Coming-of-age traditions exist in many cultures, from Hispanic Quinceaneras to Jewish Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, even the American Sweet 16 celebration. In the Amish culture, youth determine whether they will be baptized into the church through a process called Rumspringa.
“It’s basically the point in your life when you are trying to decide do you want to stay Amish or not,” said 18-year-old Mary, who wishes to remain anonymous for the purpose of this story.
Mary and her friend Ruth, who will also remain anonymous, have been on Rumspringa since age 16. Contrary to popular belief, Rumspringa can last longer than a year. For some it takes several years. The coming of age process is a time Amish youth experience the outside world. They have freedom from parental control and since they are not baptized, they are not under the authority of the church.
“From a very young age you look forward to this. You can’t wait to turn 16,” said Mary.
Cultural historian Joseph Yoder says the term “Rumspringa” translates into “running around” in German. Youth take that time to experiment with what they call “worldly” things like cell phones, modern clothing and cars.
“It’s a coming of age thing. It’s that time period when they get to know other young people,” said Yoder.
Despite growing pressure from the modern world, the Amish have an 85-90% retention rate. Most Amish youth choose to stay with the church. Some attribute that to the fact Amish youth have a choice. The Young Center out of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania says the fling with worldliness often strengthens their decision to stay with the church in the long run, but not before experimenting with worldly activities like parties.
“You have dedicated young Amish people who would never step out of line, but you also have that small segment who gets all the notoriety. And they are the wild bunch. They do parties and those kind of things,” said Yoder.
“Underage drinking, that stuff, it can get pretty crazy,” said Mary who has attended Rumspringa parties with hundreds of other Amish youth.
Ruth recalls the details of one of the larger gatherings.
“It was a band party. We were all drinking. It was very fun. We were drunk,” Ruth laughs. “A lot of English people come to our parties. We wear English clothes.”
Summer is a popular time to host these parties, which often take place in rural, wooded areas. Since Memorial Day, the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department has responded to at least six complaints.
“We’ll find kids there from Illinois, from Ohio, from Michigan. All over,” said Sheriff Jeff Campos. “That’s what makes these so big.”
Sheriff Campos says the sheer size of the parties is what sets them apart from other noise complaints.
“Unfortunately when we do have to respond to a large gathering, party, and it’s majority Amish, it’s huge. Anywhere from 200-300 kids. When I say kids, I’m talking about anywhere from 16 to 22,” said Sheriff Campos.
While partying is common during Rumspringa, the cultural meaning remains, which is whether or not to stay with the church. The decision does not always come easy. Mary and Ruth have not decided what they will do. They say for some it’s about the difficult decision to let go of “worldly” possessions. But for many the decision to stay comes down to family and the fear of leaving.
“I’m afraid my relatives won’t accept me if I go to the outside world,” said Ruth.
While most Amish youth choose to get baptized, there is 5-10% who do not.
Tune into part 3 of “Living Amish” Wednesday Just Before 6 to hear from a man who broke away from the Amish church. He describes his experience and what life is like after the Amish.