10/25/2007 02:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Los Angeles is on fire! Disaster unearths contradictory memories of my Amish-Mennonite background

My mother called me from Ohio the other night, worried about the fires. She asked me if I was all right.

"Sure," I told her. "I'm safe - I live in Brentwood."

"Where's that?" my mother asked. She was confused by the old joke - she thought I just lived in Los Angeles. I decided not to explain that my area of Los Angeles was once a place O.J. Simpson also called home.

My conservative Mennonite parents don't have television - but they've been hearing about the fires from the neighbors, listening to a Christian radio station, and reading their local newspaper. They know wildfires are raging in my city.

And they're worried that the fires might put their firstborn son in danger.

They're not the only ones. Friends from the Midwest and the South have been checking in on me too.

"Kara called me," reported one of my friends from North Carolina, referring to her 16-year-old daughter who is currently in Ohio. "She was watching television and saw the news. She was so excited."

"Los Angeles is on fire!" she squealed.

It's about 3 AM. I can't sleep - the air quality sucks - and I'm checking my email. I notice on AOL News that 2,650 state prison firefighters have been lent by the governor to help contain the blaze. Approximately.

Even the former governor of Texas is getting in on the act. Seems he doesn't want a repeat of the Hurricane Katrina incident. Even now, I feel the empathy and support emanating from the White House.

Then I think of the Mennonite Central Committee, begun in 1920 as "an inter-Mennonite relief agency." Programs like Victim-Offender Ministries and Ten Thousand Villages were conceived in MCC.
Mennonite Disaster Service is another branch of MCC. I once read that MDS is the first organization on the ground at almost every disaster worldwide. Even the plainest Amish churches are united in supporting them.

MCC offers a helping hand to anyone, and it interfaces with other religious and secular organizations. You don't have to call yourself a Mennonite in order to receive their help during a disaster.

The photos and film images are by now ubiquitous: an Amish community gathered to help a farmer whose barn has been destroyed by fire. For the rest of the world, it seems to take a Katrina-sized disaster for people to care.

This kind of practical help doesn't happen by accident. The conservative Mennonites and the Amish don't believe in life insurance - instead, they take care of each other during life's traumas.

I experienced this when I was a child. My father was a factory worker plagued by migraine headaches, which would lay him up on average three days a month. He had a hard time finding work that paid decently. With eight children to feed, life was tough.

But neighborly love was more than a concept in my home church. People cared. They cared with their hearts, and their hearts had hands.

It's one of the really wonderful things about my background.

It's taken a long time for me to say that - "the really wonderful things about my background." For years, as I secured my master's in English, I found it hard to explain where I came from. Finally, I picked up a term that my friend Laban Coblentz has used for years: Amish Mennonite.

Laban left our community the fast way, by joining the U.S. Navy in his early twenties (don't do that if you intend to remain conservative Mennonite). Today he works as senior advisor and speechwriter to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But the term Amish-Mennonite isn't entirely accurate.

So when did I grow comfortable with telling people I came from the conservative Mennonites?

Perhaps during the last six years as I taught English at the Archer School for Girls, an upscale private school in Brentwood, located within ten minutes walking distance of my apartment.

My friends and family were bemused by Archer: why would anyone pay upwards of $26,000 per year to send their daughters to a secular, private school?

And they can't get their heads around the California public school system, which is on the front lines of the immigration problems that color every school issue stretching from language to security.

My family lives in the Midwest: Ohio and Pennsylvania and Missouri, where their parochial school communities feel safe.

Or maybe not.

Recently, a good friend told me about her daughter, who was molested by the Amish husband of her babysitter. The novel that I'm writing, Schwartz Creek, explores a conservative Mennonite community invaded by a child molester.

Yes. It happens there too.

I think my parents understood the need for safety. During my first twelve years of education, before I left my community, I attended a parochial school. It was the late 60s and 70s and early 80s, and Hartville Christian School was located just down the road, a two-minute drive by car.

We lived out in the country - the nearest town was Hartville, Ohio. It was small. In the field beside our house, cows grazed.

But even that world was not immune from shock. Take the morning my younger brother was washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

In front of his eleven-year-old eyes, David saw a car round the S-curve above the lane. The car missed the curve - a drunk driver hurtled out of its window. His body wrapped around a tree that sat at the end of our lane. Backwards. Then the same car carrying his wife and child scraped into him as it passed and coasted to a stop in the front lawn.

Don't ask me how it happened. It just did. My parents found my brother that night in his room crying. And my brother was tough.

No community is entirely safe.

My parents had to pay tuition, and they were glad to do so, rather than let me and my siblings be exposed to the local public school system. When they couldn't afford the expenses for eight children, our church community stepped in and covered the expenses.

Was it embarrassing, being the recipient of such help?

You betcha.

But that's part of being a large family within a conservative Mennonite church.

During my last year at Archer, a colleagues reported that there was a rumor flying around school about me.

"Is it true that you grew up Amish?" she asked. "The sophomores are obsessed with the Amish."

I was a little surprised. How did they find out? When people look at me, the word Amish is not the first word that springs to mind. I talk very little about it. I guard my past.

I learned to do this during my year abroad as a Rotary Scholar in London, England in 1988-89. There I learned that when people connect you with the Amish, they suddenly find you interesting - but for all the wrong reasons.

"You know what's weird about you, Steven?" a friend of mine recently asked me.

We were having lunch at The Lazy Daisy in Santa Monica. I was there to ask her advice. She's good people. She's from Ohio. I go to her when I want to hear the truth in the shortest number of words.

"What's weird?" I asked.

"When people ask you to talk about your background," she said, "you talk about your life since you've left the Mennonites. You don't actually talk about your childhood."

I thought about that. Maybe it's because I've spent my life since the age of 25 trying to get away from that world in my head. And with this blog, I'm directly confronting it. In fact, the idea of this blog is to explore ideas that I'll eventually use to create Schwartz Creek.

When did I begin to avoid talking about my background? Perhaps it was that night at Oxford University during the summer of 1996. I was attending The Bread Loaf School of English to learn how to make bread. Okay, just kidding.

Bread Loaf is a mountain in Vermont. The main campus of the school is located in the buildings of an old ranch on that mountain. The nation's finest writers and professors teach there during the summer - the program is especially popular among high school English teachers.

I was attending another campus located at Lincoln College at Oxford University in Oxford, England. The group I was with that night was sitting in a college courtyard, just hanging out, talking. We had returned from a pub crawl.

Somehow, I must have mentioned my roots, because I suddenly found myself talking to one of the most beautiful women there, short blonde hair and intense blue eyes, who told me she was absolutely obsessed with the Amish. And she loved Little House on the Prairie. Somehow, she connected the two.

"I read every book in that series at least five times when I was a child," she told me, excitedly. I looked at her. She was serious. I was her only focus. Thus, a bit later when she switched off, I became momentarily confused.

Afterwards, I realized the truth. She had never been interested in me. Instead, she was enthused by the world in which I had lived, a world she wished she could have enjoyed as a child.

When she realized that my world didn't match the one from her imagination, she lost interest.

I've often wondered about that conversation. Why do people find the Amish so fascinating?

Perhaps it's because they don't live in a world of media, where people hook up to each other with conversational plugs, and just as quickly pull them out. Health care is just a symptom of modern society's disconnection, its lack of a caring, social network.

Thus, to people outside, the social network of an Amish or Mennonite community exerts a powerful pull. Yes, it is a community that requires you to give up your personal freedom. But look at the benefits - friendship and caring authority that feels a little like a touch of Thomas Kinkade in the night.

Of course, it's not for everyone. And it certainly didn't work for me.

This past Saturday, October 13, I attended the Denlinger family reunion in a town near Lancaster, P.A. Perhaps you've already guessed that my extended family is big?

Do the math. Six of my seven siblings have stayed within the conservative Mennonites. Five of them married spouses who grew up in backgrounds even more Plain, as the Mennonites call it, than our own childhood.

Six of my seven siblings now have children - the smallest family has three, and the largest has nine. This is not by accident.

"Children are a heritage of the Lord," my father would remind me whenever we argued about whether or not birth control was a good idea. "Which of your brothers or sisters should we not have had?"

I got tired of that line. So one day I named names. My father was not happy.

"Are they happy with the choices they've made?" I mused to myself last Saturday as I sat down amidst my gathered and extended family.

I watched as one of my brothers and his family sang a song. We call it "doing the motions" - in the hands of my brother's family, it became almost a dance.

I was particularly intrigued when another of my sisters did a skit with her husband, the familiar scene from Fiddler on the Roof called "Do You Love Me?"

After the song, my sister told us that she and her husband had found the music in the library and learned it off the page. I was intrigued when I realized that my sister and her husband had never even seen the show, which would be worldly, meaning bad.

I once compared a family member's belief system to that of the Taliban. It was an extreme comment. It hurt my sibling's feelings, I found out later. But it was also essentially true.

Granted, they don't practice Taliban violence. They haven't executed any of their children for sins committed, although if they're like most parents, they've seriously considered it.

But there are several principles they share. One is the belief that women should be silent. They define this as not teaching during a church service - they are only allowed to give testimony to the work of God in their lives.

Another controversial concept taught to the culture's sons and daughters is symbolized by the head veiling my sisters and nieces wear: it represents the woman's submission to her husband, and thus to God. Since that's what the Apostle Paul says in the Book of Corinthians in the Bible, they follow it literally - modern culture be damned.

That wouldn't go down well at Archer either, I suspect. Perhaps that's why I didn't announce my background when I first began teaching at a girls school in the fall of 2001. Telling my students that their role is to submit to their future husbands didn't seem to fit Archer's mission - and certainly not mine.

Ironically, the most distinguishing factor among the conservative Mennonites, next to their clothing styles, is their commitment to nonviolence. That is, if you set aside the emotional violence of guilt.

I remember an argument my best friend had with his parents when we were both in our 20s. I remember his shock when his father told him that guilt is sometimes a necessary tool to keep people within the church.

The problem is that guilt isn't black and white. It's relative - based on the demands of the authority that you have chosen to take into your life. This tool is used to punish those who are disloyal and unfaithful to the mission of the authority.

I saw what that kind of guilt did to my friends. It closed them up, made them afraid.

Is that why I left?

Somehow, I think that love can be unconditional - that you can help someone without expecting anything in return, and you can give advice to a friend without demanding that they follow it. At the same time, I know that it costs something to help others. Sometimes your life.

Perhaps it's why I thought of MCC this morning. It seems to represent the most tolerant arm of the Mennonite church.

Is there a similarity between the Taliban's strict approach to the words of the Koran, and the conservative Mennonite movement's insistence upon a literal reading of the Bible?

Is that taking the comparison too far?

The air is hard to breathe in Los Angeles this morning.

A friend told me last night over dinner that on an air pollution map in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, 99% of the area has a red dot over it right now.

I can hear a propeller plane passing overhead in the silence of a city mostly asleep. I wonder if it's carrying water to douse one of the areas overrun by fire. I noticed online several minutes ago that President Bush has declared the area a disaster and is sending federal relief.

Have the people of MCC arrived yet? You can be confident that they will soon.

That fact won't be broadcast in the papers, because the Mennonites deliberately avoid promoting themselves. They believe in Gelassenheit. It's a German word for humility, the idea that salvation comes through a person's humble submission to God. And one submits to God by submitting to the will of the community.

Thus, the Mennonite volunteers will arrive quietly, work long and hard, and leave the disaster area a better place. They'll take little credit. This is what they do. When they're done, they'll leave quietly and go back to their homes and their jobs all over the world.