After last night's Scout meeting, I treated my eight-year-old son, Mr. Sunshine, to a late dinner at Arby's, his favorite place. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the place was filled with the bearded men and bonneted women of an Amish congregation -- or, possibly Menonite, since there were no horses in the parking lot.
Mr. Sunshine was jabbering away in the passenger seat, and he failed to notice the unusual crowd of late-night diners that awaited us, inside. Perhaps I gave him too much credit, because I skipped the obligatory briefing session, and just took him right inside.
We placed our order, took our tray, and while I was filling cups and doctoring up my roast beef sandwich, Sunshine decided to run ahead and pick out our table. A little streak of anxiety whistled up through my core, as I watched him zip off around the corner. I immediately regretted skipping our briefing session.
As I followed my son's path around the corner, I already knew what I was going to find. Whereas I am a more private person, Sunshine is highly gregarious, so he predictably snagged an open table right-smack in the center of Amish community. I glanced longingly at the rows of private booths, all along the far wall. But it was too late. I wasn't going to be rude. This was totally happening.
As I weaved through their tables, they were all chattering dryly in their dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch. They looked me up and down as I took my seat. I'm a Cub Scout leader, so my son and I were all decked out in our flamboyantly militant Scout uniforms, seated right in the middle of the Amish clan.
Go ahead. Take a moment to imagine this ...
As I passed out the food, Sunshine grinned and whispered, "Daddy, guess what?"
And, here it comes.
I glared at him intensely. I slowly shook my head from side to side. Not to be dissuaded, he continued.
"This place is full of Pilgrims."
I set my drink down hard enough to let him know he'd screwed up. I shot a few daggers right out of my eyes.
I'm sure he figured that since they were speaking another language that they did not understand what he was saying. I leaned in nose to nose with him across the table. "I know. Stop it. We will talk about it later."
After dinner, on the drive home, I explained the basics of Amish people, their customs, and their religious beliefs. I explained that they were very strict, and that they limited Amish marriages and relationships only to other Amish, in order to preserve their culture, keep it free from outside influences. This fascinated Sunshine.
"So, would they let me be friends with an Amish kid if he went to my school?"
"He wouldn't ever go to your school. He would go to an Amish school."
"What if, like, I met him at a park? Would they let me play with him?"
"I'm not really sure. Maybe. But I don't think they go to public parks. They stay in their Amish community."
"What if I really fell in love with an Amish girl?"
"You'd have to become Amish. Otherwise, no way, Jose."
Mr. Sunshine considered this for a minute. "Well, let's say she was my secret girlfriend, and I didn't turn Amish. What would happen if they found out? Like, what would the punishment be?"
"They would shun her."
"What's shun mean?"
"Everyone in Amish community would turn their backs on her and not talk to her. They would run away if they saw her coming. They would not open their doors to her. Even her own family would not look at her or speak to her. They put shunned people at special little tables in the back of the house, where they eat alone."
"Even her own mom wouldn't talk to her?"
"Nope. Because if she did, then the whole town would shun her mom, too."
Sunshine frowned. "Shunning people sucks!"
"Well, yeah. That's the point. It's to make sure that their community stays purely Amish. If you break their rules, they make an example out of you, and you get shunned."
My son thought about this, in silence, for the rest of the drive home. When we rolled into the driveway, he popped the door handle, then turned to me.
"Daddy, I got a question."
"What's that, buddy?"
"Can shunned people talk to other shunned people? Like, a sorta shunned people club?"