What Does Christian Community Mean? Reflections on Bonnet Strings Book
The initial publication buzz is off for Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds—a book Herald Press released this past January, written by Saloma Miller Furlong. I wondered if I was too late for some reflections (not so much a review, since I work for the publisher, who would believe I would be objective?).
It took me awhile to get around to reading Bonnet Strings—lots of others on my stack. Knowing a little of the conflicted nature of Saloma’s family struggles and abuse in Saloma’s earlier book, Why I Left the Amish (although I haven’t read that one), I wasn’t sure I wanted to wade into this one.
Then I saw a comment by Shirley Hershey Showalter, author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World, which was published a year ago—that she still appreciated a “late” review “after the initial book rush is over” (here, by Leanne Dyck). As a fellow author/editor, I know these things take time to be read and gel in the mind of the reader or reviewer—and then get into a publication cycle.
Saloma has quite a life story: how many of us actually successfully run hundreds of miles away from home (as adults) on a Greyhound bus and try to start a new life with a new name, place to live, job, and have the elders of our church, family, or community come not once but twice (she hid effectively from them the first time) to hunt us down and carry us back to kith and kin? How Saloma wrestles through the dilemmas caused by her deep love for her community, faith and family while also struggling with the rules and rigor of Amish life is the core of her second memoir.
Bonnet Strings starts out with 20-year-old Saloma increasingly frustrated by the restrictions of Amish community life. Her family also had some outstanding problems, including a father in desperate need of medication and counseling, and a mother reluctant to get help at that point even though Saloma had made initial inquiries about such. So there’s the conflict and crux of the plot.
I was delighted to meet the author last spring when she and her husband David Furlong came through Harrisonburg on a self-sponsored book tour. They are both genuinely likeable, lovely, personable and engaging human beings. It is important to realize that Saloma has lived most of her life quietly and quite happily, out of any limelight cast by authoring two memoir-type books and telling parts of her story in two PBS documentaries, “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned.” Since I also wrote two memoir-type books about my own young adult years (On Troublesome Creek, Departure), I know what writing about earlier experiences can do in terms of processing and capturing the memories and the learnings—and translating how those life experiences can connect with others. I also know from working on documentaries myself—interviewing and helping people relate their stories, is often transformative—helpful and life-changing for the teller and those of us who share or hear their stories.
Saloma’s comments on community in her book gave me much to think about, and also made me reflect on and better understand my own relationships and connections to Old Order Amish or Mennonite friends and family through the years.
Through one of my associations with a local Old Order Mennonite community here in Virginia, I began to pick up vibes that although my friends welcomed us royally when we visited, a bishop expressed concern to my friends about too much contact. After reading Saloma’s book, I better understand the why behind that distancing.
Belonging to an Amish community requires strict adherence to community rules and expectations, and for Saloma, absolutely stifled her individual growth and interest in further education. She asks, can you have community without full faithfulness to community guidelines? While some communities say sure, for most Old Order Amish or Old Order Mennonite the answer is no. Thankfully in most Christian communities—however defined—the answer is yes.
I think of my own church (Presbyterian now) and small group/house church experiences. These are defined communities. There are certain expectations in membership, sure, and as house churches we write and sign new covenants each year in which we set group goals and promise to maintain certain spiritual disciplines. But thanks be to God, there is latitude, grace (when we don’t complete every jot and tittle of our covenant and goals) and a wide embrace.
I admire Saloma Miller Furlong and Shirley Hershey Showalter: followers of Christ living out their unique calls as children and women of God. Each has a different community with different parameters. Who is to say which is harder: to live within a strict community with boundaries all spelled out and enforced, or to live a Christian life with boundaries less clear but trying to be just as faithful?
What does community mean to you?
Can you have community without full faithfulness to community guidelines?
For more on differences among Mennonites, Amish and Old Order groups, check here.