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Aired February 4, 2014

The Amish: Shunned

Film Description

What is it like to be cut off from your faith and your family? The Amish: Shunned follows seven people who have chosen to leave their closed and tightly-knit communities for the outside world, knowing they can never return. Each has paid deeply for their decision. Estranged from loved ones, these former Amish find themselves struggling to make their way in modern America.


Written, Produced, and Directed by
Callie T. Wiser

Edited by
Rachel Clark

Director of Photography
Tim Cragg

Tim Cragg
Jason Longo
Edward Marritz

Associate Producer
Pamela Gaudiano

Original Music by
Saunder Jurriaans and Daniel Bensi

Additional Directing by
David Belton

Field Producer
Laura Longsworth

Production Sound Mixers
John D. Gooch 
Mark Mandler

Additional Camera
Craig Feldman
Stephen McCarthy
Allen Moore
Kat Patterson
Thorsten Thielow

Additional Sound
Steve Bores
Mario L. Cardenas 
Peter Deutscher 
Steven M. Guercio
Andy Turrett

Assistant Editing
Elliott Choi
James MacDonald

Composer Assistant
Chase Deso

Photo Animation

Photo Animators
Aaron D. Nee
Alisa Placas Frutman

On-Line Editing

On-Line Editor
Karl Tacheron

Color Correction
Frame:Runner NYC

Don Wyllie

Supervising Sound Editor and Re-Recording Mixer
Coll Anderson M.P.S.E

Sound EFX Editor
Matt Snedecor

Assistant Sound Editor
John Chiarolanzio

Johanna Kovitz
Mulberry Studio, Inc.

Helen KC Young

John Ives

Archival Materials Courtesy of
Jan Edwards
Saloma Furlong
Joe Keim
Naomi Kramer

Archival Photographs of Amish teens and other teenagers:
Robin Bowman/Contact Press Images from her book "It's Complicated: The American Teenager" (Umbrage, 2007)

Jeanne Haffner

Production Interns
Jonathan McConnell
Baldev Sandhu

Bethel Baptist Church, Savannah, OH
Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Northampton, MA
Cranston’s Christmas Tree Farm, Ashfield, MA
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
Mission to Amish People, Savannah, OH
Tampa International Airport
United Christian School, Nappanee, IN
Wholesale Motorcars, Lexington, OH

Special Thanks
The many Amish who spent time with us

Sarah Colt
Karen Johnson-Weiner
Chyld King
Donald B. Kraybill
Steven M. Nolt
Elizabeth Shea
Katie Troyer
David Weaver-Zercher
Mike Wiser

For American Experience

Post Production Supervisor
Vanessa Ezersky

Glenn Fukushima

Web Producer
Molly Jacobs

Special Projects Assistant
Katharine Duffy

Production Manager
Nancy Sherman

Contracts & Rights Manager
Susana Fernandes

Production Coordinator
Lauren Noyes

Production Secretary
Julianna Newmeyer

Jay Fialkov
Janice Flood
Scott Kardel

Marketing Account Manager
Chika Offurum

Mary Lugo
Cara White

Post Production
Spencer Gentry
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Joel Goodman

Series Manager
Lauren Prestileo

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Producer
Susan Bellows

Senior Producer
Sharon Grimberg

Executive Producer
Mark Samels

A Five O'Clock Films production for American Experience.

American Experience is a production of WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.

(c) 2014
WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved.


Amish Man One (audio): Everything has to be done in love. If shunning is done in true love of God, then it can be very effective.

Slate: The Amish do not allow on-camera interviews. The unidentified voices in this film are theirs.

Amish Man One (audio): To the outsiders, shunning seems harsh. And it can be harsh. We had it in our home. It is brutal. We love to sit at the same table to eat, and you cannot. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter. They’re not a part of the family.

Paul (audio): As one minister put it, “It’s the New Testament equivalent of stoning someone to death.” That’s what shunning is. You put them out of the church. If you see them in need, you’re to help them. But you have no social contact. You take nothing out of their hand, under any circumstance. You don’t eat with them. They’re unclean.

Slate: If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee… Matthew 5:29

Anna (audio): I didn’t tell anybody that I am leaving. If I tell them, they will keep me from going. Because there are rules. They will say we aren’t supposed to leave.

I wait until it was dark. I ran out of the house. I think it was 2:00 in the morning. I don’t make light at all, so if there is somebody they don’t see light. I take some books along in my pocket: a prayer book and what we call a recipe book. I had nothing else with me. I stay over night in a barn, and went the next day to the bus and get a ticket. Went with the Greyhound to Connecticut.

Slate: Saloma

Saloma: I got a call, and it was this man saying that he had just found my name on the Internet, and he needed someone to help a runaway from an Amish community. I was still in my nightgown. I was thinking to myself, “Wow, you know, this could have been me. This could have been me 34 years ago.”

Saloma (audio): How old were you when you joined the church?

Anna (audio): Eighteen.

Saloma (audio): Were you sure of it?

Anna (audio): I was sure to join.

Saloma (audio): Why?

Anna (audio): If we didn’t join church we cannot marry.

Saloma (audio): So you had somebody in mind?

Anna (audio): Yep. But the girls cannot pick out.

Saloma: Of course not, I know. Unfair, isn’t it? So he never asked you for a date?

Anna (audio): I had one date with him, but he didn’t ask for back.

Saloma: Oh, I’m sorry.

Saloma (in Pennsylvania German, subtitled) : That’s no fun.

Saloma: Why is it that you choose not to be on camera right now?

Anna (audio): So people cannot see who I am.

Saloma: What do you think would happen if you went back tomorrow?

Anna (audio, in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): You mean…?

Saloma (in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): Will they continue to shun you if you go back?

Anna (audio, in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): Yes.

Saloma (in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): For how long?

Anna (audio, in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): Maybe four weeks, unless I cut my hair. If I cut my hair I will have to wait until it grows back to the length it was.

Saloma (audio, in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): Is there anyone at home you could have talked to about leaving?

Anna (audio, in Pennsylvania German, subtitled): No.

Amish Man Two (audio): It’s the disobedient people who leave the Amish church. They wanted something that was not allowable. So they just moved on. If we're not obedient, we will fall by the wayside. 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. Amen.

Slate: Naomi

Naomi: I grew up in a small Amish community in Jamesport, Missouri. It’s a very tight-knit, close community, and your world is really small. Very sheltered. When I was younger, I used to be kind of disappointed that I was never allowed to wear, like, a prom gown and go to prom. But the Amish have the rules because they want to hold back. They believe in keeping away from the world, and if you allow one thing after another, pretty soon you wouldn’t have the culture anymore.

When I was 18 years old, we had a call from this lady named Robin. She was writing a book about teenagers from different cultures and religions, and she was interviewing them. So she wanted to interview some Amish girls. She came to our farm, and she started shooting a bunch of photos of us. I remember being kind of uncomfortable. Amish do not believe in having their picture taken. And we were always told to not pose. I’m kind of surprised Mom and Dad allowed that.

My family has seven kids. I used to say "just seven," but I learned really fast that in the dominant culture and America, seven is a lot of kids. Me and my sister Marjorie would milk the cow every morning and evening. You learn how to work at a very young age, how to do chores. Things that prepare you in the future to be a housewife and a mother.

When Robin came to visit, it was the first time we had ever met someone from the city. She was showing us these pictures of other teenagers. To show that there’s another world out there. At that time I felt very strongly about being Amish. But it kind of made you think about, "Well, maybe we are missing out."

Saloma: I didn’t even know that photograph existed until many years later, after I’d left the Amish. That morning, my mother knew that it was picture day at school, and she said, “If they make you take the class picture, that’s okay.” She didn’t say anything about the individual pictures. I went off to school, stood in line like everybody else, and when it was my turn, I got right up on that stool, smiled into the lights and the camera -- no teeth, you know, no teeth in the front -- and thought, “Mm-hm! Got you, Mom!”

For people who have a lot of photographs of themselves as children, they probably can’t fathom only having a mental picture. I almost didn’t recognize myself. I look happy there. And I didn’t remember being happy.

Uffgevva. Uffgevva means to give in, or to give up, to give up yourself. 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."

Slate: Levi

Levi: I guess I always wanted to leave. I was dressing Amish, but I wasn’t living up to the Amish rules and stuff, anyways. For me, I wanted to experience a different life. I wanted to go out and drive a truck or something like that. I just thought that was -- oh, that would be cool.

Out here I have electric, TV, and… Back then, that was everything to us then, to have phones, radios and stuff like that. Of course our parents, they didn’t like that. They would say it’s worldly. It’s against the rules. They always would end up finding it one time or another. You’d get careless with it and end up getting caught. My dad would either burn them or smash them up.

I mean, I didn’t understand all the rules, and I just -- I didn’t think -- a lot of them didn’t make sense. But then again, I had a pretty good life with my family. I've got two brothers and three sisters. I knew how hard it was when my brother left. To see how heartbreaking it was to my parents. That made it hard for me to leave.

Slate: Jan

Jan: I started painting these in the years after I left the Amish, to show other people what I had seen. I didn’t see television or read magazines. I didn’t have newspapers. This is what I saw.

I grew up in Akron, Ohio. I got married early. In the early 70s, we moved from the suburbs of Akron out to the country. We were isolated, trying to figure out how to live on the land. Needing a lot of assistance. We weren’t doing a very good job of it.

The Amish lived in connecting farms all over for miles. We would go over there and visit, maybe just to buy eggs or something like that. They knew how to live off the land successfully and happily. We, I guess, probably envied what they had, and thought, "Well, if they can do it, we can too."

We probably had been there maybe 10 years already. We were starting to wear plain clothing and starting to go to some of their church services, and probably I felt there would be more acceptance upon being a member. I'd be viewed as more committed. I thought I was joining for life. I thought, this is what I’m going to do.

Slate: Paul

Paul: My parents were idealistic. That picture. It’s kind of like the vacation gone awry. It’s the picture taken before they hop in their canoe and go down the river. Everybody’s happy. "We’re going to have a fun ride."

We had no idea what it meant to be Amish. We thought a clothes change, and probably a little more, but we had no idea how much more. Learning the functional skills of the Amish was relatively easy. I enjoyed breaking the horses and milking cows and feeding hogs and cutting timber. But that was trivial compared to learning the language and understanding the culture.

We were the outsider in their world. And we were the butt of a lot of jokes. It’s a very rigid society. Everything about your life you’re told what you can and can’t do. It is preached often in the sermons. It’s spoken of by the ministers. Everyone needs to know their place. Everyone needs to remain in their place. It’s very comforting to know your place, in a lot of ways, as long as you’re content with that. And if you’re not content with that, then you’re going to have a hard go of it.

Amish Woman One (audio): It isn’t for everybody. Not everybody can do it. If you know where your boundaries are and you respect them and you’re happy there, it brings a freedom.

I remember when I first had thoughts about maybe not joining the church, because it looked like it would be so much easier to enjoy life. I mean, not that I didn’t enjoy my life, but I guess I looked out sometimes at the cars and the TVs and the things, and I just thought it would be so great sometimes to have that.

But then, you know, if you leave, you just won’t have the connection with the family, all my aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters, cousins, and the close-knit relationship. I would be living such a different lifestyle. And because I would have broken my promises to the church, I almost wouldn’t be comfortable with my family anymore. It’s just not the same. The growing up, my childhood, the happiness of that… I wanted that for my children.

Slate: Joe

Joe: When my cousin left, I remember being absolutely devastated. I was 15 years old. And I remember crawling up into the top part of a barn, and I lay down in probably a half inch of dust. And I remember just crying my eyes out, begging God to save my cousin Eli.

For those of us who had been born within the Amish culture, we had to stay Amish. We could not go out into the world. And if we did, there was no chance for us to go to heaven. I called him up and I just said, "Eli, think about being in hell! Just think about it!" and tried to describe the flames and the pain and all of that. I thought I would never do that. Never, if I lived for a thousand years, would I leave the Amish.

Eli did come back, and for almost a year and a half, two years, we were best friends. But at the age of 16, we just decided to leave it, leave it all. I didn’t even think about going to hell. I just thought about the moment. And I didn’t like being under the authority of the church and my parents.

We got together and left notes in our parents’ mailboxes. That was on a Sunday night about midnight. And we started walking. And we walked and walked toward town. Later that day we both got jeans and a t-shirt and white tennis shoes, and had just enough money to buy that. Then we went out back and threw our Amish clothes down. Never saw those Amish clothes ever again. We had no place to go. We had no job. Had no idea how to survive in the culture out here. Absolutely zero.

Anna (audio): I left six weeks now. Long time. It seems like six months. I never see any Amish houses or buggies since I am out here. It seems very far away now. I was in Connecticut. Cleaning and taking care of a house. But I’m going to live here now with Saloma. There are some things that English don’t understand about Amish. Like how Amish rules are and things like that. I were very lucky to find Saloma. To talk to her about things.

In my home church, there was just one boy that don’t have a girlfriend. There were not a lot of choice of dating. There are five different Amish groups in my area. But I am the strictest of those five groups. So we cannot date with other groups. I was 23 when I left. I was the age where people would not really think about having a date with me. And they would call me an old maid.

Saloma: You need any shortening or butter?

Anna: I had shorts.

Saloma: Okay, good.

Anna: So far it’s nice to be out here. I bake bread and cookies and do weeding. And now I start making baskets. Trying to make an income.

Saloma Which size were you making last week?

Anna: This size…

Saloma: Okay, so I’ll do this one.

Anna (voiceover): I think I am homesick. I miss my family. I write them three letters. But they didn’t write back so far. I don’t think that they have a lot to say if I am not staying Amish.

Levi: I mean, you forget a lot of the rules and stuff the longer you’re out here. You don’t realize how strict they really are. Driving a buggy, it takes forever to get somewhere, and if it’s raining or something you get all wet. In the cold wintertime you freeze. It would be really hard for me to live that life anymore.

I waited until I was 17 and I finally -- you know, I got caught with a phone again, I knew I was getting in trouble for it, and I just decided to leave. The night came, and I crawled out my window and down the chimney pipe. My friend was going to meet me about a quarter mile up the road. Then my cousin came and picked us up. Got us haircuts and then we got on the bus, Trailways, and went to Iowa.

They always talk about the bad stuff that happens to the kids that leave. So I kind of figured it would be tough. Once I left, it was actually not as hard as I thought it would be. Actually, I mean, it was pretty awesome.

Car Salesman: I’ll sell you the car for $2110. For tax, title, doc fee, everything, it’s $2500 even.

Levi’s Friend: Deal.

Car Salesman: I’ll start printing the paperwork. I have to go out and write down the actual miles that are on the car…

Naomi: It was really hard for me to not wear my covering at first. It’s kind of rooted in us that you wear a head covering for prayer and to signify submission. And for the longest time even after I wore street clothes I still had a covering beneath my pillow that I would use to pray, because it was kind of like I didn’t think God could hear me unless I had my head covered.

When I first left the culture, I was 19 years old. And I flew to Florida on an airplane, and it was my first time flying. My palms were all sweaty, and my heart was pounding. It was a really big step for me. Really big step. I had no plans to leave the culture. I just wanted to go to Florida, to get away, get out of my community for a while. I had an aunt and uncle who lived there during the wintertime, so I had my parents' blessings. If I would have looked forward and seen that I wouldn’t come back, I don’t know if I could have gotten on that plane and left.

Jan: In the Amish, everything is tradition. You do it the way that it’s always been done, the way that the people before you and before them always did it. I don’t think we missed it initially; say, the freedom to choose what color your shoes are going to be, or what colors you could put in a quilt. By that time we had accepted the way things were done as the way they were done. That was that. And then my son Paul got married.

Paul: Up to that point, nobody ever looked real close at what my parents did. They just said, "Well, they’re worldly people." We were off to the edge, and it wasn’t a problem. But after I got married, that entered an authentic German person into my family’s circle. Her dad was a senior bishop, and my family couldn’t do the things that they had done for years, without being noticed.

Jan: We had the eyes of the community in our house now. And it wasn’t that we were doing anything terribly illegal by Amish standards or, you know, we weren’t wearing red pajamas or anything. But probably some of our thought and conversation might not have been approved of. There was more awareness that you weren’t speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, so you’d try harder, or maybe not speak. Because she might hear you. She might tell people.

At that point, I realized I’ve given up maybe too much. I’ve given up my ability to even speak freely in my own home. That was the beginning of the end. We stayed home from church one Sunday. Well, you don’t do that. If you are not deathly ill on a bed, you go to church. And we didn’t go. By the second time we missed church, people started stopping in to visit and the bishops and the ministers were calling. The following Sunday we were shunned, then excommunicated until further notice.

Saloma: Even from a very young age, I always saw this side of my mother that wanted a little more freedom, questioned the Amish faith, but then she’d try to fold herself into that and be the good Amish woman, the submissive Amish woman. I could never do that. And my mother took it as a personal rejection.

I was 20 years old when I finally decided to leave. I came down the stairs with my suitcase in hand and went out the door. I looked back, and I saw my mother gazing out the window. And I waved to her. And I was thinking to myself, "Am I ever going to see her again?"

Slate: “What man, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave ninety nine… and go after the one…?” Luke 15:4

Amish Man One (audio): There’s certain things in life you can’t prepare for. If one of our children decided to go out there into what we call the world, it would hurt terribly. If they think they like better what’s out in the world than they do what’s in here with us as a family, as a church, the responsibility then would lay on that child’s shoulder.

They made that choice. We still have to take care of the ones that are home. And the influence that child has on the rest of the family is huge. The Bible teaches us clearly, whoever knows to do good and does it not, it is a sin. And we feel that sin cannot get into heaven. But at the same time, you know, if there’s something that we did that hurt their feelings, that created bitterness, we would just go the second, the third, and the fourth mile, whatever it would take, to bring them back. If I know that child has made that choice, that child would know Dad’s heart is heavy. Dad’s heart is heavy till the grave.

Levi: (Reading letter) Hello Levi. This is around Tuesday noon. I don’t intend to write any more Bible verses to you. But if the day comes that you want to come home and obey your parents, we would want to help you understand things as we can. Come home to stay, please, Levi.

They used to write me a little bit when I first left, but now they don’t seem to even write me anymore, so it's been about two years since I really heard from them. I mean, you kind of forget it after a couple of years, it kind of fades further and further away, I'd say. They probably think if they stay away, they don’t have to think about it as much. And I guess they think they can get over it better. Also, you know, if they allow us to come back too often, they’d probably get in trouble by the church.

(Reading letter) How could they say they honestly love their parents if they are so disobedient? My dad would have said, “You know better,” and he would have been right.

This would have probably been my mom, "Dear loved son Levi." Pretty awesome, I guess.

Joe: I was out for 30 days. And during that time, my dad used to come into town. He found out where we were staying at. And we had this open porch with concrete steps. And he’d come in, and he’d sit there all night long. I’d go to bed at night, next morning I wake up, he’s sitting out there on the concrete steps. And during that 30-day period, he did not eat one bite. He fasted. Because in his mind, his oldest son was on his way to hell. And he was willing to do whatever it took.

At the same time, I remember when he said, "Joe, if you don’t come home by the end of this week, our family has chosen to cut you off forever." And he said, "You are never to come back to any wedding, any funeral, any family reunion, or even on the property." We had fourteen children in our family. I could not see myself living through life away from them, and so I went back. I went back to the Amish seven times, actually.

Naomi: It wasn’t a decision that one day I just decided to not be Amish. It was not like that at all. It was a gradual thing. I went to Florida for a second winter. I still dressed Amish and was still practicing the culture. But I got a car because it was really hard to get around in Florida. So that was the first step. From there I started trying out street clothes.

I worked in a nursing home for a while. And that’s kind of when I started asking questions about nursing, like what would I need to do to be, like, a registered nurse someday. I’ve always felt called to do nursing. But education is a huge threat to the Amish. Having an education means some big job somewhere that will take you out of the community. The Amish go to a one-room schoolhouse, and you only go to the eighth grade. And I was 13 years old when I graduated.

Honoring your father and mother is really important to the Amish culture. 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? At that time, I still believed that I could do both. I told myself that I could go back, and I would.

Anna (audio): It’s actually really interesting to go to school out here. I like it a lot more out here than I did back at home. We had English, spelling, and math in our school too, but we don’t have any science books to read. The only free time we had at home is Sundays. And then we read German. We don’t read what we call storybooks or something like that at home.

RMV Receptionist: This is where you start. Right here.

Anna: Okay. In my community everybody knows who I am.

RMV Receptionist: They’re going to ask you your name, your date of birth, and your address.

Anna (audio): We don’t have to have anything like ID or social security number. Now I need a social security number, driver’s license, health insurance.

I got it.

Saloma: That’s great.

Anna: That is great. I got it.

Saloma: Congratulations! So now you actually exist.

Anna: I never had something with my picture on it before. I actually didn’t feel Amish today, I feel really English today. I was not expecting how it would be. It was special for me. I feel like I am -- I could be more like whoever I want to be with that identity card.

Amish Man Four (audio): It is one of the oldest schemes of our spiritual enemy Satan to isolate people. He knows that isolation will cut us off from the wisdom that multiple perspectives bring. We all need a community around us that helps us to see the blind spots that we won’t see on our own. That is what community is about. That is the reason for adhering to biblical social norms.

People today, we have little sense anymore that we are to join a church body and, generally speaking, submit. Doesn’t that word just make us cringe to its authority? Submission may even entail suffering. We don’t like to suffer. Our human nature tells us we should maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain, and that’s what leads to happiness but, news flash, it doesn’t.

Saloma: My mother wrote to me a couple of months after I left, and she said, "Well, today you were put from the church," meaning you are now shunned.

A year and a half after I left the Amish, I got married. Though I sent them invitations, none of my family showed up and none of my community members came. I was letting people down, especially my mother. At that time, people could not ask me specifically about my family or about my background without me bursting into tears.

The first couple times that David and I went home to visit, my family would let us eat right with them. And then they were discouraged from that by the church. And so the next time we went to visit, my mother had put a small table about six inches away from the family table, and David and I sat at the small table, and they just kept handing us food. And then they were admonished for that too. After that, we never ate with them again.

Paul: They can give you a long list of scriptural reasons. But again, it’s back to order and maintaining stability. They want to make you realize the depth of your fall, and return to repentance and redemption. They also want to keep from contaminating their group as much as possible from those influences. And so for a number of years, I had no contact with my parents. They had stepped out of the order. The Amish are serious about the separation from such people, and I was determined that I’ll do my part.

Jan: My son and his wife had their first child, my granddaughter. And I went to visit her and them at their rented farm. I wore my Amish clothing, and it was awkward. Brief. It didn’t go very well. There really wasn’t any fixing it at that point. I was an excommunicated member, and he was a church member. It couldn’t be fixed.

Anna: On Saturday I got a letter from my mother. And when I was done reading it, it was just like, I don’t know... I really don't know what I am doing. She didn’t really have any news. She was just talking about how the rules are taught in church and things like that.

Yesterday I get a letter from my preachers. My preachers write that I’m in trouble for a lot of people. And I should come back. If they didn’t hear from me, they’re going to put me in shun. That means out of church. So I am not anymore a member of church.

Sometimes I see pictures on the television. Just like if they are using guns, or if something blow up, or something like that. There are a lot of things that I never saw that might happen when I am on the outside world. I never think about dying before I left the Amish. I want to be Amish if I die. If I would die out here, I might go to hell.

Pastor John (audio): I want you to do something for me this morning. I want you to take your Bible and hold it up. Ain’t that a beautiful sight? We believe this book. Amen?

Congregation (audio): Amen.

Pastor John (audio): How much of it?

Congregation (audio): All of it.

Pastor John (audio): All of it. Turn to Romans chapter 12…

Joe: Something happened when I was out there in the world. This was like the sixth time I had left. A friend of mine opened the Bible up and showed me how to get to heaven. And it was through Jesus Christ and him alone. After I got saved, I went back to the Amish. But I never forgot what happened that day.

Came back, settled down, got married, and decided I’m raising my children within the culture. But when I wanted to know how to get to heaven, no one could tell me for sure. To the Amish, Jesus alone is not enough. 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 in heaven.

Pastor John: When you recognize I’m a sinner and my sin condemned Christ to the cross…

Joe: To me, all the good works and traditions and rules and regulations covered up the simple, easy plan of salvation.

Pastor John (audio): Why would you say no to Jesus? Just say yes.

Joe: My wife and I, we started reading the Bible, and the more we read and the more we compared with all the rigid rules, we all of a sudden decided (you know), are we going to follow man or are we going to follow the scriptures?

The last time I left, seventh time, I knew I would never, ever return that day. Cried like a baby. Tried to leave three notes. Ripped them all up. I realized no matter how hard I tried to explain, nobody would understand.

Paul: Once, when I was a teenager, I had to ask a question to one of the senior ministers. He said, "That’s not your place to question. You’re a member. You’re not a leader in the church. It is better," he said, "to let us instruct you on these things, and accept them as they are." And I was perfectly fine with that. I was happy to go back to my farm.

But later I became a deacon, and I was placed in a position of more authority. Then things would bother me. The deacon’s duty is primarily two-fold; one is to look after the financial obligations of the church, orphans and widows, things of that nature. And the other, by far the more troubling, was dealing with anyone that has transgressed against the church.

Sometimes the girls would have their caps pleated too small. And that was serious. Sometimes they’d have their cap strings untied. Intolerable. The philosophy is, if you don’t deal forcefully with the minor things, then you’ll have major disruptions down the road. I would question some of the tactics, we’ll say, methods used maintaining the order. But it has to be unquestioned. I had to be put in my place so that the others would not challenge authority later. And that's basically what happened.

The bishop leveled one charge: I didn’t go to a meeting. No one denied it. It was easily proven that I disregarded an order from the bishop to show up at his place at a certain time. I didn’t show. Case closed. The bishop said it was unanimous. I had a marriage that was coming apart. The bridge was burning at both ends. So I said, “Fine,” and left. And walked away from it.

Slate: We should be glad: for this thy brother…was lost, and is found. Luke 15:32

Amish Man One (audio): I worked in the city for two years. Got used to city life, you know, the throb and the heartbeat of the city, the sirens blasting. And I liked it. But the city could be so full of people, and you could be so lonely. Everybody was in a hurry. Everybody had a place to go. There’s a case of an Amish bishop here, it’s the most conservative group, he said, "I ran away when I was 17, came back when I was 19," and he said, "I joined church and was baptized." And he said, “That was a mistake." He said, "I left again." Enlisted in the Air Force for four years. His parents probably had no contact with him at all, because he would have been excommunicated and shunned. He was accepted by a state university and wanted to study mechanical engineering.

He came back to tell his parents that he’s going to college. They lived in a long lane. When he turned in the driveway, the memories set in. That coming home was so strong, so powerful, that he gave up college from the end of the drive to the barn. He went in and asked his dad, "May I come home?"

Naomi: My parents do not shun me. I’m welcome to come home anytime. A lot of Amish don’t accept their children when they leave. They don’t want them to come back, and it’s really painful. I can’t even imagine. I feel like it was painful enough for me. And to think about never being able to go home again would be terrible.

My parents are having a reunion, so we came to help get ready and to see everyone. Having younger siblings, it's very important to my parents that I respect that and dress in skirts or a dress when I come home. I think there will be a time in my life, maybe, where I will tell my parents that I won’t wear the Amish clothes anymore. And that’s a really hard point to get to. And I want to get to that point, but I just haven’t yet.

When I first went home a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it, that I was going to school and having this career. And they didn’t really want to have anything to do with it or mention it. And it was such a huge thing for me at the time. It’s, like, the common ground we’re missing. You can’t just sit and have the conversations we used to have. It does feel more like I am on the outside looking in. Being there and being filmed was a reminder that my life is very different now -- all the memories at home, of where I grew up and just having…

It’s a profound loss. And I think I still maybe grieve over the things I’ve lost, the relationships. And the idea I was allowing someone to film me made it final. If I was going back, I would not have allowed anyone to film me.

Levi (audio): There you go, a horse and buggy sign.

Samuel (audio): Next 18 miles.

Levi (audio): My brother called me and wanted to know if I wanted to go back and see the family. We drove all night.

Samuel (audio): Whoa, somebody built a house where the schoolhouse was.

Levi (audio): You serious?

Samuel (audio): Yeah.

Levi: It’s just good to drive around and see the old places and see you know the changes that they've made.

It took a whole hour to drive from here to our house in the horse and buggy.

Samuel (audio): It did, didn't it? Eight miles.

Levi (audio): Eight miles an hour.

Samuel: What does it take now, about 10 minutes?

Levi: Roads seem a lot shorter.

Samuel (audio): It does. It's almost like everything went and shrunk.

Levi (audio): The last time I went back and talked to my dad for a while, he told me that if I don’t want to come home just stay, he’d rather me just stay away. I left after that.

Samuel (audio): Let’s go see what they got to say. See if we can strike up a conversation.

Anybody home? Nope.

Levi (audio): My mom was out in the garden. At first it seemed like she just kind of ignored me. But I went up to her and showed her that I care, you know. And then we started talking a little bit, and the more we talked the better it went. She was shocked to see us. Then dad came home, and we talked about a half hour. He didn’t say a whole lot, but… They didn’t invite us in the house. We just sat on the front porch and visited for a couple hours.

Saloma: Anna cannot let go of some of her Amish beliefs. I think she keeps asking herself, “Did I do the right thing, and why am I here?” And, you know, I guess I understand that.

Anna has been packing and re-packing her suitcase for, like, a week and a half. I don’t think she’s realizes how much she’s changed in the seven months she’s been away. It’s going to be hard for her to fit herself back into the community. Sometimes when we care about somebody we just want to hug them and hold them close. And the situation requires that we open our arms and let that person go.

Amish Woman Two (audio): I usually try to take a walk every morning. In the early morning I walk about a mile. And that’s when I pray for my children. I just pray to Jesus to save my children. It’s important to us, our heritage and our way. I know it takes more for salvation than just our lifestyle. But why is it hard for me to let go?

And we’re told from the Bible we’re not supposed to keep our hand on the plow and look back, but, you know, sometimes I have regrets. I think, maybe I could have done this differently, or done that different. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time explaining things better when they was growing up. There has been times I kind of battle with it. I would prefer 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, you know, you open the door, and there’s no walls, no roof, no ceiling, nothing. It's wide open. You need somebody to help you. Otherwise you’re not gonna make it.

When my wife and I finally got on our feet and were able to build our own house, we specifically built part of our basement into an apartment. We’ve had many young people that have come through there. We can take two to three at a time. Right now we have two young boys. One is from Pennsylvania, and the other one is from Ohio. Usually it takes them about six months to a year to get all the things they need and go out on their own.

After they leave, our house is a swinging door. At any given time they might come in here for dinner. And Esther goes in, and she gets them some food. We’ve become, in a sense, their parents. We talk about life. We talk about goals. We talk about the Bible. We talk about salvation. We consider ourselves missionaries to the Amish.

The best thing that could happen is for our ministry is to help the parents understand it’s okay for their son or their daughter to get a car and live differently than mom and dad did. It might be too hard, and it might be almost unthinkable in this generation. But maybe not in the next.

Naomi: It’s hard for my parents to say openly that we’re proud of you. Being proud is not something the Amish believe in. It's still hard for them to see that the Amish girl they raised has a bachelor's in nursing.

In college, I worked almost 30 to 40 hours a week plus full-time classes. And it was really, really hard. So it's important to me that there’s some kind of help out there for people like me who have Amish parents who don’t support them going to college financially. I still respect the Amish belief, and it's not like I’m going to recruit people to go to college or tell them they need to, but the scholarship fund will be there if they need any kind of help.


Stan: Are you Naomi?

Naomi: I am.

Stan: I’m Stan King.

Naomi: Nice to meet you, thank you for coming.

Stan: So you’re a nurse, right? Do you have a job nursing now?

Naomi: Not yet. I’m hoping for one. I just passed my state boards last week.

Stan: Wonderful. I grew up just like you did. There were eight of us, and six are still Amish.

Naomi: Okay.

In the dominant culture and America, I would have been, like, the good kid. Putting myself through college and working full-time. But to the Amish, I was a little bit of a rebel. I can just imagine some Amish guys stroking their beard and shaking their head. And that’s hard for me. I don’t want to offend my culture. I don’t really know how I would do it differently if I had it to do over. But I wish somehow it wouldn’t have to be like that.

Levi: You know, I didn’t have my family to run back to. Basically I had to step up and do things for myself. I work with couple ex-Amish people. Construction work. We build pole-barns.

Two years ago I figured I’d buy something. Make payments on it instead of paying rent. I figured that’d be a better decision. It's just a small starter house, nothing fancy. Just something to get me ahead. And then I bought this house a little over a year ago. It's a three-bedroom home. And I've got a garage, which I really like. Basically I’m on top of everything as far as, you know, I’m not in debt, so I’m doing great.

When we went to see our parents, I told them that they could come and visit if they want to. But I don't really see it happening. They're not proud of the lifestyle I live. I would like to be able to feel like I’m their kid, you know. Be able to be together and just spend time together. That’s what I want. I try to not hang on to my past, to just move forward. Tomorrow is a new day basically, so.

Jan: I was very close to my son Paul before all this mess started up. But you can never go backwards, you always have to go forwards. And so one step at a time I did. I don’t understand Paul. He left the Amish. He very strongly left the Amish, and yet, he lives as if he’s Amish. Does he wish himself back? I don’t believe. But he lost his community. He lost his sense of who he was. I did too.

Paul: My mother enjoyed what the Amish way of life offered her. She found real fellowship for the first time. Camaraderie, I guess you could say. A lot of modern America has lost touch with the things that make us human. Being in touch with the land, religion, and family relationships. In the Amish at least you’re someone. You’re a name. You may not be a liked name, but you’re definitely a name. In the English-speaking world you are best a number. You’re no one there.

I still love the lifestyle. But I can’t accept some of the trade-offs. So it leaves me in between. Lost between cultures at this point.

Joe: I’m the closest to my dad out of all the children. I was their first-born, you know, and he just didn’t think he could let go of me. You know, it went 25 years… we just had very little connection.

One year ago I got in the car, and I drove all the way to Pennsylvania. Got there late at night. Didn’t know if they’d even let me in the house. You’ve got to remember, this is 25 years later. Mom and Dad invited me into the house, and for the next 18 hours I was there. They locked the doors so that other Amish people couldn’t come in and catch us. And that day, through tears and forgiveness, my dad and I reconciled.

Since then I’ve realized that he’s still holding me at an arm’s length. My dad is 60-some years old. And for him to ever get to that point where he can drop all those walls and believe that his son could maybe go to heaven, even in his English clothes… he probably will never be able to believe that.

Saloma: On a Tuesday afternoon around two o’clock, my father died. David and I decided to go to the funeral. And when we got there, we were all lined up because they wanted us to go in by age. Now that really surprised me, because that meant that we were going to be included in the family, just like anybody else. They put Dad's casket, open, outside of the shed. And then people from the back rows filed past the coffin. And then the family circled around to say our last goodbyes.

And everything got so still. It was like the birds stopped singing for a minute, and all of the babies in the group stopped crying. It was the loudest silence I've ever heard. And I'll never forget how the 400 people, all standing in black in that circle in the courtyard. It felt like they were supporting us in our grief. And it didn't matter at that point what we were dressed in.

These are a 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. And sometimes one choice precludes another.

Anna: Feels different to be in Amish clothes. Feels like a heavy dress. It don’t feel as good as it does in English clothes. There are a lot of things that I’m going to miss. Like ovens, refrigerators… Going to see the movies. And music. I like music.

I think my parents will be happy to see me. I was all my life at home. And then all of a sudden I was one morning disappeared. I think that was hard for them. All my nieces and nephews, there are forty of them. I think they would now be afraid of me because I have left. That will be hard. But I'll get to see my family.

Amish Man One (audio): If a boy or girl leave the home, their place at the table is always set. Nobody else sits there. So three times a day, they know there’s a place waiting for me. That's a very powerful thing.

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