15 Dec 2010

Religious freedom meaningless for Amish teens who are shunned by family and community for making wrong 'choice'

The Telegraph - U.K. July 23, 2010

Amish teens: pious, prudish - yet remarkably tolerant

Members of the sect have come to the UK for a C4 series. The results are surprising, says Catherine Gee

by Catherine Gee

It’s hard to imagine that there are people living in the USA who have never heard of John Lennon or Marilyn Monroe. But there are – in their hundreds of thousands. The Amish are a strict religious sect, Swiss in origin and now based in the American Midwest, famous for their prudish dress sense, big beards and eschewing of most modern technology. They largely cut themselves off from the rest of society to live in their own communities, devoting their lives to their Christian faith.

But when an Amish child turns 16 they embark on “rumspringa” – a rite of passage that allows them to leave their strict world to experience life on the outside. They then choose whether to be baptised as an adult into the Amish church – to refuse is to be cast out from family and community to live a rather more regular American life. Rumspringa can take years and ends only when the individual believes they are ready to make the choice. It can prove extremely eye-opening for someone so young, sheltered and uneducated as an Amish adolescent – as we see in Amish: the World’s Squarest Teenagers, a new four-part Channel 4 documentary series beginning on Sunday.

In it, a pair of siblings, Leah and Andrew Miller, and Leon Lehman, Becky Shrock and Jerry Miller, each from different Amish communities, all aged between 18 and 23 and all on their rumspringas, are allowed to travel to Britain (planes are usually a no-no) to experience life with four UK families.

Their first visit is to a black family from Kennington, a rough area of south London. The family live in fear of gang violence and drugs, factors outside the experience of the Amish. “I’ve never heard of an Amish person doing a crime,” says Leah, 22, in the film.

Suddenly away from the vast, green open spaces of their homes, the Amish are surrounded by tall buildings and noisy traffic. The sight of the sex shops and brothels in Soho is particularly eye-opening. “It’s hard to understand how people can be so open about something which is so sinful,” remarks Leah, whereas Becky, 18, describes it as “the devil’s territory”.

The group also attend a memorial service for a boy who was stabbed, and visit a group of street dancers who use their hobby to keep themselves away from gang crime. Initially the Amish are shocked by what they see as a rather provocative method of dance, and are fearful of its “rhythm”, but as they spend more time with the other teenagers they become increasingly accepting. “At first I wasn’t sure it was something that I would support,” says Leah. “But I admire them for choosing something that isn’t [about] being a violent person. I think they’ve made a noble choice.”

This position of curiosity, tolerance – and praise, even – is present much of the way through the series, and comes in surprising contrast to the clichéd image held by many that sees members of the sect as obsessively conservative and opposed to every aspect of the modern world. These young people seem remarkably non-judgmental, even when they are shocked.

The series’s producer-director, Claire Whalley, corroborates this by pointing out that there was only one occasion when the teenagers decided not to participate in an activity, and even then it was only two of them. “They were taken to a nightclub in Cornwall and that was the only time that the girls asked to leave,” she says. “There were many incidents where they felt uncomfortable but they chose to stay. For them it was a positive challenge that confirmed their faith and their sense of being Amish.”

This open approach pays dividends – both sets of adolescents, British and American, get on very well. “They play videogames and watch TV, and I’m out in the barn playing with horses but I think it’s great that two people that much different [sic] can still get together and have a blast,” says Amish Jerry, 23.

Their hosts also discover a real respect for the Amish. As one of the Londoners comments, “They’ve taught me there’s more to life than money and girls.” Whether any of the Amish group will choose to abandon their way of life by the end of the series remains to be seen, but it looks unlikely. Indeed each new experience appears only to strengthen their beliefs. Even visiting the majestic Rochester Cathedral proves reaffirming. “I prefer our little church,” says a slightly overwhelmed Jerry. “A big church doesn’t get you to heaven. It’s what you believe in.”

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  1. Amish Beard Cutting Case: Shunning In Religious Community Is Central To Hate Crime Trial

    By JOHN SEEWER, Huffington Post September 15, 2012

    CLEVELAND -- In the stern, self-regulating world of the Amish, those who act out time and again by wearing the wrong clothing, going to movies or otherwise flouting the church's doctrine can find themselves utterly alone.

    Fellow Amish in rare instances won't break bread with them at the same table, won't work with them and won't worship with them under the religion's centuries-old practice of shunning. In stricter settlements, shunning can break apart families, cutting off all contact between parents and their children.

    Saloma Furlong was shunned, or ex-communicated, after she left her church the first time over a family issue, and she was barred from attending her cousin's wedding after she returned home. "It was a very lonely two weeks," said Furlong, who eventually left behind her home in northeast Ohio for good and was permanently shunned.

    The Amish take the tradition so seriously that most churches won't accept someone who has been shunned until they make it right with those who've disciplined them.

    At the root of Amish hair-cutting attacks in Ohio and the federal hate crime trial that followed, prosecutors say, was a dispute over religious differences and a decision by Amish bishops to overrule the leader of a breakaway group who had shunned his former followers. Amish scholars say taking away a bishop's edict was unheard of and stunned communities far and wide.

    Six years ago, about 300 Amish bishops gathered in Pennsylvania to discuss the group's leader, Sam Mullet Sr., who had ordered the shunning of families that left his settlement near the West Virginia panhandle.

    Mullet had come to the attention of the bishops because, according to witnesses at his trial, there were concerns he was brain-washing community members. Prosecutors would later say he forced men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment, and one woman testified that Mullet coerced women at his settlement into having sex with him so he could turn them into better wives.

    The bishops eventually vetoed Mullet's shunning of the others, infuriating him to the point that he sought revenge last fall in a series of five hair-cutting attacks, prosecutors say.

    They charged Mullet and 15 of his followers with hate crimes because they contend they acted over religious differences and targeted the hair and beards of the Amish because of its spiritual significance in the faith. All could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on the charges that also include conspiracy and obstructing justice.

    Jurors began deliberating in the trial Thursday morning.

    None of the defendants has denied that the hair-cuttings took place, but Mullet has insisted that he didn't plan what happened. In an interview last fall, he defended what he thinks is his right to punish people who break church laws.

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    Shunning – also known as avoidance _is a rare happening in the Amish community. While outsiders might view it as punishment, the Amish consider it an act of love to help those who have strayed from their beliefs.

    Each individual church decides when to shun others and what kind of punishment they face. "It's not like there's a rulebook," said Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.

    Only baptized church members can be shunned. And it almost always starts with a warning to stop breaking church rules – whether it's to quit drinking or stop talking on the telephone – and weeks or months of discussion.

    "Shunning is something the individual does to themselves," said Karen Johnson-Weiner, a professor at the State University of New York in Potsdam who has written extensively about the Amish. "It's community-wide tough love."

    There also has to be agreement within the congregation, but the bishop has the most influence in revoking someone's church membership.

    "That's a hard thing for a bishop to do," said Andy Hershberger, who testified in the trial that Mullet's son was among a group that cut his father's hair last fall. His father was one of the bishops who overruled Mullet's shunning order.

    Furlong, who left her home church for good after a dispute with a bishop, said shunning gives Amish leaders too much control. "They can use it like a hammer," she said.

    Because the Amish identify so closely with their faith, being shunned and faced with the loss of their salvation is extremely painful.

    "It's such an intense thing. Nobody can really explain it," said Furlong, who wrote a book called "Why I Left the Amish" in 2011. "That's a pretty tough thing to reckon with."

    Matthew Schrock, who left Holmes County's Amish community in Ohio during the mid-1990s, wasn't formally shunned, but no one would hire him because he was fighting with his father, who was the bishop. "There were a lot of people who wouldn't talk to me," he said. "No one was willing to risk the appearance of them siding with me."

    Shunning has its roots in biblical teachings and is used in some Mennonite churches as well. Jehovah's Witnesses also practice a form of shunning. But it's essential to Amish beliefs.

    "They want the person to see their error," Schrock said. "But under that, I think, is this desire to maintain the integrity of the group."


  3. Documentary Examines the Amish Practice of Shunning

    by Jeff Schapiro, The Christian Post February 6, 2014

    A new documentary explains why the Amish church practices shunning and reveals the struggles and sacrifices experienced by some of those who have left the Amish community.

    The film, titled "The Amish: Shunned," aired on PBS on Tuesday as part of the award-winning "American Experience" series of documentaries. It examines the lives of seven people who chose to leave their Amish lives and communities behind.

    Those who leave an Amish community can be excommunicated from the church and are sometimes completely cut off from seeing their own family. The goal of shunning, as one person interviewed in the film states, is to help people who are disobedient to become repentant, though it also serves to keep them from having a negative influence on the rest of the community.

    "It's the disobedient people who leave the Amish church," an unidentified Amish man said in the film. "They wanted something that was not allowable so they just moved on."

    "If we're not obedient, we will fall by the wayside," he added. "But how can you be obedient when you don't have any rules? Some people don't understand our church rules and they don't need to. It's not necessary that you people understand all the church rules that we have – that's our thing. When we lose obedience we lose the church."

    Those who were featured in the documentary shared how and why they left the Amish culture and explained how doing so impacted their relationships with their families. Some of them also spoke about issues of faith.

    Saloma, an ex-Amish woman who was interviewed for the film, said: "When I went to my first communion service the bishop said, 'Each individual grain must give up its individuality to become part of this loaf of bread. And in that same way each of us must give up our individuality to become part of the community.' I remember thinking to myself, 'I hope I'm one of those grains that falls off the grindstone. I don't want to be ground up.'"

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  4. The rules in an Amish community are rigid, and those who leave are believed to be at risk of ultimately going to hell. Joe, a former Amish man, said in the film that he left and returned to the Amish a total of seven times before he ultimately left the community for good. During one of his stints away from the Amish, he says, a friend used the Bible to show him that he could only get to heaven through Jesus Christ.

    "To the Amish, Jesus alone is not enough," said Joe. "Working, trying your best, following the rules and traditions of the forefathers – if you do it all just right then hopefully you'll make it into heaven."

    In some cases, being shunned means a person is totally excommunicated and is not allowed to attend even family weddings or funerals. Naomi, who was also interviewed for the documentary, says she is fortunate to be able to visit her family, even if she does have to dress in Amish clothes when she does so.

    Naomi was educated in a one-room school house and graduated at 13 years old with an eighth grade education, she says. One summer, while visiting Florida and beginning to experience life outside of the Amish community, she started working in a nursing home and began wanting to become a nurse. She faced a tough choice, however, because pursuing a college degree was forbidden in her Amish community.

    "Honoring your father and mother is really important to the Amish culture," she said. "And it's kind of hard to really know: When do you seek God's calling over what your parents are telling you what to do?"

    She decided to leave home and pursue a nursing degree, which she eventually completed.

    Several people shown in the film have worked to help others who have left the Amish community to assimilate into the broader American culture. Naomi ran a fundraiser to provide scholarships to former Amish who want to pursue an education. Saloma helped a woman with her transition out of Amish culture, though that woman eventually went back to her family. Joe and his wife, who consider themselves "missionaries to the Amish," have an apartment in their basement where former Amish can stay while learning to assimilate.

    "The Amish: Shunned" is a follow-up of sorts to another "American Experience" film, "The Amish." The documentary's website says there are 40 different types of Amish, and rules vary from one group to another. It also says the Amish population has doubled in the last 20 years, and as of 2012 there were about 265,000 Amish in North America.