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Love beyond labels: Resettlement in Amish country

Sophia Iosue  |  14 February 2020

Lancaster has prided itself on being a home to immigrants. Courtesy of the author.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is best known for its large Amish population, with tourism based around traditional experiences that purposely disengage with modern conveniences such as electricity and cars. On Sunday mornings, horse-and-buggies tend to stall traffic, and the Central Market in downtown Lancaster is packed with Amish stands selling homemade baked goods and dairy products. Known for its conservative Christian sensibility, locals and tourists alike have long conceived of Lancaster as representative of a traditional way of life. However, after a BBC video in 2016 named it ‘America’s Refugee Capital’ for resettling twenty times more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the United States, Lancaster began to take on a different identity. Lancaster County has historically voted conservatively, and the 2016 election was no exception. Although ‘conservative’ and ‘Christian’ are increasingly used together in US discourse to signify white evangelical supporters of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, Lancaster complicates this case. The community has tapped into its identity as a place of ‘welcome’, shaped in many ways by its past.

 

Pennsylvania was founded on the principle of religious freedom by William Penn in an effort to create a haven free of the persecution that afflicted Quakers in Europe. Amish, too, joined Penn’s experiment, moving to Lancaster County hundreds of years ago to escape such persecution. They settled in the fertile soil of Lancaster and have maintained their traditional way of life and insular community. Amish are famously apolitical, with low voter registration and turnout, even despite efforts such as ‘AmishPAC’, which specifically targets Amish voters for the Republican Party. Amish are part of the Anabaptist tradition, which includes Mennonites and other ‘Orders’ of Amish and Mennonite faith that require differing levels of adherence to the traditional lifestyle. While Amish support each other when in need, they generally maintain some distance from modern-day society. 

Mennonites, too, have an active presence in refugee resettlement in Lancaster. They have a tradition of overseas mission work in places such as Somalia and Burma, the origin of two established refugee groups in Lancaster, and Mennonite Central Committee is one of the major organisations in Lancaster that works with refugees. Though immigration – as well as refugee resettlement – has proven to be a contentious topic for white evangelical Christians, conversations around the idea of ‘welcome’ have permeated many church communities. Regardless of any religious inclination, people in Lancaster have signalled their support with signs that have peppered Lancaster’s sidewalks for the last few years: ‘No matter where you come from, we’re glad you’re our neighbour’, written in Arabic, English and Spanish. The signs themselves originated from a Mennonite church in Virginia, and have become a movement in their own right.

 

It is now local lore that Lancaster has always been welcoming, demonstrated by an exhibit entitled ‘Here There is Welcome: 300 Years of Refugees in Lancaster County’ and featured in the city’s Visitor’s Centre last year. Many trace the welcome of refugees back to the arrival of Anabaptists –  Amish and Mennonites – who originally arrived as refugees themselves. However, the BBC video was pivotal in illuminating the area’s relevance in the global process of resettlement. This relevance was confirmed by articles from The New York Times that highlighted Lancaster’s diversity and revitalisation. ‘Welcoming’ has given locals a positive way to describe Lancaster and has helped provide resources to support ideas such as Bridge, a business created by an entrepreneur who was himself a refugee. Bridge offers ‘experiences’ for people to book meals with refugee families and share food from various cultures. It recently paired with LoKal Experiences, another small business that provides authentic experiences in Amish country, to host a dinner on an Amish farm with refugees and the local community. The dinner featured food from both Amish and refugee cultures. Reports of the dinner observed that the refugees and Amish felt united in their differences from much of the local population. They may speak different languages, maintain close-knit communities, and often even work together. The dinner exemplifies the new avenues of sharing Lancaster is embarking upon, opening up cultures that even long-time locals tend to know little about.

Faith-based resettlement has a long history, and it does not all centre on Christianity. Six of the nine national resettlement agencies in the US are faith-based, and research has been done on the increasing importance of a ‘multi-religious approach’ to refugee resettlement and refugee churches. Conservative Christianity is part of Lancaster’s history, and it is valuable to leverage this identity to encourage community participation while also being aware of the effect the ‘refugee’ label might have on acceptance and understanding of other immigrant groups. ‘Jesus was a refugee’ is a common appeal to Christian sensibilities for refugee resettlement. Continually returning to the politically-constructed term ‘refugee’ may have the unintended effect of privileging a bureaucratic label over other immigrant groups who do not qualify for this status. There are debates about the categorisation of migrants and the political nature of qualifying certain groups of migrants for services, rather than others, in what has been termed ‘categorical fetishism’. In faith-based appeals, it is worth remembering that ‘refugee’ is a political term, and welcome should extend beyond it.

Fortunately, Lancaster seems to be dealing well with this challenge. The city has prided itself on being a home to immigrants, and in 2019 became a ‘Certified Welcoming’ city. It serves as an example of a community that has claimed its identity and allowed people the space to assume their own role in developing it, regardless of political or religious debates and beyond administrative titles. From an institutional standpoint, it may be necessary to differentiate between refugees and migrants. But at the local level, these terms should become irrelevant if the mandate really is to ‘love thy neighbour’. 

Sophia Iosue

Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sophia Iosue is pursuing an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and Government.

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