DUBLIN — Ammon “AJ” Miller’s journey of faith has taken him from the horse and buggy to a 2004 turbo diesel Volkswagen Jetta.
The same journey led his twice-shunned family from an antiquated Amish village in Pennsylvania to their modern farm in Giles County.
And now the 22-year-old is set on a path toward a previously unimaginable future — working with robotics.
“I love technology,” said Miller, who spent the first 14 years of his life living without electricity.
“Which is kind of odd coming from that background, that I’m now way on the other side,” he said.
Miller is scheduled to graduate New River Community College on Friday with an associate’s degree in instrumentation and control automation. The ceremony will be in 117 Edwards Hall on the Dublin campus at 6:30 p.m.
The event will mark the most recent milestone for the family since leaving the Amish lifestyle in the mid-2000s.
“It was like jumping out into the great unknown,” said AJ Miller’s father, John Miller.
“But God has blessed us. It’s given our children the opportunity to branch out and do things they would have never had the opportunity to do before.”
The fourth of seven children, AJ Miller will be the second in his family to earn a college degree. His brother Reuben Miller earned degrees from both NRCC and Radford University on his way to becoming a middle school math teacher and his sister Sarah Miller is currently enrolled at NRCC.
Traditionally, children in Amish communities are only educated through the eighth grade and most often in small school houses run by their communities, according to the Pennsylvania-based Elizabethtown College’s Amish Studies website.
While at NRCC, AJ Miller’s 3.9 grade point average earned him a place in the school’s Phi Theta Kappa honor society, where his peers elected him president this school year, a $1,000 Coca-Cola “Leaders of Promise” scholarship and quite the reputation.
“He may have the single most intense work ethic of any student I have ever taught,” said Miller’s faculty adviser, Brian Clark.
“Time and time again, regardless what the challenge is, he attacks that challenge,” said Clark, who has been at the college for 14 years.
AJ Miller also was recognized as this year’s Outstanding Student in Instrumentation and Control Automation Technology at the President’s Awards Ceremony earlier this month.
Following his graduation, Miller said he hopes to land a job as a technician and spend his days working on control systems that operate robotics that could be involved in anything from assembly lines to wastewater treatment facilities.
It’s a future Miller insists on crediting to a higher power and that’s been made possible by his family’s religious conversion from Amish to non-denominational Christianity.
“It’s not all about me, it’s about what God has done through me. That’s something that’s very important to me,” Miller said.
John Miller was raised in the small Amish village of Atlantic in western Pennsylvania, but said he always struggled with the works-based nature of the denomination.
“That never brought me any peace because you were saved by works and I never knew if I had done enough good works to be right with God,” John Miller said.
He married his wife in 1988 and in 1999 John and Mary Miller moved to an Amish community in northwestern Pennsylvania to raise their family, which would eventually total six boys and a girl.
AJ Miller said for the most part he enjoyed the simplicity of his childhood on the family’s 84-acre farm.
“We were outside all the time. ... We’d go swimming. We’d make hay. We did a lot of hard work,” AJ Miller said.
Part of that work was done in his father’s leather shop, where he recalled helping make about 37,000 horse halters during a seven-year period.
AJ Miller said during that time the family faithfully adhered to the Amish rules of distancing self from the modern world.
“We grew up very isolated from the outside world,” he said. “9-11 didn’t mean anything to us as children in the Amish community.”
John Miller said a “life-changing” moment occurred in 2005 when some neighbors gave him a King James version of the Bible.
“I’d never had one before, we just had the German Bible and we couldn’t understand it very well because what we speak isn’t really German, it’s a slang version,” John Miller said.
“So reading that Bible I got saved. I realized that I was a sinner and that the Lord Jesus Christ had died for my sins, which changed everything for us,” he said.
The rest of the family would soon follow suit, embracing a salvation by grace-oriented theology, as opposed to the Amish community’s salvation by works theology.
Though at peace with his newfound faith and devoted to his study of the Bible, John Miller said his change of direction caused a sharp rift between the family and the Amish community.
Word of the family’s new beliefs quickly spread and it wasn’t long before community leaders visited to confront John Miller, he said.
“They ended up making me confess to the church; you actually had to get down on your knees,” John Miller said.
“My sin basically was talking about the Scriptures; that was just for the bishop and minister, that wasn’t for ordinary people,” he said.
Refusing to give up their study of the Bible, the Millers were shunned by way of an official letter from the Amish community in Pennsylvania. The family relocated to a different Amish community in the White Gate community of Giles County. John Miller’s sister lived in White Gate and the family hoped their new religious beliefs would be welcomed.
The family’s relationship with the community was less strained in White Gate, but conflict remained and the divide between the family and other Amish widened, John Miller said.
“The thing that frustrated me most was if it came down to what the Bible says or what the Amish teach, we [the community] would always go back to what the Amish teach,” John Miller said.
In 2007, they decide it was time for a clean break from the only lifestyle they’d ever known.
“That was probably the most scary thing we’ve ever done because all of our security was in that system and all of our friends and all of our relatives and all we’d ever known,” John Miller said.
And they again received an official letter, this time from the White Gate-based community, shunning them.
According the Elizabethtown College website, such a parting with the culture is uncommon.
Amish communities have doubled during the past 20 years, mostly due to large families, and about 85 percent of children raised in Amish communities remain in the faith when they become adults.
There are more than 308,030 Amish in the United States, but only 1,080 live in Virginia’s six communities, according to the website.
The shunnings drastically changed the Millers lifestyle. No longer did the family feel the need to abstain from modern comforts such as electricity, driving vehicles and obtaining education past the eighth grade.
“It was a big change, but it didn’t take very long to get used to,” John Miller joked.
The father went on to earn his GED, while the mother, Mary Miller, earned her driver’s license in December.
AJ Miller said around that time the family also began to be allowed to watch television shows.
“The Andy Griffith Show was the first one we watched,” he said.
The elder brother
Four years older than AJ , Reuben Miller said following his family’s departure from the Amish community he decided a life of manual labor was not for him.
Reuben Miller left his job working for the eldest brother’s company, White Oaks Construction, obtained his GED and began attending New River Community College, where he graduated in 2014. He went on to study education at Radford University and will complete his first year teaching pre-algebra at Radford’s Dalton Intermediate School next month.
Reuben Miller said the social aspect of attending a public school for the first time was intimidating.
“There’s just a whole different way of communicating in the Amish culture,” Reuben Miller said.
He stumbled over phrases, slang words and pop culture references that were commonplace among students.
“I remember sitting in English class and we’re discussing films from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s and I’m lost,” Reuben Miller said.
Despite the learning challenge, Reuben Miller flourished at NRCC and in 2014 was named to Phi Theta Kappa honor society’s All-Virginia Academic Team, which led to a trip to Richmond with then-NRCC President Jack Lewis.
During that trip, Reuben Miller had conversation with the former president about the school’s instrumentation and control automation program and instantly thought of his mechanically inclined younger brother.
“Anything mechanical he picks up really fast,” Reuben Miller said of AJ Miller.
“He once took a regular road bike and hooked up a Honda engine to it and made a little motor bike out of it,” Reuben Miller said.
At the time AJ Miller was working as an automotive technician, an experience he said was far more of a culture shock than going to college.
“Cuss like a mechanic, I heard it all. That was one of the worst shocks, finding out the kinds of things people talk about,” AJ Miller said.
Having previously taken several auto mechanics courses at NRCC , AJ Miller said a part of him had always hoped to return to get a diploma, so the mention of the hands-on oriented program stuck a chord.
“It was like wow, maybe this is my chance to go back in get that degree that I wanted,” he said.
These days, AJ Miller proudly parks his Jetta in the student lot at NRCC and confidently walks the halls, speaking to almost everyone he meets.
Most people only recognize him as “AJ,” his first and middle initials, which he decided to go by instead of Ammon for simplicity’s sake.
“A lot of times people can’t pronounce my name right, so I’d rather them just say AJ,” he said.
Despite the cultural shift from childhood to being a full-time college student, Miller said it wasn’t that which challenged him most at NRCC.
“I didn’t really like studying. I didn’t really like book work … I liked hands on. I liked fixing things,” he said. “Man, I’m telling you, the first two weeks, my brain was hurting.”
Though a struggle, it wasn’t long before it was overcome, which Miller’s adviser Clark said he’s come to expect from the student.
“There are areas where he is lacking because of his upbringing, but he just doesn’t care. He’s going to figure out a way to be successful,” Clark said.
NRCC Business and Technologies Instrumentation professor Montie Fleshman said Miller’s work ethic had allowed him to flourish in the program and, earn some good job offers.
“He’s done real well. … He jumps in there and digs to learn stuff,” Fleshman said.
Miller has yet to decide which employment opportunity he’ll take, but he said his overall mission in life has more to do with his journey than his job.
“Seeing what God can do in a religion that is steeped in tradition and, really darkness … just to bring us out of that I think has been pretty amazing,” Miller said.
“I really feel like God can work through me to touch others and bless others,” he said.