American Experience | The Amish: Shunned
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Watch Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 3:30pm on WMHT TV.

A poignant and penetrating look at what it means to be cut off from faith and family, The Amish: Shunnedfollows seven people who have chosen to leave their closed and tightly knit communities for the outside world, knowing that they can never return. Each has paid deeply for this decision. Estranged from loved ones, these former Amish find themselves struggling to make their way in modern America. Interwoven with their stories are the voices of staunchly loyal Amish men and women who explain the importance of obedience, the strong ties and traditions that bind them, and the heartbreak they feel when a loved one falls away. Through its sympathetic portrayal of both sides, the film explores what is gained and what is lost when community and tradition are exchanged for individuality and freedom.

As a producer on 2012’s The Amish,American Experience’s in-depth look at the history, beliefs and traditions of the insular religious community, Wiser was exposed to the concept of shunning. “This is one of the faith’s defining practices in which members of the community cut ties with those who choose to leave,” says Wiser. “We touched on it in the first film, but I was interested in delving further into the practice, and finding individuals whose stories would portray the breadth and variety of shunning.”  

Revealing the pain of those who leave and the suffering of those left behind, the film is the story of people confronted with difficult choices. To the Amish, shunning is an essential tenet of their faith and a way to maintain the strength and viability of a tight-knit community. While the practice has helped protect them from the onslaught of modern culture, it is an agonizing decision for parents, relatives and friends to sever ties with loved ones whom they believe to be eternally condemned for their decision to leave.

Many who leave face challenging obstacles: no birth certificates or social security numbers, language barriers because English is not their primary language, and the lack of a support network in the outside world. Young people who leave know that their families will disapprove, and some, particularly from stricter communities, run away without saying goodbye to avoid a painful confrontation. They shoulder the burden of knowing their families will wake up to an empty room and the realization they may never see their children again — in this life or the next.

“The film is an emotional roller coaster through a set of universal experiences that anyone can understand, even if they’re not Amish,” said Mark Samels, Executive Producer of American Experience. “The longing of a parent for a child, the sadness of a child for the family they have lost, the pain of separation that lasts a lifetime. All of these things are at play in this film.”

Whether out in the world for two weeks or 35 years, the former Amish in the film struggle to create a new sense of community in modern America. The moment of walking out the door begins a lifetime of wondering: “If you are born Amish, must you stay Amish to go to heaven?” Each will spend their days trying to answer that question and to reconcile the life they have lost.

About the Participants

Naomi Kramer first left the Old Order Amish at 19, though it took her many years to admit she would not return. Since leaving, she has become a nurse and set up the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund for other former Amish. They gave out their first awards in 2012.

Levi Shetler left the SwartzentruberAmish when he was 17 and moved to Ohio to work in construction with other former Amish. He now lives in Iowa.

Saloma Furlong first left the Old Order Amish in 1977 at age 20. She has written two memoirs: Why I Left the Amish, published in 2011, and Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, which will be published in 2014.

Joe Keim first left his Old Order Amish church at age 16, though he returned and eventually married in the Amish church before finally leaving 25 years ago. He is a born-again Christian and operates the “Mission to Amish People” to support those who leave and to spread the gospel to those who have not.

Jan Edwards was not born Amish but she and her husband joined the most conservative group, the Swartzentruber Amish, in the 1980s. She left the church soon after she became disillusioned with the group.

Paul Edwards, the oldest of Jan’s children, joined the Amish church at 17, the only one of the children to join. After his parents left the faith, he remained Amish for a number of years, becoming the only outsider ever to become a deacon in a Swartzentruber community. A falling out with church leadership led to his excommunication.

Anna, who prefers that her full name not be revealed,left her Amish community at 23, but has since returned.