Emma Gingerich was 18 years old when she left the Amish community. She had an eighth-grade education, spoke little to no English, and had nothing but her strong spirit to keep her going.
She grew up with 13 other siblings whom she had to cook for day in and day out. Suddenly, she had only herself to feed. And feed she did! She feasted on whatever cuisine she wanted. Mexican, Italian, Asian – the choices were seemingly endless.
As were the types of music she could finally listen to. And the different clothes she could wear. So much variety sent her reeling.
Here’s the fascinating story of a girl who managed to sneak a cellphone into her strict community, call someone from the outside for help, and break free to create a life of her own.
We bring you, Emma Gingerich.
Each person longs for something different in life. Some long to be rich and famous, others hope to meet their significant other and build a family, and others wish to travel the globe and explore the planet’s breathtaking scenery. However, some just want to be happy, like Emma Gingerich.
Her life was totally different from the way most of us grew up. She was raised in an Amish community, that is, until she decided to escape and find out what life was like out there in society’s “wilderness.” Emma knew there was more for her than the roles that had been forced upon her by the community. And she made it her life’s goal to get to know herself in a different light.
Emma and her family grew up in the small town of Eagleville, Missouri, where Emma often felt cut off from the rest of society. But growing up in an Amish community didn’t necessarily mean she was isolated. She grew up with 13 siblings! And she spent most of her day helping her parents take care of them.
The family would make and sell beautiful woven baskets. Emma was also responsible for sewing her own clothes. Despite their busy days, Emma still felt lonely. She wasn’t allowed to hang around with other kids or socialize too much beyond her inner circle.
People are always interested in learning more about Amish communities and what goes on there. And Emma Gingerich was happy to share some information. She told ABC that her “family was very strict.” The whole community follows a fixed set of rules. And breaking them usually means some major consequences.
Emma shared that her parents “believed in old traditions,” meaning there’s just no breaking the rules. All of this left Emma feeling left out. And the worst part? Is that she always compared herself to other girls, thinking they were much happier than her. always felt as though other girls her age “were a lot happier.”
Not every Amish community avoids electricity. Some acknowledge that there are moments where a little help is needed, especially in times of emergency. In precarious situations, having access to electricity can be the difference between life and death. However, there’s a reason why many communities still avoid power.
It has to do with a term called “Gelassenheit.” It’s a German word that translates to “letting be,” and it serves as the foundation of many of the community’s philosophies. Amish people usually believe that Earth should be enjoyed in its natural form, as “God intended.” And not messed around with running water and electricity.
Even though the outside world doesn’t know much about the Amish community, several documentaries have been filmed that have allowed people to catch a glimpse into their lives. And it’s through those shows that we’ve discovered that, according to the Amish, if you’re not part of their community, you’re referred to as “English.”
That’s right; we’re all considered “English.” This dates back to immigration procedures from hundreds of years ago. The Amish didn’t know who was coming and going, so they began calling everyone English, and the title has stuck ever since. If you’re wondering why not “American,” it’s because they consider themselves to be the real Americans.
There are a couple of rules that Amish people have to follow, even as kids. One of them is this – if you want to play with dolls, they have to be Amish dolls. Which, to many, looks like something straight out of a scary movie. They’re very different from the dolls we’re used to.
Amish dolls have no faces. And there are two main reasons for that. One – the Amish believe that only God has the right to “make people.” Two – to the Amish want to teach children that everyone is created equal in the eyes of God. Nonetheless, it’s creepy.
Even though the Amish follow a long list of rules, this doesn’t mean people can’t make their own decisions here and there. Believe it or not, the Amish people are often fairly open-minded when it comes to learning more about life and how to deal with different obstacles. But that being said, some rules are not to be broken.
The Amish have their own ways of dealing with rule-breakers. One of the ways is a punishment called “meidung.” While it’s not the worst possible method, it’s still pretty bad. It means that the person is shunned from the community for a set period of time. It’s sort of like a “time out.”
“Meidung” isn’t the only punishment Amish people use. Perhaps you’ve found yourself wondering what happens when a member of the community does something unforgivable? Something that’s way beyond the boundaries of their rules?
That’s when something called “bann” comes into play. It’s a method reserved for the worst of the worst cases. It basically means that the member is permanently kicked out and will only be treated as an “outsider.” As harsh as that sounds, there have been times where outsiders found their way back into the community, in spite of their “unforgivable behavior.”
The one aspect frightened Emma Gingerich the most was dating, and there’s a specific memory from when she was 16 that she says will always stay with her. She told ABC News that “I don’t like the way Amish people date.”
As it turns out, her family introduced her to someone they believed would be a perfect match for her. They brought him to their house one evening, and rather than head out on a date, he came into her room and spent the night with her, fully clothed, in her bed.
Emma explained that she had to spend the night with the stranger. But no touching was allowed. The community apparently condemns you if you do anything sexual. So, they stayed up until the break of dawn and talked. And while that might sound romantic (and a bit weird), it wasn’t.
The night left her feeling “absolutely horrified.” She had no idea how she was expected to fall in love with a guy like that. Being forced under the sheets wasn’t how she expected her first date to go. This was just another thing to add to the already long list of things Emma couldn’t stand about living as an Amish.
A common belief regarding dating is that opposites usually attract. Even so, some people still desire a significant other who mirrors their every thought. In Amish communities, there are a string of rules to be followed when it comes to dating. And both sides have to follow them.
Amish people can only date people who have been baptized by the church, and there’s no particular age that this can happen. In addition, couples are only allowed to go on lovey-dovey dates when they’re out and about in public, where they can be watched.
In the Amish community, if you want to take things to the next level, then you need to make sure everyone else in the community is on board with it and is ready to see you walk down the aisle. Yup, that’s right. No one is allowed to get married – or even engaged – without the community’s approval.
When it comes to popping the question, it’s up to the man to get down on one knee, but they have to get the church’s approval first. Once the church accepts their request, their engagement is blessed, and they’re free to plan the wedding. News about the engagement is usually posted in the town’s newsletter.
Yes, we know, forcing someone into your daughter’s bed to spend the night sounds a bit pushy, but even so, Amish people believe that it’s up to the person to decide with whom they want to walk down the aisle.
People from the Amish community have the right to choose whether they want to join the church, meaning that it’s also up to them whether they want to get married with someone from the community. The majority of them end up following in each other’s footsteps and joining the church, but this is because they’ve decided to do so, and not out of some arrangement their parents cooked up for them.
Emma Gingerich didn’t think she would ever leave the community. She told ABC News that everything was good, until she finished school. In general, education isn’t a huge thing within Amish communities, and Emma herself finished her studies when she was only in the eighth grade (she was 14).
The moment she was out of school, she began to work. And that’s when it hit her – “There was so much more out there for me.” She began cleaning houses in the neighborhood and started to notice that people lived very differently from the way she was raised. This piqued her interest, and she knew she had to learn more about life outside of her community.
Even though she knew she was going against her family, she couldn’t hide her feelings anymore. She opened up to a family friend about wanting to see what was out there. And he knew exactly what to do. He gave Emma the phone number of a woman who used to be Amish, and with the help of another rebellious member, she got her hands on a cellphone.
She hid the phone in her bedroom until the moment was right. After a few calls and arrangements, in January of 2006, she wrote her parents a note saying, “The time has come for me to leave.” She was unhappy and dissatisfied with community life.
Today, most communities are made up of a bunch of different languages. Apparently, the Amish communities are capable of speaking a number of different languages. But their native language is German.
It all goes back to their early days in America. The first settlers wanted to stay faithful to their home country, so they kept several of the traditions, including the German language. Most celebrations and services are held in German, and many of their important traditions have a German name.
German isn’t the only language in Amish communities. Many of them are bilingual, and some even trilingual! They know how to speak German, English, and Dutch. As if learning three different languages wasn’t hard enough, each language is used on a different occasion. When they’re in school, most of the Amish people use English.
English is valuable for obvious reasons (it’s the most widely spoken language across America), and the Amish find it crucial to learn how to communicate with people from the outside world. But they normally use German or Pennsylvania Dutch when they’re casually talking to their neighbors. Unfortunately, Emma Gingerich barely knew English when she left her community, making the transition a lot harder.
Emma is far from being the only teenager who has thought about leaving the community. In fact, parting ways with the Amish life isn’t as taboo as you might think. Amish or not, teens are rebellious, and in order to calm their feisty spirits, the community has come up with something called “Rumspringa,” a phrase that means “to run around” in German.
It’s a rite of passage for most teens in the community, when they’re granted a chance to experience life on the outside, between the ages of 14 to 18. The community thinks it’s unfair to baptize the kids before they have a chance to see what it’s like to live a different life.
There are plenty of reality shows and short films documenting Amish teens as they go about their Rumspringa vacations. Incredibly, the teens are allowed out into the world and are given full permission to communicate with non-Amish people and test different technologies before they reach a final decision.
Some Amish teens “run around” for just a few weeks before they decide they want to go back home. Others have so much fun that they want to stay in the modern world forever. Or at least for a couple of years before they finally return.
We were all teenagers at one point in our lives (or maybe still are), so we all know what it’s like to have a stick up our butts, one that causes us to fuss around, rebel, and question society’s norms. For Amish teens, Rumspringa is the ultimate chance they have to break the rules without technically doing anything wrong.
While some things would normally get an adult Amish into trouble, teens are treated differently. They have somewhat of a “free pass” when it comes to breaking the rules. The Amish community doesn’t punish its kids for wanting to see what’s out there. And in any case, fewer punishments usually means that more of them will return.
The decision of whether to go back to the Amish lifestyle or to live in the outside world is a difficult one, and a significant moment in any Amish teen’s life. It’s a life-changing decision and one that isn’t taken lightly. In case you were wondering, most teens decide to return to the community once their Rumspringa is over.
Still, not everyone is ready to return. And some choose to keep on living in the modern world, with all its luxuries and temptations. But that doesn’t mean there’s no turning back! In some cases, if a member decides to leave their family behind but ends up regretting it, the community might agree to welcome them back.
It took a while for Emma Gingerich to get used to her new life. A life that was nothing like her strict Amish one. For one, Emma was used to cooking for her whole family, which consisted of 16 people! And now, she had to make meals for no one but herself.
She also had a chance to enroll in college, which, for an eighth-grade dropout, seemed like an impossible mission. But she didn’t give up and ended up earning a degree. Apart from school, Emma also grew fascinated with Mexican food and football – things that were totally out of the question when she was part of the community.
During an interview she did in 2015 with The Atlantic, Emma shared that she had had a bit of experience with technology and electricity growing up. Apparently, she secretly owned a “battery-operated radio.” She also used a cell phone, the same one she used to make the call to get out of the community.
However, Emma didn’t really know how to use the phone at first and had to figure it out for herself “when the time came.” She said that “it was a long phone with just a tiny screen.” She began by dialing the numbers and eventually guessed which one initiated the call.
Emma Gingerich was worried she wouldn’t be able to leave the Amish community in peace. Even though she had a cell phone and a contact to help her, she wasn’t really sure how to use it and what to tell the person. She thought she probably wouldn’t even hear them from the other end.
She told The Atlantic that she was worried about not being able to “understand what they were saying.” But all the stress melted away as soon as Emma made the call. In fact, she confessed she “felt pretty good about it, that I had accomplished it.”
One of the first things Emma wanted to learn after leaving the Amish community was how to type on a computer. She told The Atlantic that she began writing on “a Word document” and decided to “practice the letters,” but couldn’t understand why “some of them are big and some of them are little.”
Luckily, it didn’t take her too long to figure things out, and she quickly realized that she didn’t need to press caps lock every time she wanted to write in capital. Now, Emma says she doesn’t even have to “look at the keyboard anymore” and is “pretty fast.”
Emma was intrigued by the internet when she first came across the endless web tunnel. For years, Amish people have had absolutely no experience with the internet, but that has changed a bit in recent times. Little did Emma know that googling her grandfather’s name would change her life forever. She told The Atlantic that she “was so blown away” by what she found.
She read that he was “accused of doing some bad stuff.” She also read that the police couldn’t do much about it because he was Amish. She later revealed that she had no clue how the story ended up on the internet in the first place, but regardless, she was devastated to read that her grandfather had acted inappropriately with his daughters.
Uncovering such a dark family secret was absolutely devastating. And the thing that affected Emma the most was how her “parents never talked about stuff like that.” She said that she had no idea whatsoever that her grandfather had been accused of such things.
Emma admitted she might have had somewhat of a feeling about it all. She confessed that she “didn’t like him ever.” Even though it was a lot to take in, Emma told The Atlantic that it helped her understand why her father was so worried when she left the Amish community because three of his sisters had already done so as well.
Emma Gingerich’s dad was deeply upset about her leaving. She explained that his three sisters had left the community too, and, after reading the disturbing news about her grandfather, she was beginning to understand why. Emma quickly added that her father was “not near the horrible person” that his own father was.
The tension surrounding her departure is still as strong as ever. She revealed that while she’s visited her family a few times since leaving, she is no longer welcome there anymore. Emma feels that she has no emotional support from the people she loves the most, particularly her dad.
Stepping away from the Amish lifestyle means that Emma got to experience things she would have never been exposed to unless she made that big step. Things like going to the movies, concerts, traveling, hiking and trying out new foods. And while she enjoys the sudden diversity, she still dwells on what her life could have been like if she had stayed.
She told ABC News that she “would’ve gotten married and had four or five kids by now” if she had stayed in the Amish community. Emma strongly believes that she could never have married “an Amish guy.” While she doesn’t like to gloat about it, she doesn’t regret any of her choices, saying, “there was never a time when I wanted to go back.”
Luckily, leaving the Amish lifestyle has changed Emma’s life in positive ways. For starters, she’s met the love of her life, Clay. According to their interview with The Knot, they met on a dating app – something that would have never been able to happen if Emma were still an Amish. As it turns out, she’s the one who sent the first message!
She noticed Clay wrote something in his profile about mud and thought he was simply joking. But he wasn’t -– Clay was actually a mud engineer! And one week later, the shy couple went on their first date, and the rest is history. They dated for one full year before Clay popped the question.
One of the things that Emma told The Atlantic was that more and more young people want to part ways with the community, and a lot of them are taking steps to do so. She talked about a “big division in the church.”
Emma explained that different opinions and needs have “caused a huge uproar with different families.” So, rather than work together to try and sort things out, Emma said that members of the community “just give up and leave” without giving the lifestyle a second thought.
Even though Emma knows that more people are leaving the community, she isn’t entirely sure what has happened to cause that division. She hasn’t been able to talk much with her family, so she has little knowledge about the exact details of the clashes within her former community. All she knows is that “Some people want a different lifestyle.”
As for the people who don’t leave the community, Emma believes “they want more.” She explained that in her community, they agreed to divide the church. A move which has left several members with a big decision to make – to remain with their church or move to a different one that has fewer rules.
As surprising as this may sound, social media is now a big part of Amish life for many teens, especially during Rumspringa. Buzzfeed reported that young Amish folks gather from different states to host massive parties, and social media has made it possible for more and more teens to find out about the parties.
While it used to be hard to find out about the parties, today up to 700 people can be seen at Amish parties because everyone is connected and texting. Buzzfeed also mentioned that social media helps Amish youngsters to stay in touch with one another.
Another former Amish named Noah told Buzzfeed that members need to “watch what they post” because they don’t want to get “a bad reputation” for posting inappropriate content. However, certain things are totally allowed, like party shots, for example.
One of the many reasons Amish teens feel comfortable using social media nowadays is because their parents have no clue how to use the internet. But that doesn’t mean these youngsters are posting everything. Parties are discussed in private text messages, so the cops won’t turn up and bust their celebrations.
Since leaving the community, Emma has grown stronger and stronger. She’s even written a book titled “Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape.” And since its release, Emma says she has been receiving countless messages from other young girls.
As it turns out, most of them also want to leave the Amish community. Emma told ABC News that she tries to “give them advice and encourage them to do better for themselves.” Having gone through the experience herself, she has what it takes to help others break away and start anew.