Breaking Amish: One Ex-Follower’s True Story of Moving to the Big Apple

In light of TLC's new show an ex-Amish explains what it's really like to leave the religious community

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Walling McGarity / TLC

Kate, Jeremiah, Sabrina, Abe and Rebecca from TLC's Breaking Amish.

TLC’s Breaking Amish attempts to shed light on the secretive Amish community. The reality series will follow five people from Amish and Mennonite communities as they move to New York City and adjust to urban life. Think of it as an Amish version of MTV’s The Real World.

To learn what the transition is actually like, TIME talked to one young man who broke Amish for good and moved to the city.

Timothy Sauder at Columbia University / Courtesy of Timothy Sauder

Timothy Sauder, 30, a student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — the oldest Amish community in the U.S. — until he was 14, when his family moved to Plymouth, Ohio. He left his Old Order Mennonite community — and two younger brothers and two younger sisters — because he wanted to go to college and pursue a career in science. And he could not be both an Old Order Mennonite and a college graduate because his community does not support higher education. Many members do not even attend high school. He used to dig televisions out of dumpsters just to learn about the outside world. For five years, he debated whether to leave, traveling around the U.S. and to 22 other countries while he pondered the decision. Finally, in fall 2008, without a high school diploma, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. He transferred to Columbia in 2010 and is expected to graduate in May 2013 with a B.A. in Biology. Post-graduation, he wants to pursue a career in biotechnology and start his own biotech company.

(MORE: Battle of the Beards: Amish Feud Leads to Spate of Hair Stealing)

Sauder’s family has come to terms with his new life. His father Linus (a machinist), his mother and his siblings have even visited him in New York City. TIME sat down with Sauder at his apartment, which he shares with three other roommates. He no longer wears suspenders. Instead, he sported a pink striped button-down shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. His room was impeccably neat, complete with a lofted IKEA bed that he built himself — thanks to the carpentry he learned as a Mennonite. His bookshelf was typical for a student — biochemistry tomes and classic literature like Don Quixote and Hamlet — plus more revealing choices like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

So are you Amish or Mennonite?

I use the term Amish because it’s so universally understood. Old Order Mennonite is technically what I am. But basically, horse and buggies. I did grow up with power from the grid. But otherwise, we wore conservative dress — jeans and button-down shirts, suspenders and hats. Clothing was all store bought. For the girls, they make their own, and it’s a long dress and a cap. I went to school with Amish kids too, literally the same little stereotypical one-room schoolhouses.

Sauder’s parents Linus and Mary Sauder. / Courtesy of Timothy Sauder

I understand that many Amish/Old Order Mennonite communities don’t use modern technology outside of the workplace — if at all. Did your background influence your decision to study biology and pursue a career in biotechnology?

When I was seven or eight years-old, my parents bought a small encyclopedia set called Growing Up with Science, and I knew that it was a lot of money for them at the time. There was some sort of implicit approval. And I was always hyper aware of the divide between conservative faiths and science. I would always have to be careful to say things in a certain way so that I wouldn’t be ostracized for not buying the creation story. I would go to the public library a lot which was relatively unusual, but not necessarily discouraged.

In 2003, I took a bike trip in Colorado. I had just turned 20. Most of the people on the tour — a seven-day, 400-mile trip in the San Juan mountains — were professionals, either lawyers or doctors. I would get into these intellectual conversations almost every night, and all of them immensely encouraged me to get a higher education. I grew up with very, very little contact with people who had a higher education — or had even gone to high school. A few asked me “what’s keeping you,” and I found myself having a really hard time explaining what was.

(MORE: Can the Amish Teach You to be Rich?)

What are some major adjustments you had to make? 

My palate has changed quite a bit. I’ll eat Chinese and sushi. I took my brother to a Korean restaurant, and he could barely eat. Eating out was a rarity growing up. Takeout was unheard of. When [the Amish] travel, they do eat fast food, and that’s like a treat. Otherwise, the family would do home-cooked meals, and often the same meat and potatoes and bread. Beets—they grow themselves, as well as peas, and string beans. There might be a few people who use a soy sauce or a barbeque sauce. There are very little fried foods, other than donuts, maybe. They do have a few sort of dishes that are specialties, like Shoo-fly Pie, the stereotypical dish they cook for local tourists at all those at Amish places in Lancaster [main ingredients are molasses and brown sugar].

What about changes in your clothes? 

If I were a girl, obviously that would be radical, but for a guy, it’s not like I am wearing things now that I wouldn’t have worn at home. Minus the suspenders. But I’ve seen hipsters pull those off pretty well, so I’ve thought about it.

(MORE: Apparently hipsters are taking hints from the Amish now)

Based on the trailer for TLC’s Breaking Amish, do you think the show will be an accurate portrayal of your journey?

It’s certainly not anything close to my experience, not even remotely the attitude that I had or still have. I don’t think that they’re a representative group at all. They’re far more dramatic than any Amish kids I’ve ever seen, so that makes me suspicious immediately. Their way of speaking doesn’t look genuine to me. I just felt like they expressed themselves in ways that seem very scripted, like, they were told to say those things.

(MORE: Why Mennonites Go Bad)

What actually happens when Amish and Mennonite people visit New York City? How do they react?

Sauder visiting Alaska, where he went to do some soul-searching. / Courtesy of Timothy Sauder

When I show around the [Amish/Mennonite] people from back home, they’re not the type of people who are like “OMG.” They’re not reacting. [Amish/Mennonites] are like, “oh, so this is a city.” It’s very easy to think they would just be floored, but I’ve never seen that reaction. They don’t have preconceived ideas that come from pop culture or media. Once in a while I’ll hear them say things like, “What would it be like to live here?” For them, it’s so far out there. If someone asked you, “How would you like to live on a Moon colony,” you would be like “No, never.”  The fact that I’m living here is probably the only thing that would sort of make them think twice.

At last count, I had 76 first cousins, and probably 25 of them have been here to see me. I’ve done the “Welcome to New York” tour many, many times.  Standard tours show where John Lennon was shot. Well, first I have to explain who John Lennon was. Their history is better than their pop culture. Ground Zero is universal. Everyone remembers it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. The subway system in general is fascinating for them.

Any misconceptions about Amish or Mennonite people who leave the community?

The biggest issue that I have with a few media depictions is that they exploit the Rumspringa ritual [a period from age 16 to marriage when they can date and leave the Amish community to try out modern world material comforts before committing to the religious lifestyle]. Usually they take the most extreme instances they can find and dramatize them.

Most media depictions tend to portray the family as ostracizing the person. But if you have this imperative to leave, you’re the one who does the isolating.  My family never told me not to do what I was going to do, but at the same time, I knew that they sometimes had huge questions and doubts. They never just put their foot down and said no. I could see it in their eyes that they just didn’t understand. They held their breath for a very long time, and they’re still kind of doing that.

(MORE: Indiana Police Bust Amish Man for Sexting)

Because we’re an entertainment site, we have to ask: what kind of entertainment did you grow up with?

Once or twice a year, our Mom would let us go to the neighbor’s house [non-Amish] and see the Saturday morning cartoons, which was an epic treat. But mom really didn’t like it. As far as music, the only popular music you would hear was country music.  We would sing choir — that was very tightly integrated with our way of socializing, and I get emotional listening to it.

How have your entertainment interests evolved since leaving the community?

Film is something I can get into. I’ve watched pretty much all of Hitchcock. I’ve actually seen a lot more classic films than many of my [non-Amish] friends. Just the other day, a friend hadn’t seen Psycho, and I was like, “C’mon, I’ve seen Psycho.” Television: I’ve probably seen all of South Park, and I watch The Daily Show and Colbert. My friends are starting to get me into True Blood. I get a kick out of the whole religious King James speak.

I noticed your Flickr, which struck me because I thought Amish people don’t like to be photographed. How did you get into photography?

Ironically when someone does take a picture [of an Amish or Mennonite person], and they get a hold of it later, they’ll keep a scrapbook because they have so few pictures. But if you ask them to pose, they’ll be very reluctant to do it. The sin for them is the pride. Posing for a picture just seems too extroverted, too forward. Until recently I didn’t have any pictures of my family at all. I do have a few now, but still, it’s not part of their culture. As far as my own interest in photography, it came out of my interest in travel. I remember my mom saying, “You can buy postcards, and those are always nicer anyway.” I think that was the goal for me—to make sure that my pictures are at least as good as a postcard.

Have you ever thought about going back?

Of course. I can’t say that I won’t return, but at the same time, I don’t see myself going back to the middle of Ohio or Pennsylvania. If some people from home asked me if they should try the same thing — get a higher education and move out — I would be very slow to advise them to do that. If they tried, and it didn’t work out, I would feel bad. They have to find that answer themselves.

MORE: Why Mennonites Go Bad
MORE: What’s Next with The Amish?

31 comments
JamieOtt
JamieOtt

One thing that always bothered me, when people imply that I'm going to hell, is that they really don't know. The bible is a recount, and it is based on people's word, but people are not reliable. So how do you know that that's what Jesus meant, or that God said, exactly, that? You don't know, not at all. All you have is an accounting of events. You don't know if it's correct or not. You assume it is correct. So your estimation that I'm going to hell is an assumption.

To me, speaking for God is a bigger sin. Putting words in Jesus' mouth is a bigger sin. Telling people they're going to hell only puts fear in them: fear to do otherwise. Fear to leave. Fear to question and fear of reasoning. This means fear is being used to control. How dare you tell me what God is going to do. You don't know. We won't know who's right until we die.





danieltanure
danieltanure

I think people just want to project onto the amish this preconception of a fanatical, cultish environment, a sort of medieval culture of repression and ignorance, when in reality, they're apparently just like any small-towner, albeit with their own culture and customs. I guess people freak out if you choose to stay out of the technological loop, like you're some obtuse caveman or something.

frank
frank

I always thought TLC ment the learning channel, after being sick one day and stuck at home, I watched that channel...What junk, If people in America are watching that trash , then there is no hope for us left in America.. Does this channel cater to the lowest possable class of people.. It must be,

AJoyfulChaos
AJoyfulChaos

Thanks Timothy for doing this interview. As an ex-Amish myself I am happy when someone shares how fake this show really is.

MM237
MM237

I wish people wouldn't always get swayed by 'old earth' science...there are old earth believers, but the evidence can be interpreted in more than one way, and people should be open to the idea that maybe it does support the creation story.

trueanswers.org

answersingenesis.org

Creation Wiki (the address escapes me)

Google also Darwin's God and Uncommon Descent. Two very good blogs.

As for the Amish/Mennonite ways, there's some good there, but I've never thought God wanted modern technology rejected either.

The guy intervivewed shouldn't be into some of that entertaiment though....South Park is crude and tasteless and disrespectful. Too much of today's stuff is....TV and movies need more family fare and not to rely on sex and violence all the time.

Lorrie Christman
Lorrie Christman

Just want to set a few things straight since Timothy is not being completely accurate. He is Mennonite, NOT AMISH. He wore Jeans? Amish men do not wear jeans. He is from Lancaster, which is a tourist attraction. If you think they are speaking gobblygook, it is called Pennsylvania Dutch and it is their first language. They do not learn English until they enter school in the first grade. That, plus it is mixed with a Western PA dialect. Timothy thinks they are exaggerating or being dramatic? It is because they are Old Order Amish, which is very traditional and NOT MENNONITE, which allows more luxuries like driving cars and using electricity. Every Amish community is different with different rules and traditions set by their Bishop. Some may be allowed phones in their barns, others may not. Two of these Amish on this show is from a town very near to me. Trust me, they are for real. I recommend watching the show, as it very informative and accurate. These brave souls did not leave during rumspringa, which is a time they are allowed to leave the community to learn about the outside world. Unfortunately, the Amish will be shunned. Remember, Mennonites are NOT AMISH. This IS an accurate protrayal and I highly recommend watching.

Cindy
Cindy

It is a blessing to know that America and its history is rich in cultural diversity.

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Giles Rafol
Giles Rafol

I caught an episode of TLC's last Amish show, "American Colony," but after learning about the controversy and it's failure, I was pretty disappointed. I was expecting an accurate portrayal, but of course it wasn't. I just caught the last 5min of this new "Breaking Amish" show and was hopeful again. But then I saw the previews for upcoming episodes. They look like Jersey Shore: Amish edition. I want to see true stories -- like this gentleman's in this article -- not some cheap, scripted show.

At this rate, I can probably get a more accurate portrayal just be going to the local mall. Every so often, there are Amish (not sure what specific group) that come by. I remember one young couple (probably in their 20s at the time). Traditional dress, except for the guy had two cell phones holstered, girl was talking on her own cell, and she had a pretty nice leather jacket, too. I've also seen more "traditional" looking families come in and shop at places like American Eagle (shirts and jeans for the boys).

That's what I want to learn about. How is technology and the outside world changing their communities? How are they adapting to this? Are they at all? Is their resistance? What will the coming generations look like? Will there be any coming generations as younger people start leaving their communities? Interview those who have left. Those who eventually come back. A real documentary, not just another "reality" show.

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

This interview with Timothy Sauder sparked my interest in viewing the TLC program and it was a gigantic disappointment.  Contrived, scripted, manipulated, teevee trash of the most common variety.  The previews of future episodes indicate that it will go even lower than the fake and phony pilot.

A program featuring Timothy and other authentic (as opposed to controlled casting) Amish young people, both questioning and not, would be vastly more informative and interesting. Or even a contrast between Mennonite and Amish communities, or the history of both, or anything would top this drivel.

Marylyn Smith
Marylyn Smith

breaking amish.i know they have there religous.but we all have the same god and we were all born the same way even by the mother given birth just like jesus mother mary gave birth to him.im not saying to get away from the things they believe in.and by the way why the bishop wife needs not to look and tell.the bible say zip it evil not get along with evil.and she is getting ino the middle of it.so let the people try.and  like sheep stray  the herd but all always be found,prayer are with thesae young people

Matt Landis
Matt Landis

Thanks to Timothy for that very accurate portrayal.

JoeutbOzil
JoeutbOzil

like Frances said I am startled that someone can make $7797 in four weeks on the network. did you see this(Click on menu Home)

VanH0henheim
VanH0henheim

@JamieOttThat is why there is the holy spirit so you can know. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth."

Bichon Bisou
Bichon Bisou

Nice try, TLC spokesperson. The show is crap, the people on it had left the community prior to shooting the show, sometimes *years* before, and the whole thing is very misleading.

I find it funny that so many people, myself included, are so indignant about this show because it's so fake, yet stuff like Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo? No one cares that stuff is 100% scripted as well. It's like we hold Amish-related reality TV to a higher standard!

Renita Marjan
Renita Marjan

 No, Mennonites are not Amish. But Breaking Amish is also NOT an accurate portrayal -- it is scripted, overdramatic and totally misleading.

Renita Marjan
Renita Marjan

 American Colony is NOT about the Amish. It is about the Hutterites, which are a different Anabaptist group that is very communal. Please do a little wikipedia reading.

Also WRT to the guy interviewed -- it really bugs me that he won't make the distinction for people. How will anyone ever learn the differences in Anabaptist groups if we don't tell them? I am a progressive Mennonite and look just like anyone else.

MM237
MM237

People shouldn't be so fast to reject God. I can't say I blame some of those who've left the hyper-conservative communities, but the evidence is still all around us that God is real.

reasonablefaith.com

godandscience.org

Pen Guin
Pen Guin

NatGeo channel has a much better series about kids in the MO area that quite the Amish and a former Amish that helps them adjust to life in the outside world.

maco
maco

And "Breaking Amish" doesn't only have Amish kids on it anyway. Some of those on the show are Mennonites like him.

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

I have seen a few episodes of that series and I very much agree with you. In fact, that series was probably a subconscious reference as to my impression that the TLC thing is trash.

Also, once on vacation in Mexico I met a Mennonite couple also on vacation who owned a big farm in Mexico, and I learned some of the differences. It seemed to me that the Mennonite religion is basically similar, personal and reserved, but not as dismissive of modern technology. The wife only spoke German, and the language, high and low was also fascinating.

Another interesting thing is that they were modestly prosperous and had 8 kids back at their farm. I asked who took care of the kids when they were gone, and they said they mostly took care of themselves, but everybody in their community helped.

Avatib
Avatib

like Kelly said I am amazed that some one able to earn $7016 in 1 month on the network. have you seen this(Click on menu Home)

arcinva
arcinva

I only have two things to say (and I'm not upset or anything, just want to make sure people understand). 

First, is that the article incorrectly stated "Older Mennonite".  The term is actually Old Order Mennonite. 

Second, is that there is a reason they are referred to as Old Order and that's because they are a small minority of Mennonites that chose to keep the old traditions alive as the broader community continued growing into modern times.

Most Mennonites are completely average and you couldn't tell them from a Baptist or a Catholic just by looking at them.  They dress the same, speak the same, are in no way isolated from the wider world.  They get higher educations and watch tv.  The church I attend alone has at least four doctors, an accountant, someone that owns a tech company, and a law professor.  The former pastor was even a lawyer before he went to seminary.