I WAS ATTENDING my first football game with Catholic Central High School in Steubenville — a few weeks after being hired. Shortly before the game began, a new teaching colleague took me to the top of the bleachers to meet two men, one a steelworker and football fan whose hard eyes and well-worn jeans fit perfectly into the aging bleachers surrounding him.
But then the curmudgeonly priest beside him lifted a worn flask of whiskey to his mouth. In a moment, he replaced it with a Marlboro Red cigarette. It hung from his lips, puffing as he took short breaths. Peering over his flask, Catholic Central’s chaplain measured my clean-cut looks, my hesitancy, my uncertain smile. I was barely a year out of my Amish-Mennonite community.
“What the hell are you gawking at?” Father Orsini barked. “Never seen a priest enjoy an illicit shot of bourbon at a high school football game before?”
He gave me a dismissive glance, then turned back to gaze at the field below us.
My new friend, a much younger priest, rolled his eyes. Nothing new, I guessed. But Father Orsini wasn’t done. He took another covert shot of bourbon. Then hawked and spat on a nearby bleacher.
“What are the bleeping chances our bleeping boys might actually win tonight?” he asked no one in particular.
Only he didn’t use the word bleeping.
LEAVING MY AMISH-MENNONITE community was a bit like that — shocking, fascinating, confusing.
Today, 27 years later, I still teach high school. Only today, I teach journalism and English at a small, Progressive high school in the Pacific Northwest. My reporters begin every interview by asking what pronoun the subject prefers. The School Board is transforming a bathroom into one that is gender-neutral. Condoms are available to any student without question. All causes my editors have championed.
I’ve had a few years to process my leaving.
But I still get the perennial question. Last week, it came over lunch from a gentle para-teacher, a retired musician who helped found Up With People.
“Steven, you say you were Amish-Mennonite. What’s the difference between the Amish and Mennonites?”
Outside, the October world had turned crisp and cold. The leaves of nearby trees had turned golden and red.
I looked at the quizzical smile Paul Colwell offered me, trying to assess this question.
I would try to explain, of course. And I did. I even tried to be funny. Because who has the time to listen to any kind of complicated answer?
This was our faculty lunch break, not a theology class.
IT’S A QUESTION that has followed me for almost 30 years. And it cuts to the heart of who I’ve become.
When people hear the word “Amish,” they imagine a life of glamorous simplicity. Today, there’s even an entire genre of romance set in this world. People who haven’t lived there can’t understand my decision — the implicit question being, “How could you ever leave?”
I fled my Northeast Ohio community in the summer of 1988 by spending my fifth year of college in London on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship. I wanted to try out life on the outside, and there was no place that symbolized the World and its excesses better than London.
I had grown up in a tight-knit community where no one was permitted a radio or television. Women didn’t wear makeup or jewelry, and they made their own clothes.
But we weren’t quite Amish. We drove cars, not horse and buggy. We used modern electricity — not candles and kerosene lanterns. We even received a high school education.
Yet I found the experience of studying in London — especially trying to connect amidst the inevitable haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke — overwhelming, barely survivable. Three months into my scholarship year, worried about the state of my soul, my community sent my best friend to woo me back. He offered me a plane ticket back to a safe harbor.
I refused — an action that wrecked a lifetime’s worth of friendships in my community.
Eventually, I struggled back to my feet and moved on with my life.
When I left my community, I thought I was making a decision about my faith. My father was wrong, I thought. Christians should live within the World, not protect themselves from it.
I thought I had a firm grasp of my reasons. But they didn’t matter.
You can’t replace friends you’ve known since childhood. You can’t replace a tight-knit community of people who know all your secrets. You can’t replace people who love you completely.
The task of replacing lifelong friendships — starting at the age of 25 — was a futile one. How do you clone a lifetime of trust?
I’ve spent my entire life since then — or perhaps I should say, the 28-plus years since I’ve left it — grieving the social network I lost.
The emotional consequences of leaving are real.
And it was that grief, that uncertainty about the decision that eventually drove me to write a memoir — to tell my story in the hopes of understanding my experience.
FOR YEARS, I thought my experience of leaving an exclusive religious community was unique. That is, until 2007, when I read Hella Winston’s book Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels, a brilliant analysis of those who try to leave Hasidism.
Winston looks at people who choose to stay within a restrictive society and explores their motivations. People remain in restrictive societies, she argues, not because they fear hell, but because they fear to lose their lifelong network of friends and relatives.
I thought about my own experience.
To leave a place like that means you have to restart your life. It’s a traumatic experience, one that brands your soul. For people who grow up surrounded by and participating within a caring community, nothing could be more hellish than being separated from it.
I MET MALKIE Schwartz — one of the expatriates whose story Winston narrates in Unchosen — by email and telephone in 2007, the year I took a sabbatical from teaching. I was introduced by her younger sister Dina, my supervisor at the financial services firm where I was working.
Fascinated by my own emerging story, Dina told me about her older sister’s choice to leave their family’s Chabad-Lubavitch faith community in Crown Heights.
“[Malkie] was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon,” Winston told the Jewish Journal. “That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave … before their decision will impact their future families.
In 2000, there was no support organization she could turn to. Malkie’s journey out was excruciating.
I could easily identify. As a Conservative Mennonite, I deliberately chose not to marry someone from my faith, precisely because I knew it would make it impossible for me to leave.
“‘I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,’ Schwartz says. ‘I wanted an education.’”
Once she established herself in the outside world, Malkie founded Footsteps, a nonprofit organization that gives other Lubavitcher expatriates an emotional, financial, and social blueprint for their lives.
According to Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, this loss of community is the primary problem.
“For most people in the Charedi world,” Heilman reports, “the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.
“And when they leave, those connections are radically broken.”
This need for family and community — planted within the core of those who grow up within tightly exclusive communities — is one of the primary reasons memoirist Ira Wagler originally left his Amish community and returned home multiple times — an experience he details with excruciating, emotional pain in his New York Times bestseller Growing Up Amish.
Each time he departed, he found himself drawn back because he could not shake his core belief that salvation can only be found in submission to an Amish community. Only when Wagler began to read the Gospels and experienced a crisis conversion — giving him assurance of salvation through faith in Christ — was he able to find peace.
This peace gave him the emotional fortitude and spiritual faith needed to remain in the outside world.
IN SO MANY ways my father’s experience of faith, his definition of salvation in relation to our community, was similar to Wagler’s.
According to my father, salvation is not a one-time, guaranteed thing. He led me through the original process of being born again at the age of eight. But in order to remain saved, he believed, I needed to remain within our community. He often reminded me of my baptismal vows, uttered at the mature age of 12.
“You made those vows on bended knee,” he’d say.
From my father’s perspective, salvation came through obedience to Christ’s Church, and the purest form of that Church was located in my hometown.
To be saved, I needed to obey its set of rules, or as we called them, “standards of faith and practice.” It was the only way to get to heaven, my father believed.
AFTER I LEFT our community, I tried teaching in a more liberal Mennonite school about 45 minutes from home. But it didn’t take. Eventually, I crash-landed in Steubenville, Ohio, much further south — teaching at Catholic Central High School.
Which is where I met the good Father Orsini.
On the surface, moving into a Catholic community looked like a terrible lapse in judgment. I had spent my entire childhood listening to preachers rant about the Catholic church being the Great Whore of Babylon.
The experience of being part of a Catholic community, seeing the simple faith of its people, the beauty of the liturgy, drew me in. The immigrant experiences of the older folks allowed me to enjoy a rich tapestry of the stories, food, and art they brought with them from Eastern Europe. They were grateful to America, their new home.
Belonging to a community who respected my intellect and gave me the freedom to be myself was such a powerful experience that within two years, I found myself in front of the altar at the local Cathedral, Easter Sunday, 1994, converting to Catholicism.
I’m sure part of my choice was fueled by late-stage rebellion against my childhood community. I couldn’t have found a surer way of putting my name on the lists of every Amish-Mennonite prayer warrior in our community (especially my father). But I think the connection went much deeper. The community I found there — beautiful, articulate second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe — reminded me a lot of my own people.
Their love for family — a powerful button in my psychological makeup — their religious intensity, their focus on a practical education joined my soul to this community.
Close friendship, simple faith, sacrificial caring.
IT TOOK THE curmudgeonly Father Dominic Orsini in 1992 — now a colleague and friend at Catholic Central — to help me understand my father’s literalist thinking.
Father Orsini must have seen the impact of my father’s teachings on my thinking. So he addressed it directly in the faculty lunchroom one day. By then, we had become friends, connecting through his dry, vibrant sense of humor. I respected him. I understood why students adored him.
“The Bible is made up of various genres,” Father Orsini told me, his amused eyes peering out of his red, scarred face. “You get that, right?” He saw my confusion. “Oh, come on, Steven. You’re an English teacher, for God’s sake.”
I was 27 years old. I had been through elementary, middle, high school, and college – and yet his words were still a shock. The green lunchroom seemed to vibrate. Analyze the Bible like literature? My childhood religion had taught me not to analyze God’s words. My father scornfully referred to such analysis as higher criticism, something verboten in our community.
Comfortable in the empty room, Father Orsini downed my surprise with a shot of whiskey.
“Think about it. The Chronicles are history. Song of Solomon is erotic literature.”
Outside, there were shouts of an intramural game in process.
How could I not know this? I need a drunken priest to figure this out?
Father Orsini suddenly grinned — a boy caught out of school — as he adjusted his whiskey flask. “Talk about drug-induced images. The Book of Revelations? It’s written in the apocalyptic genre. Who knows what the good Apostle was breathing on that island in AD 70?”
Father Orsini pulled his short, stumpy body to his feet. He lumbered towards the door — but stopped and turned back to me, awkwardly.
“You have to read each book of the Bible differently. Think about it.”
Then he opened the door, stepped into the busy cafeteria of boys and girls.
THE CONVERSATIONS I was having with Father Orsini helped me see my childhood faith through a new lens. But his life — his impact on our students and parents — helped me realize the power of nurturing small communities out in the World.
My father believed the rules guiding a Christian community should be protective, restricting access to the World. I learned from Father Orsini that the freedom provided by a less restrictive community strengthens our connection to God and others.
Father Orsini refused to sit in judgment on anyone, offering an ear that was receptive and kind. After the years of judgment, I had experienced under my real father’s heavy hand, this was empowering.
He sometimes failed to extend the same courtesy to himself, even as he fought a losing battle against the demons of alcohol. In his language when talking with me, his vocabulary veered towards spicy hot. His attitude towards mystical faith was agnostic, at best. But our conversations answered questions I’d struggled to answer. The stories he shared about himself — vulnerability laced with caustic, self-effacing humor — made him authentic, human. We forged a powerful connection. It’s why we could talk for hours.
By Catholic law, a priest cannot have a wife or family. Father Orsini poured his life into the Steubenville community, and they responded with genuine affection and love.
He became one of my greatest Soul Teachers, helping me understand how to view life and the Bible. In fact, my first screenplay featured an alcoholic, a priest whose insight and deep love helps the hero save the world from Armageddon.
He’s the most beloved character in the story.
On evenings when Father Orsini and I met for dinner, or afternoons when we met at a local bar for drinks, I was always touched by the profound respect and appreciation I saw in the faces of those he greeted. Everyone knew Father Orsini. Everyone loved him.
They knew that no matter his caustic nature, he would have gladly laid down his life for any of them.
Father Orsini knew the power of love — a love that could only be fully experienced within Christian community. He got the true meaning of Christ’s words: “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.”
He understood the communion elements were a symbol and didn’t take too seriously the Church’s insistence on literal flesh and blood. He knew the bread and the wine were meant to draw people together so that in the ensuing intimacy, they could experience each other’s love, and thus, experience Divine Love.
Father Orsini felt and embraced that Love, and it empowered him to serve others.
I DIDN’T ATTEND his funeral in 1994 — I had lost touch by then. Restless, I had moved to the public high school downtown and then up north left to take a job closer to home in a bilateral career move. But afterward, I heard the rumors. It was alcohol done him in, they told me in whispers. Hard liquor …odd steering … that horrible night. What a sad life he must have lived.
I knew those who spoke of him didn’t know him — the pastor, the man I loved.
I wasn’t a bit surprised to hear his funeral at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Steubenville was packed out, people who jostled in close, broken souls for whom he always had time, who could always turn to him, no matter how late the hour. Former students, colleagues, parishioners, all of them. Father Orsini may have been deeply flawed … but he was also deeply loved.
In my mind’s eye, Father Orsini still stands before the altar on Easter Sunday, his white robe falling around his shoulders, backlit by the blazing light streaming through the stained glass windows, the Host held high towards the heavens, his face glowing with the simple, pure love for God that permeated his soul.
In the light of an Easter morning, he is beautiful.
Of all the pastors I’ve known, I trusted him with the care and nurture of my soul, always. Because of him, today, I only trust people who are deeply flawed … and know it.
In fact, I’m sure it was Father Orsini who taught me that.
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