects are centered here, and also the assembling of thousands of hygiene kits for Syrian refugees and food parcels for Eastern Europe.

I sat in that crowd of Mennonites, all deeply engaged in the reports, and recalled the Atlantic article about wealth inequality in America.

I thought: By most measurements, we ought to be poor. True, many of us are white and our families have been here for generations, but there's a significant percentage of Hispanics and other non-Caucasians, and we are rural and uneducated. I doubt that half this crowd has finished high school.

And yet, I knew there were lots of deep pockets in that room—farmers and business owners and landlords and contractors. I knew most of them were willing to donate in impressive numbers if they were convinced it was for a worthy cause—hence, the rapt attention to the reports from bearded gentlemen on the platform.

How does that work, and what is it about Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other derivatives) that turns the American economic charts upside down?

I am not an economist, having inherited my dad's mystified view of anything financial. But I'm trying to learn, and I've observed a few things.

[I have much more knowledgeable friends, such as Merle Burkholder, who are welcome to weigh in with comments.]

Some time ago I read Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

She is a professional woman who went undercover and took various minimum-wage jobs to see if and how a person could get by on minimum wage in America. The short answer is definitely No, it just can't be done with any quality of life.

Ms. Ehrenreich details the harrowing lives of waitresses, cleaning ladies, motel maids, and others. She shows the snowballing effects of poverty and how short-term solutions derail long-term goals. If you don't have money, you can't afford a deposit on an apartment, so you end up in a motel. You can't cook in a motel room, so you have to buy prepared food. There might be cheap rent a long way out of town, but then you have to figure out transportation back and forth. You're working two or three jobs so you smoke cigarettes for the energy boost. And so on.

What struck me over and over in the book is that the only measurement of wealth that she looked at was money and property. From that perspective, there is no possible way to have one person, working for low wages, have their needs met. If there's a child or two, it becomes even more impossible. 

As I read, I kept thinking, "WHERE are these people's PEOPLE?" It seemed like everyone was bobbing around in their own little bubble, trying to take care of food, clothing, medical care, transportation, and everything else entirely on their own.

Once in a while, Ehrenreich offhandedly mentions someone who, for example, didn't have to pay child care expenses because her mother watched the children. But the author never looks at that factor in depth, and to me it seemed like she kind of resented when someone had their mom babysit or their uncle fix their car, like they weren't quite playing by the author's rules.

So of course I would mentally rearrange their lives. Those three waitresses should live together in one apartment and try to carpool. They could take turns staying home to watch all the children, cook rice and beans in the crock pot (from Goodwill) and do laundry for them all.  If there was a neighbor who could fix the car, maybe one of them could give haircuts or cook something in exchange. If one got sick, the others could take her shift.

Or SOMETHING! If they would only help each other!

But they didn't ask me, obviously.

This is my spitballed explanation of the Anabaptist economy:

As a denomination and subculture, we have embraced frugality and hard work and hands-on skills, but mostly I think we recognize that people and relationships are of great value. It's not that we don't like money (trust me) but we know that people are even more valuable. So we live in clustered communities and have lots of children and go to church and turn out by the hundreds for weddings and funerals.

Paradoxically, this system has resulted in financial wealth.

The basic requirements for a job are not education but gumption and connection. In this area, it's easy for a young person to get a job. You can drive a combine for a farmer during harvest, teach at various church schools, sack seed for Paul or another seed cleaner, build mini-barns for whats-his-name on Peoria Road, or work at Grocery Depot, the Mennonite-owned discount grocery.  If you call Loren at Grocery Depot and say you're Paul Smucker's daughter, you'll be hired. He won't ask if you have a high school diploma and might not even ask for references, but he'll expect you to work hard.

If you do a good job at a construction business, you can work your way into a better position and eventually a business of your own. And then you hire your children and nieces and nephews and the guy who came out for harvest but wants to stay on in the fall, and eventually he marries your daughter and expands the business.

It's not a perfect system, as demonstrated by our family's experiences, which were likely attributed to a low gumption level. But on a macro scale, the system works.

However, there must be more to the robust Anabaptist economy than simply valuing people, because other subcultures such as Native Americans also value community but have different economic outcomes. 

Why do you think Anabaptists have done well enough to finance CAM's huge budget?

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments, which I will post if you sound humble enough.

You might be wondering why our family didn't get more financial help from the church community. Tomorrow: how Anabaptists help, and how they helped Paul and me find our way out of poverty.


  1. I'm delighted that you're addressing this topic, Dorcas. I'm glad you're putting words to what our subculture does without words. I've not heard many people acknowledge the other kinds of wealth that you listed, but I know you're absolutely right.
    I don't have any answers for your question. I only have more questions. What is our moral obligation when we are SO wealthy, and other Christians can barely survive? How can we learn what sacrifice is, not as ascetics, but to live simply like Jesus did and how most of the world is forced to? Living in Europe for 19 yrs in mission settings, and a trip to Greece and seeing refugees is the backdrop for my questions.
    For starters, maybe everyone should spend at least 2 weeks in a 3rd world country. And I mean everyone. Because they do have the money to go.

    1. Thanks, Anita. Those are excellent questions. And I too have found that going to a 3rd World country changes your perspective forever.

  2. I have a delightful book called "Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving" by Lorilee Craker. Fourteen chapters of old-fashioned commonsense wisdom! I do think that your thoughts about community and pooling together are vital. Family is first, including extended family, then a community whether religious or as we discovered while my husband served, military, or other closely connected group; then the wider community. I think humility plays a part too, the willingness to be different, and not too proud to ask for help, or to receive help when offered. Our children grew up shopping at thrift stores and yard sales for nearly everything. As adults they get sticker shock when they try to shop at regular stores! They have all found ways to be frugal, sometimes to the point of deprivation, before asking for help from the Bank of Dad and Mom. One lesson we are grateful they have learned is to avoid debt like the plague, because it is truly that, a plague! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and wisdom.

  3. Stephanie Wunder3/21/2018 7:38 AM

    I'm not very familiar with Anabaptists culture but I suspect the root of the economic difference between Anabaptists and Native Americans is historical trauma. Native Americans and other groups have experienced types of exploitation that impact generations. Mr. Coombs writes about the impact of historical trauma in his Analysis: The Pharmaceutical Colonization of Appalachia It seems to me groups of people who have been exploited they can not seem to rebuild, they can't seem to heal as a culture and develop a support network. Historical trauma and generational poverty seems to create unstable families and family dynamics (J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy). Considering the Opioid Crisis, I believe if we did a little looking regions with historical trauma correlate with regions of impact. This brings to mind the Rat Park Study - when rats were given the choice of a better social experience they ignored the drugs. I think some groups have lost the ability to rebuild tools/systems/relationships that thriving communities maintain.

    I just stumbled into your blog this morning, thank you for your work

    1. I think you're right on with the idea of trauma making the difference. If you value community but there has been so much trauma to your people that your community is very unhealthy, you often end up in that poverty cycle. Having a healthy community versus an unhealthy one can make all the difference.

    2. Just curious how you differentiate between the traumas suffered by the Native Americans vs thast suffered by the Anabaptists?

    3. I was thinking the same thoughts as I was reading also and offer this observation that the Anabaptists live with faith in a God that works out all things for our good

    4. The Anabaptists have had a share of historical trauma also, beginning before they came to America. They were despised by both Protestants and Catholics, hunted down, imprisoned, drowned, burnt at the stake, etc. In America they suffered a great deal during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars because they would not join the army, and also during World War I, before provisions were made for conscientious objectors. They were not crushed by this because they did not see themselves as victims, but expendable for the cause of Christ and His Kingdom. This life was not the end--they had hope of a glorious eternal future.

    5. I don't know the whole answer as to the difference between the traumas experienced by the Native Americans and those of the Anabaptists, but these are some of my observations.

      The Anabaptists were never colonized and made dependent on the government for survival as the Native Americans were and still are in a lot of ways. And the Anabaptists had a real relationship with God to help them pull through, whereas the atrocities toward the Native Americans were done mostly in the name of God. They were given a very unhealthy and wrong view of God. Some chose to adopt that very unhealthy view, others ran completely the other direction and will have nothing to do with such a God, not knowing that they were shown a false view of Him. Neither response can help with working through trauma. Also, the Native Americans continue to face a lot of stigma, which Anabaptists don't.

      I think another thing that comes into play is that the Anabaptists were persecuted for their beliefs, the Native Americans for who they are. That makes a big difference in how it affects you.

  4. The book by Erik Wesner, "Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive" addresses some of the questions you ask about why Anabaptists are financially successful. Here is a review from Amazon by Joshua Crews that outlines the main points of the book:
    1. Low personal expenses. It's easy to bootstrap a business without debt when your life is simple; you have few gadgets; and your entertainment is family, games and visiting friends.

    2. A fear of God. This persuades away from idleness, and into productivity and investing in the good of others.

    3. A commitment to excellent craftsmanship. It glorifies God to make a thing well. That alone motivates quality and a reputation for quality and service that can command premium prices.

    4. God, family, community before business. Business is used to fulfill your calling to God, to family and to community. The American mantra assumes that business success is THE goal. The Amish don't see it that way.

    1. I've read Wesner's book too and learned much from it. It should be required reading for all college business majors!

  5. Anabaptists in North America have not been persecuted or taken advantage of by their government and have generally been encouraged and viewed as economic contributors. This is not true for Christians in many countries.

    We have been taught to take responsibility for our actions and accept the consequences of wrong choices.

    The way you think really does matter. Hopelessness and despair create more of the same. Helping each other and the less fortunate create a positive atmosphere that encourages success.

    Dave Ramsey once wrote that he told a young man who was deeply in debt because of his pricey car to sell that expensive drain of his resources and buy an old 'beater' and go home and hug his wife. Being willing to live below the status quo while valuing relationship and accepting hard work does pay off.

    Peace with God and security in my relationship with Him is also huge. Because when I know who He says I am and I live out of that confidence I discover I don't need to impress anyone else with my acquisitions. Life becomes less expensive!I am free to love God and others.

    Whew. What a lots of "I"s in that last paragraph.

  6. I am enjoying your posts. I have been pondering a lot lately about poverty versus wealth....and my responsibility if I find myself in the latter. I like how you acknowledged wealth as being more than "having money".

  7. I agree here too.
    Good thoughts

  8. I have thoroughly enjoyed your articles on this subject. I think you are on to something. Those in our increasingly individualistic society are losing vital interpersonal skills and the ability to be vulnerable with others. Building and maintaining healthy communities takes work and learning to obligate ourselves to one another, but I think its what many in the church have to offer society in general.

  9. I used to volunteer at a local food pantry , which I think they are great for those in a pinch. But I used to wonder at the ones that came ambling in with their fancy iPhones and custom manicured nails. There was a local bakery that donated their day old breads, delightful organic grainy artisan bread , $6-7 a loaf in the store, that they got for free, but alas, when I steered them in that direction, thinking they would be as delighted as I was at this delicious healthy bread, it was ‘ oh, we don’t like that kind’ and head towards the twinkies!!! Or the smooshy white junk. I too have created scenarios in my head, of how they could help themselves can live in life income housing, but must you be a slob? Good grief, you can get $25-30 an hour cleaning houses if you work hard, and it’s flexible so you can be there for your kids, and no ma’am , you don’t get to party on the weekends or hang with the newest boyfriend, that’s for teaching your kids to clean and meal prep and go in walks. Oh my... but it’s generations of using our government system. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum,I have multi millionaire clients that I wouldn’t want their lives either... they ALL need Jesus...that’s my Rosa Rant :)

    1. This lifestyle is so utterly foreign to the Amish way of life that it's almost incomprehensible.

    2. Anonymous, I hear you! One thing that I've realized, especially since relating to these kinds of people more, is that for many of them they've never had anyone even teach them how to not be a slob. They don't have the benefit of parents and grandparents who care and take the time to teach them these things or explain the benefits of working had or how to manage money. Those of us that have grown up in an Anabaptist culture, for the most part, have had the benefit of being taught basic life skills, basic work ethic, basic hygiene etc. since we were small. And more than that, as Dorcas alluded too, we also have the benefit of community. I don't think most of us have any idea how rich and how privileged we truly are...and how much easier that makes our lives and also how much easier it makes it for us to be successful.

  10. I am fascinated by your discussion of poverty vs wealth and your articles have fueled many supper table discussions. Thank you.

    I used to work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for a family who were in danger of losing their children to the foster care system due to educational neglect. This family was Hispanic and very interconnected with other family members in the greater community. And it seemed that whenever they took a baby step towards getting ahead in life, their larger family pulled them back down. The father took on odd jobs so that he was able to get the car fixed. With transportation he was able to get a stable job. Then he lent the car to a cousin who parked it in a tow-away zone. No one had any money to pay for the car's release, so the father wasn't able to get to work and he lost his job. The court provided the mother with mental health counseling and public transportation vouchers to get there. But her sister's childcare fell through, so she stayed home to watch her nieces and nephews rather than go to her counseling.

  11. As a former volunteer at a Crises Pregnancy Center I can tell you how many people make choices that will guarantee a life of misery: it is sin - fornication, refusing to marry but choosing to have babies anyways because there is Medicaid and welfare and mama to help me care of my babies. And so the cycle repeats itself thanks to the welfare system that is funded by the American taxpayer.

  12. "Where are their people?" Hey, lots of folks have no people. They have no cohesive community like the Mennonites. In fact there are darn few "communities" like the Anabaptists in America. And also, if your parents/family members are unsuccessful, depressed, uncaring, antisocial or missing you don't built up a support team throughout your childhood. Other folks on the block aren't so interested in the family failure children, maybe unwashed and wandering around at night because the parents don't much care where their kids are.

    When you reach adulthood maybe you can start to build a bit of a support system, and trade services with others. But it's not so easy as it sounds when all of that is foreign to you and you can't even get your own siblings to help you in an emergency.