The secret life of America's modern Amish

By Kirrily Schwarz

Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States. Photo / Getty Images
Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States. Photo / Getty Images

They're known for funny hats, drab clothing, and horse-drawn buggies.

America's secretive Amish - and the closely-related Mennonites - shun technology in favour of hard-work, family, and devotion to their Christian faith, reports News.com.au.

So naturally, when someone posed the question: "Amish people of Reddit: What are you doing here?" on a popular internet forum, people were very curious.

Eli*, who claimed to be a baptised member of the community, said it's quite simple.

"We Amish don't go full Amish until age 21 when we make a choice to give up fast cars, cocaine and sex and join the church, or stay in the loose world of demon English."

He cited an article published in the Washington Post in 1998, which reported a drug bust in a rural community, involving two young men.

"Federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania yesterday accused two Amish men of buying cocaine from a gang called the Pagan Motorcycle Club and distributing the drug to other young members of the religious group at parties known as 'hoedowns'," wrote journalist Hanna Rosin.

"We've seen plenty of underage drinking cases but a drug case is unheard of (among the Amish)", John Pyfer, who was representing Abner Stoltzfus, 24, said in the story. The other defendant was Abner King Stoltzfus, 23, who was of no relation.

As for why both defendants were named Abner Stoltzfus, Eli claimed: "Up in Amish country there's literally 500 families and three last names.

"My middle name is Abner, named after my great-grandfather Abner, or my grandfather Abner on my mother's side, depending on who you ask."

The sect, sometimes called the Pennsylvania Dutch, are a group of traditionalist Protestant church fellowships with Swiss origins.

It's common for young people who grew up with the strict lifestyle to leave for a time known as "rumspringa", to experience the modern world before deciding if the strict lifestyle is something they want to formally adopt for themselves.

However, modern Amish youth are getting into serious trouble when they down tools.

Last September, police busted an Amish party in a field near Millersburg, Ohio, arresting more than 70 people - many of them youths.

Two were rushed to hospital with severe alcohol-related symptoms.

Local news outlet Fox 59 reported more than 1000 people were expected to attend from Ohio and interstate, before it was shut down.

"Ah, you should see our field parties, our hoedowns. The coke isn't the main draw - that's for white trash Amish, along with the meth. The best of us make shine, and we make a lot of it," Eli claimed, referring to locally brewed liquor.

Of course, it's difficult to know whether Eli is really Amish or just pulling your leg, but his comments check out with media reports from the area.

The Amish are a tight-knit and secretive group, and they don't like to deal with authorities, so it's almost impossible to know what's really going on inside.

Back in 2014, the US Drug Enforcement Agency officials arrested a group of people connected to a sect of Mexican Mennonites, seizing large amounts of cocaine and marijuana bound for communities in America's midwest and Canada.

Authorities told the CBC millions of dollars' worth of drugs had slipped through, adding the criminal activity was likely to ramp up because it was so lucrative.

The Mennonites hid the drugs in petrol tanks and farm machinery to smuggle it over the borders, simply trusting each other not to spill the beans.

According to the Eli, it's because members truly loathe outsiders.

Some are traditional, but many Amish are far more modern than they let on. Photo / 123RF
Some are traditional, but many Amish are far more modern than they let on. Photo / 123RF

"You non-Amish are all English to us, that's what we disparage you as. And you're demons, as well. We will still sell you baked goods and well-made furniture but you're going to hell all the same," he wrote.

The Amish philosophy began in 1693, and in the early 18th century many of them emigrated to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

They straddle an awkward line between their fiercely-protected culture and the world.
Tourists visit Amish villages in droves, sampling homegrown food, buying homemade crafts, and snapping pictures on their iPhones like they would in a zoo.

From the outside, it seems as though the Amish are being left behind in a world of modern medicine, computers, and internet banking.

But are they really?

Abigail* a woman who claimed to have been born Mennonite in Ohio, said she wasn't raised conservatively despite her religious heritage.

She told Redditers when she went to university just 40 minutes from where she grew up, she was amazed how little her classmates knew about her people.

"Some Mennonites are allowed to have any kind of technology, while others are only allowed to drive black cars or they aren't allowed to have TVs. One of my friends grew up in a church where they were allowed to have TVs, but they couldn't have cable," she said.

"Most of the rules are eye-roll worthy, but even more ridiculous is the hoops they jump through to find ways around the rules."

She shot down the idea of being backward, saying the 2004 television series Amish in the City -which chronicled five young Amish on "rumspringa" - was "all a load of crap".

"They acted as if they had never seen parking meters [sic], the beach, etc. It was so ridiculous because the town in which that girl was from has parking meters. My sister knew several of them and they played it up so much for TV," she claimed.

However, like Eli, she said substance abuse is rife.

"There is a serious drug problem within the Amish youth. They do hold huge parties that bring in hundreds of Amish from all over, even out of state. And they all go to a small community ... where they 'let their hair down' during the winter," she wrote.

Since Amish people typically refuse to attend modern hospitals, or co-operate with law enforcement agencies, no-one knows how - or if - they should help.

* Names have been changed.

- news.com.au

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