Tragedy in Amish Country: Living Levi’s Example

I first met Levi almost 20 years ago. He was about 12. We had just purchased our land from his parents, Jake and Nancy. Being old-order Amish, Jake and Nancy needed a ride to the attorney’s office, so we drove them and new-born Chris, their youngest, to finalize the transaction. Thus began a very special friendship between two families.

Every Christmas Eve, our little family of three and Jake and Nancy’s larger family (five children at the beginning, but more recently including four daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, and 13 grandchildren) gather for Christmas fellowship.

Levi is the second of Jake and Nancy’s five children. Friendly, kind, very bright, soft-spoken, strong and gentle, he has always been a gem. I can still picture, during that first year of friendship, Levi sitting next to my daughter on a couch in Jake and Nancy’s house. Karin, who was about 15, was holding a book or magazine. Levi leaned over to get a better look, resting his head on Karin’s shoulder. It was a completely unself-conscious moment for both of them, just two pure and innocent youngsters sharing the joy of a story. Nancy remarked, “I know we don’t have photographs, but I’d love to have a photo of that.”

Levi was an avid reader. I shared dozens of the books that I had read as a young teenager with him and his siblings.

About ten years ago, we attended the wedding dinner celebrating Levi’s marriage to Katie. We were two of five “English” (that’s the word the Amish use for all of us who aren’t Amish) packed in among 200 or 300 Amish.

Katie was a perfect match for Levi, a veritable angel of sweetness and quiet steadiness. A couple of years later, they welcomed Sally into the world. Of all of Jake and Nancy’s 13 grandchildren, it was Sally who bonded most closely with our family. The highlight of her year was to draw pictures to give us at our Christmas Eve gathering and to help my Eileen in the kitchen. Like her Aunt Lizzie before her, she was enthralled by the “miracle” of the “baked Alaska” going into the hot oven and the ice cream not melting.

Five years later (about three years ago) little Anna joined the family. The four of them lived their version of the American dream, keeping to the simple Amish life, placing worship of God and love of their families above all else. It was idyllic.

Two weeks ago, Jake and Nancy were over for dessert. Eileen told Nancy that she would be going over to visit her buddy, Sally, on the following Monday. It wasn’t to be.

On that Saturday, May 8, the unthinkable happened. Levi went fishing with his brother Gideon, one of those simple enjoyments that always remain special to these unspoiled people. It was a miserable day, cold, windy, and rainy. At home, Katie went to light a fire. Somehow the can of kerosene ignited. Katie, Sally, and Anna all quickly succumbed.

The next day was visitation. It was at Levi’s next-door neighbor’s house. I have never seen such gloom and grief in my life. Dozens of Amish were quietly and tearfully sitting on rows of benches—men in one group, women in the other, as is their custom.

I could barely recognize Levi, so transfigured were his features by sorrow. We shared a quiet, private word. Jake, his father, was sitting next to him. He couldn’t speak. I just stayed by his side for a few minutes, hand gently touching him in wordless sympathy. Later a tearful Nancy softly voiced her deep faith to Eileen and me, bravely affirming, “God is in control.”

I went to visit Jake and Nancy two days after the funeral. They reported that Levi was trying to buoy up everyone’s spirits. The next day, I spent a half-hour with Levi, and found that to be the case. Though still trying to come to grips with this inexplicable calamity, he continues to be a loving soul, caring deeply for those around him. He has already learned the secret discovered by Job in the Bible, that the key to recovery and renewal from grievous affliction is to pray for one’s friends.

A tragedy of this magnitude puts things in perspective. Why do we waste our scarce and precious time on earth with trivial concerns and petty quarrels?

One of my college classmates told me that her dad’s advice on her wedding day was, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Amen. Let us all honor the gift of life by forgiving and forgetting our misunderstandings, small and great, and use our brief time on earth to do a better job of loving each other. Let us follow Levi’s example.