Abduction Case Tests Limits of Amish Ties to Modern World

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The two sisters were missing, apparently abducted from the roadside vegetable stand in front of their house in this rural town near the Canadian border.By KIRK SEMPLE

OSWEGATCHIE, N.Y. — The two sisters were missing, apparently abducted from the roadside vegetable stand in front of their house in this rural town near the Canadian border. The police needed photos of the girls to issue an alert, but the family had none: They were Amish, a community that generally prohibits photographs partly based on the biblical injunction against likenesses.

After initially resisting, and with critical time elapsing, the girls’ father, Mose Miller, finally agreed to a compromise: He allowed a sketch artist to make an illustration of the older sister, who is 12, but not the younger one, who is 7.

“They were so uncomfortable,” Sheriff Kevin M. Wells of St. Lawrence County said, recalling the fraught negotiations last week. “We asked them to make a lot of difficult decisions.”

The episode was a turning point in a case that has drawn the insular and ultraconservative Amish population in this region into the glare of international attention. The girls resurfaced a day after their disappearance and two suspects were arrested and charged with . The county district attorney said the girls had been sexually abused.

But the father’s quandary about the sketch also highlighted the constant challenges the Amish face by adhering to a 19th-century agrarian lifestyle in a 21st-century world.

Though they live separately from the non-Amish, the Amish are not independent. In interviews this week throughout northwestern St. Lawrence County, home to hundreds, if not thousands, of Amish, a picture emerges of two communities living side by side and often intersecting — for the most part comfortably, though sometimes, as in the case of the police investigation, extremely uncomfortably.

The Amish have negotiated ways of interacting with the modern world without compromising their religious beliefs; the non-Amish, in turn, have benefited in numerous ways from the presence of their traditionalist neighbors.

“We work together real good, you know,” said John Miller, 42, an uncle of the abducted girls, who has lived in the region nearly all his life.

Since the Amish in this region neither drive nor telephones or electricity, each family has a relationship with non-Amish families who can make telephone calls on their behalf or drive them on urgent errands. Their economies are intertwined, with the Amish selling goods like vegetables, lumber and crafts to non-Amish customers and buying from the non-Amish items such as hardware supplies, groceries and pharmaceuticals.

Walmart and other stores have installed hitching posts for horse-drawn buggies.

“They are in the world but not of the world,” said Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, a professor of anthropology at nearby State University of York at Potsdam, who has studied the Amish for years. “They rely on the world. They couldn’t make a living without the world.”

Yet, she added, the Amish regard their life on Earth as essentially a passage to eternal life. “They are passing through this world without becoming part of it,” she said.

Though not as widely known as the more established Amish settlements in Ohio and Pennsylvania, York State’s Amish communities began taking root in the 1830s. There are now about 16,500 Amish in the state, up from about 10,100 in 2008, making it by far the fastest-growing Amish population among the 10 states with the most Amish, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Settlements now speckle the state, from far western York near Lake Erie to the northernmost reaches.

In 1974, a highly conservative group known as the Swartzentruber Amish migrated from Ohio and began settling in this region, attracted both by the relatively inexpensive farmland and by a desire for separation from more progressive Amish.

Preferring large families — many have more than 10 children — the Swartzentruber Amish are helping drive the state’s Amish population growth. In the last year alone, Ms. Johnson-Weiner said, 50 new families have joined the settlement centered on this town.

Their farms are interspersed among the non-Amish farms. The Amish dwellings are immediately recognizable for the absence of electric lines and satellite dishes and for the presence of dark-colored clothes of simple, uniform design drying on lines and — an automatic giveaway — a buggy parked outside.

Like other Amish, the Swartzentruber Amish, whose principal language is Pennsylvania , live by Ordnungs, or codes of conduct. Varying from group to group and church district to church district, Ordnungs prescribe how to live, including rules about the design of homes, clothing and buggies, and protocols for cooking, worship, schooling, dating and interactions with non-Amish, whom the Amish refer to as “the English.”

While some of the more progressive Amish groups be more accommodating of technological innovations, the Swartzentruber Amish have been far more resistant to change.

But they have devised ways of maintaining their strict cultural practices while still being able to prosper in modern society, with many of these solutions reliant on cooperation with non-Amish neighbors.

“I like to help them out because you never know when you’re going to need help,” said Harvey Swartzentruber, 35, an Amish farmer and diesel motor mechanic who has lived most of his life in the region.
Among the exchanges of favors that help sustain his lifestyle, Mr. Swartzentruber trims the hooves of his non-Amish neighbor’s horses; in return, his neighbor welds for him.

When the two Miller girls disappeared last week, their father ran down the to seek help at the home of Robert and Susan O’Marah, a non-Amish couple. The O’Marahs dialed 911 for him.

The two households have developed a close, neighborly relationship over the past two decades; the families moved into their current homes at about the same time.

The relationship began years ago when Mr. Miller went to the O’Marahs’ door to report that his wife, Barbara, was in labor with their first and he asked if they could drive to the Amish midwife’s house and retrieve her. (The Swartzentruber, like most other Amish, eschew insurance and try to avoid hospitals.)

The O’Marahs have provided shuttle for the midwives in the births of more than 20 babies in the Miller family, including 12 of Mose and Barbara Miller’s 13, they said.

The Amish “are always smiling and waving,” Ms. O’Marah said, adding, “You couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”

In recounting the good deeds that the Amish have bestowed on non-Amish neighbors, residents often recall how the Amish rushed to help other dairy farmers after an ice storm in 1998 knocked out power. Electronic milking systems were down and the Amish, unruffled, jumped in using their hands — the only way they knew how.

Throughout the Miller girls’ disappearance, the Amish here kept abreast of developments through buggy-to-buggy word-of-mouth. But the freshest news often originated with their non-Amish friends.

A 53-year-old Amish farmer in the nearby town of DeKalb, the father of 16 children, said he found out about the Miller girls’ disappearance while visiting a non-Amish neighbor, a widower whose family had asked the farmer to keep an eye on him. The news crackled over the neighbor’s scanner.

“I try not to listen to radios but sometimes you can’t help it,” the farmer said. “I heard something about the Miller girls. I was hoping I didn’t hear right.” (Like several Amish interviewed for this article, he requested anonymity, saying that speaking out could be viewed as immodest.)

While the Amish strive for self-reliance, they will visit non-Amish doctors, buy their drugs at pharmacies and, in emergencies, seek treatment in hospitals, even if it means being hooked up to electric machines. “We can go to a certain distance to allow us to get what needs to be done,” explained one Amish man, whose young son spent a month in a Syracuse hospital being treated for tetanus.

One of Mr. Miller’s daughters was hospitalized in Syracuse for a compound fracture after she was trampled by a horse. Ms. Miller paid the sizable ambulance fee by making the company a quilt, the O’Marahs recalled.

“They aren’t subject to the same restrictions in society,” Mr. O’Marah said. “We have credit scores to keep up. They could care less about credit. But they care about respectability.” (Mr. Miller politely declined to be interviewed on the .)

The Amish try to work out internal disputes among themselves and seek to avoid the mainstream judicial . Cars frequently collide with ill-lighted buggies, usually resulting in damage to the buggies and sometimes the horses. But unless the cars are damaged, the episodes are rarely reported.

While the apparent abduction deeply rattled the broader population in this region, several Amish said they also felt a deep sense of gratitude for the overwhelming response by the non-Amish population, including neighbors and public officials. But the gratitude, several said, was accompanied by a certain remorse, mainly for having inconvenienced so many people.

“I actually feel guilty — I told my wife — about the way the police force kicked in,” the Amish farmer in DeKalb said. “It brought a lot of tears.”

As the normal rhythms of life have returned to the region, residents said they had also been left with a deeper feeling of community, an affirmed sense of the interconnectedness that transcends demarcations of religion and custom.

“Everybody wants to help, even the English,” said John Miller, the abducted girls’ uncle. “I think that this is going to draw everything together.” (NY Times)[eap_ad_3]