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Documentary Review - American Experience: The Amish: Shunned (2014)

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Young people who leave the Amish culture to live in the “English” world are shunned by their family and friends.  This means that they are no longer allowed in their homes, nor do they sit at the same table to eat with their family.  They are excommunicated from the Amish religion, and are regarded as dead.  It is the New Testament equivalent of being stoned to death.  They are unclean, and thus have no social contact with other Amish.

Amish people have always been forbidden to have their picture taken.  Therefore, these former Amish citizens who participated in an on-camera interview are breaking a serious law.  It is a sad story.  Parents of a former Amish child who has left the community believe that their child will go to hell for forsaking their Amish beliefs.


Amish People

                                                 Amish Horse and Buggy - Wikimedia

In Their Own Words

These are the words of the former Amish who agreed to be interviewed:

Anna – “I didn’t tell anybody that I was leaving.  They would just say that we are not supposed to leave.  I waited until it was dark to leave the house.  It was 2 a.m.  I took some books, some prayer books.  I had nothing else with me.  I stayed overnight in a barn and got a bus ticket to Connecticut.”

Saloma – “A man found my name on the Internet, and he needed to find someone who had just left an Amish community.  I was 18 when I joined the church.  If you don’t join the church, you can’t marry.  If I go back, they would still shun me for about four weeks.  I will have to cut my hair.”

Naomi – “I grew up in a small Amish community in Missouri.  Your world is very small, very sheltered.  I was never allowed to wear a prom gown and go to prom.  The Amish believe you should be away from the world or you would not have the culture any more.  When I was 18, we got a call from Robin who wanted to interview some Amish girls.  She came to our farm and took photos of us.  I was uncomfortable.  We do not believe in having our picture taken.  I’m surprised mom and dad allowed that.  There were seven kids in our family.  A lot of kids in the dominant culture in the U.S. think that is a lot of kids, but that is normal in Amish families.  We learned to do chores to become a housewife and mother.  When Robin came, she showed us pictures of other teenagers out there.  We thought that maybe we were missing out.”


Amish Man

                                                             Amish Man - Wikimedia

Saloma:  “I didn’t know that photo of me at age eight still existed.  My mother said, if they make you take the class picture, that’s OK.  She didn’t say anything about individual pictures.  I almost don’t recognize myself.  I looked happy in that picture.  I don’t remember being happy.  Each of us must give up our individuality to become part of the community, just as a grain of wheat becomes part of a loaf of bread.  I did not want to be ground up and made into bread.”

Amish Man – “I always wanted to leave.  I wanted to experience a different life, one with electricity, TV, phones, radios, and stuff like that.  Our parents didn’t like that.  They would say it’s worldly, against the rule.  My dad would burn them or smash them up.  The rules, to me, didn’t make sense.  I had a good life though.  I had two brothers and three sisters.  It was hard when my brother left.”

Jan – “I started painting after I left the Amish, to show other people what I had seen.  I didn’t see TV or read magazines, newspapers.  This is what I saw.  I grew up in Akron, Ohio and got married early in the 70’s.  We were isolated, and tried living on the land.  Amish people lived on farms for miles around us.  We bought eggs from them.  We envied what they had.  After 10 years, we decided to wear simple clothing and went to the Amish church services.  I thought I was joining for life.” 


Amish Women

                                                          Amish Women - Wikimedia

Paul – “My parents were idealistic.  We didn’t know what it was to be Amish; we figured it was just a clothes change.  We didn’t know how much more.  Learning the functional skills was easy, milking cows, cutting timber.  We couldn’t learn the language or understand their culture.  We were outsiders, the butt of a lot of jokes.  It was a very rigid society.  You are told what you can and can’t do.  It was preached in the sermons.  You were to remain in your place.”

Amish woman – “It isn’t for everybody.  Not everybody can do it.  If you know your boundaries, it brings a freedom.  I looked at cars and TVs and I thought it would be great, but if you leave, you won’t have the close relationship with your family.  It’s just not the same.  My happiness as a child, I wanted that for my children.”

Joe - “When my cousin left, I was devastated.  I was 15.  I cried my eyes out, begging God to save my cousin Eli.  We had to stay Amish; we couldn’t go out into the world.  There was no chance for us to go to heaven out there.  Eli, think about being in hell.  I thought I would never do that.”

“Eli did come back.  We were best friends again.  When we were 16, we both decided to leave. We left notes in our parents’ mailboxes.  We walked and walked.  We got new clothes, and threw our Amish clothes away.  No place to go, no job.”


Amish Children

                                                                         Amish Children                                                                                                                                                     Wikimedia

Anna – “It is six weeks now.  I don’t see Amish houses.  It seems far away now.  I was in Connecticut, taking care of a house.  I am going to live here now with Saloma.  I was lucky to find Saloma, to talk to her.  There are five groups of Amish in our area.  We cannot date the other groups.  I was 23.  You would call me an old maid.  So far, it’s nice to be out here.  I do bread and weaving.  I make baskets to have an income.  I think I am homesick.  I miss my family.  I wrote three letters but they didn’t write back.”

Levi – “You forget the rules once you’re out here.  It would be hard for me to live that life any more.  I waited until I was 17.  My parents caught me with a phone.  I left at night.  My cousin picked me and my friend up; we got on the bus and went to Iowa.  I figured it would be tough.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  We bought a car.”

Naomi – “It was hard for me not to wear my head covering at first.  I used it to pray because I didn’t think God would hear me if I didn’t have my head covered.  I was 19.  I flew to Florida, my first time flying.  A really big step for me.  I had no plans to leave the culture; I just wanted to get away from my community for a while.  I had an aunt and uncle in Florida and I had my parents’ blessing.”


Amish Horse and Buggy

                                                   Amish Horse and Buggy - Wikimedia

Jan – “In the Amish, everything is tradition.  You do it the way it was always done.  We didn’t miss it initially.  It was nice to choose your own colors for clothes or for a quilt.  Then my son Paul got married.”

Paul – “I brought an authentic German person into my family circle.  My family couldn’t do what they did for years without being noticed.”                                                         

Jan – “We weren’t doing anything illegal.  We didn’t wear red pajamas.  They were aware that we weren’t speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.  I thought I’d given up too much, not able to speak freely in my own home.  We decided to miss church.  We were shunned then; excommunicated until further notice.”

Saloma – “My mother wanted a little more freedom; she questioned the Amish faith.  I could not do that.  My mother took it as a personal rejection.  I was 20 when I decided to leave.  I took my suitcase.  I waved to my mother, thinking “Am I ever going to see her again?”

Amish Man – “If our children went out into the world, it would hurt terribly.  They made that choice; we still have to take care of the ones at home.  That child’s influence on the rest of the family is huge. We would do everything to bring them back.  Dad’s heart is heavy to the grave.”


Amish Sign

                                                                          Amish Sign                                                                                                                                                          Wikimedia

Levi – “My father wrote to me, if you want to come home, we would want to help you.  Come home to stay, please Levi.  It is now two years since I heard from them.  They’d get in trouble with the church if they allowed us to come back too often.”

Joe - “I was gone for 30 days.  My dad found out where we were staying.  He came out and sat on the concrete steps.  He did not eat for 30 days.  His oldest son was on his way to hell.  He was willing to do whatever it took.  He told me I was never to come back on the property.  We had 14 children; I couldn’t see staying away.  I went back to the Amish seven times.”

Naomi - “It was a gradual decision.  I went to Florida for a second winter.  I was still Amish but I wore street clothes.  I worked in a nursing home.  I asked how I could become a registered nurse.  But education is a big threat to the Amish.  It would kick you out of the community.  The Amish go only to the eighth grade.  Honoring your father and mother is part of the Amish culture.  I thought I could do both.”

Anna – “I like school out here better.  Now I need a social security number.  I never had something with my picture on it before.  I feel English today.  It was special for me.  I felt like I could be more like whoever I want to be.”


Amish Man

                                                                 Amish Man - Wikimedia

Amish man - “Satan likes to isolate people.  We all need a community around us to help us see the blind spots that we won’t see on our own.  That’s what community is about.”

Saloma - “My mother wrote to me a couple months after I left.  She told me today you have been put out of the church.  I got married and none of my family members came.  I let people down, especially my mother.  If people asked me about my family, I would burst into tears.  They were discouraged from eating with us when we came to visit.  My husband and I sat a small table and they handed us food.  After that, we never ate with them again.”

Paul – “They want you to realize the depth of your fall.  I had no contact with my parents.” 

Jan – “My son had his first child. I went to visit and wore Amish clothing.  It was awkward; it didn’t go very well.  I was excommunicated and he was a church member.  It couldn’t be fixed.”

Anna – “I received a letter from my mother.  No news.  It was just about the rules. The preachers wrote that I was in trouble.  If they didn’t hear from me, they would put me out of the church.  So now I am out of the church.  I never thought about dying when I was Amish.  If I die, I would want to be Amish.”


Amish People

                                                              Amish Sign - Wikimedia

Joe – “Something happened when I was out in the world.  Someone showed me how to get to heaven.  It was through Jesus.  I came back, got married, and raised my children.  But when I asked how to get to heaven, nobody could help me.  Jesus alone would not do it.  Obeying rules will help you.  All rules and regulations covered up the easy plan of salvation.  We decided ‘Are we going to follow man, or are we going to follow the scriptures.’  After the 7th time, I knew I would never go back.  Nobody would understand.”

Amish man – “I asked a leader a question.  They wouldn’t answer me.  I became a deacon and had authority.  Things would bother me.  Deacons looked after orphans and widows, financial things, and against those who had transgressions.  Girls would have their cap strings untied, which was intolerable.  Deal with the minor things or you would have major things down the road.  I had to be put in my place so others would not challenge authority later.  I didn’t show up for a meeting so I was excommunicated.  My marriage was coming apart.  I said fine, and left, and walked away from it.”

Amish man – “I worked in the city for two years.  I liked it.  But you could be so lonely.  A bishop told me that he left, went back, and left again.  He went to college and told his parents.  Coming home was so strong, so powerful, that he gave up college.  He asked his dad: Can I come home?”

Naomi – “My parents didn’t shun me.  I could always come back.  Maybe a time will come when I tell them I won’t wear Amish clothes again.  I haven’t yet.  It’s a profound loss.  Allowing someone to film me was the final decision.  If I were going back, I would not have allowed anyone to film me.”

Levi – “My brother Samuel asked me if I’d like to visit the family.  I drove back with him.  My father told me if I was not coming back, he’d rather that I just stayed away.  My mom was out in the garden.  At first, she ignored me. Then we started talking.  She was shocked to see us.  Dad came home, we talked about a half hour.  He didn’t invite us in the house.  We sat on the front porch and visited for a couple hours.”

Saloma – “Anna cannot let go of some of her Amish beliefs.  She asks herself ‘Did I do the right thing?  Why am I here?’  And I understand that.  She has been packing and repacking her suitcase for a week and a half.  She has changed in the seven months she has been away.  It will be hard for her to fit herself back into the community.”


Amish People

                                                            Amish People - Wikimedis

Amish woman – “I walk about a mile every morning.  That’s when I pray for my children.  Sometimes I have regrets.  I would prefer for them to stay Amish, but there’s a time we have to let go.”

Joe – “You are never taught to live in freedom.  All of a sudden, it’s wide open.  You need somebody to help you.  Otherwise, you’re not going to make it.  My wife and I built a place in our basement for Amish kids who leave.  Then it takes six months to a year before they can go on their own.  Our house is a swinging door.  They can come for dinner.  We have become their parents.  We consider ourselves missionaries to the Amish.  It would be good to teach the parents that it is all right; it won’t happen in this generation, but maybe in the next.”

Naomi – “My parents can’t say ‘We’re proud of you.’  That their Amish daughter has a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing.  There should be people who will help people like me.  I am involved in a scholarship fund raiser.  To the Amish, I am a rebel.”

Levi – “I didn’t have my family to run back to.  I had to do everything for myself.  I bought a house and made payments on it.  It was better than paying rent.  Then I bought this house, a 3-bedroom home with a garage.  I’m not in debt.  I’m doing great.  I told my parents they could come to visit me if they want to.  I don’t see that happening.  I’d like for us to be together, to spend time together.  That’s what I want.”

Jan – “I was close to my son Paul before.  But you have to go forward.  One step at a time.  Paul left the Amish, but he lives like he’s Amish.  He lost his community, his sense of who he was.  I did too.” 


Amish Buggy

                                                          Amish Buggy - Wikimedia

Paul – “In the English speaking world, you are a number.  I still love the Amish lifestyle, being in touch with the land, religion, family relationships, but I can’t accept the trade-offs.  I’m lost between two cultures at this point.”

Joe – “One year ago, after 25 years, I drove to Pennsylvania.  For 18 hours, I was theirs.  They locked the doors so other Amish people couldn’t see us.  My dad and I reconciled.  He’s still holding me at arm’s length though.  He’s 60 something years old, and it’s hard for him to believe his son could go to heaven in his English clothes.”

Saloma – “My father died.  David and I decided to go to the funeral.  They wanted us to go in by age.  We were going to be included in the family, what a surprise.  The family circled around the coffin to say our last goodbyes.  Everything got so still.  Like the birds stopped singing, and all the babies stopped crying.  It was the loudest silence I ever heard.  Four hundred people were supporting us in our grief and it didn’t matter then what we were dressed in.  These are people steeped in tradition and the people I grew up with.  I feel sad that that’s not what I’m going to have.  We all make choices in our lives.”

Anna – “I’m dressing in Amish clothes.  It’s a heavy dress.  It doesn’t feel good like it does in English clothes.  I’ll miss ovens, refrigerators, movies, music.  I think my parents will be happy to see me.  I think it was hard for them.  I have 40 nieces and nephews.  I think they will now be afraid because I have left.  That will be hard.”

Amish man – “If a boy or girl leaves home, their place at the table is always set.  Three times a day, they know there’s a place waiting for them.”

My only commentary is that Amish life is a beautiful life style, but it does not seem right for those children to be shunned if they choose another lifestyle.  Perhaps future generations will see that they can still be friends with their family when they leave.    

The Amish
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