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Beliefs affect Amish reply to violence

There will be no high-profile funerals or church services for the Amish children killed yesterday in Lancaster County, Pa. The Old Order Amish have no churches. They worship, and dispatch the dead to God's care, from their homes and barns.

The Amish have been in the United States for nearly 270 years but, following the tenets of their faith, they have always lived apart, eschewing the conveniences of modern America, embracing pacifism and maintaining strong ties to the land.

Their homes have no electricity, their clothes no zippers. Women cover their heads with starched bonnets. Men cover their faces with beards when they marry. They avoid cameras because they believe photos violate Biblical teachings against graven images.

So the video images yesterday of Amish men and women standing outside the school where a gunman had just shot at least 11 of their own were particularly jarring.

"They're probably the least violent among any group in America," said Joe Wittmer, author of The Gentle People, a book on Amish life.

The first Amish settlers came to Pennsylvania in the 1730s to escape brutal hostility they faced in Europe, said Stephen E. Scott, a research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. They are Anabaptists - Protestant Christians who believe in adult baptism, nonviolence and the separation of church and state.

That faith may provide solace, Wittmer said. "Grief is shared among the community," he said, "which makes it lighter, I think."

More than 25,000 Amish children and adults live in Lancaster, "one of the oldest continuing Amish communities in North America," said Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center, which is based at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County. Kraybill described Lancaster as the "mother womb" of many Amish settlements, at least in the East.

Kraybill estimated that there were about 150 Amish schools in Lancaster County. Amish children begin first grade in the private, church-run schools at ages seven or eight and stay in school until they are 14 or 15.

But Wittmer, who grew up in an Amish home in Indiana, said their education continues after they complete eighth grade. Boys join a formal apprentice program for a trade like farming or carpentry, and girls learn how to can food in the absence of refrigeration and how to smoke ham.

"They learn how to be Amish," he said.

Schools teach children in English although the Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a form of German spoken by their German and Swiss German ancestors.

Although many school systems revamped their security procedures after incidents such as the 1999 Columbine, Colo., shooting, Amish schools have followed the same procedures for years, Wittmer said.

Wittmer doubted whether the children at the school would have even seen a gun that wasn't used for hunting before yesterday.

"They've never had any trouble at the Amish schools," he said. "The only trouble they've had is tourists snapping pictures." The windows of some newly constructed schools, he said, are built high enough to thwart photography.

Tourists have long considered Lancaster County a destination, in part to shop for Amish crafts, furniture and foods, but also to view a culture many consider quaint.

Amish homes sprinkled across the county's rolling hills have horse-drawn buggies in their yards and no phones or electrical appliances inside. In a nod to technology, work buildings may contain gas-powered tools and diesel engines. And while they do not watch TV or listen to the radio, many Amish read newspapers and may have been aware of last week's shooting in Colorado.

"They would have assumed that's something that happens far away, in urban areas," Kraybill said. "I don't think those cases would have stirred any fear."

Instead, it may have reinforced the basic tenet of the faith: "remain apart from the world," Wittmer said.

The next few days will sorely test that philosophy and the community's faith.

Funerals in Lancaster County usually are held in two places, said Scott. Small services are held in the homes of the deceased, and usually they take the body to a separate place for a larger service, such as a barn in warm weather, he said.

Generally, children will be buried in graves that remain unmarked or have very small tombstones that lay flat on the ground, Wittmer said.

Families do not go back to visit the grave or observe a "memorial day," he said, recognizing that the spirit has left the person's physical body.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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