A Former Mennonite Reports on the Amish

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 06, 2006 3 min read
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I was reporting on an education conference in a downtown Washington hotel when I noticed TV monitors in the lobby were turned on to CNN and Fox news and broadcasters were reporting on an attack on a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa. My first thought was, “What is our society coming to when violence erupts among the Amish, who want to be left alone by the world and live as peacefully as possible?” The Amish have a long tradition of nonviolence, such as refusing to participate in the military.

In the news reports, it soon became clear that several Amish girls had been killed, and that the killer was not Amish. I was so distressed that several children had died in another school shooting that I wanted to go home and crawl into bed. Instead I called the Education Week office asking for a chance to write about how Amish educators might respond to the tragedy. “I know a lot about the Amish,” I said in the phone message to my editor, “I grew up in a town with 1,000 Amish families living around it. And my parents rent a farm to an Amish family.”

I didn’t remind my editor that I was raised Mennonite. In Europe, a group of Anabaptists that became known as the Amish broke away from the Mennonites in 1693, but the two Christian denominations still have some common beliefs and cooperate on service work. Actually I don’t call myself Mennonite anymore, because I’ve attended other kinds of churches for a number of years, but I still feel rooted in my Mennonite upbringing, which includes a sense that both Mennonites and Amish are often not understood well by people outside their communities.

What I didn’t want to do was go up to Lancaster County and become part of the media pack trying to get access to Amish. But I saw an opening to explain to our readers more about who the Amish are.

My article was based mostly on interviews with Mennonites, who get degrees in higher education and don’t reject “worldly” ways nearly to the same extent that the Amish do. Mennonites often become spokespeople for Amish in times of crisis. I’ve noticed this in the coverage of the shootings at the Amish school this last week. A Mennonite midwife talks to the Washington Post about some of the experiences of the girls in the West Nickel Mines School on that awful day. An Amish-turned-Mennonite who works for Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., talks to the press about what Amish funerals are like.

Donald B. Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., who grew up Mennonite and now attends a Brethren church, has spent his career interpreting the faith and culture of Amish and other Anabaptist groups to the outside world. Mr. Kraybill was one of the most sought after experts to talk about the Amish last week, and he comes across as respectful of Amish ways. John Hostetler, who was raised Amish and became Mennonite as a young man, also contributed much to the world’s understanding of the Amish with his scholarship published from the 1960s to the late 1980s.

I don’t know how the Amish feel about the work of these scholars, but in my view they’ve offered a much richer picture of the Amish than the movie “Witness,” which got more play than the scholars’ books.

In the end, I wrote an article for Education Week citing Mr. Kraybill’s understanding of why the Amish school is the most protected area of Amish life in terms of technology. The Amish may use cellular phones in some of their businesses, but they aren’t likely to try to increase security by placing them in the schoolroom, he said. That article, “In the Wake of Shootings, Amish Schools Not Likely to Boost Security, Experts Say,” and an article by my colleague, Lesli Maxwell, “Bush Calls Summit on School Shootings,” which tells about political leaders’ pledges to tighten security, were published on on Oct. 5, and will be coming out in print in the Oct. 11 issue of Education Week.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Behind the Scenes blog.