independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Unique Irish community: The Amish of Dunmore East

There’s no drinking, smoking, TV or radio. The women aren’t feminists and neither do they wear make-up, or use hair straighteners. They dress plainly. But Joanna Kiernan finds that there is a peace and warmth in the Amish community in Dunmore East. Though sometimes, she hears, it can be hard to be different. Photography by Kip Carroll

'We would feel that the man of the house is supposed to be the provider' — Naomi Byler, 37, with three of her four nephews, Judah, 3, Niall, 6, and Levi, 2

‘I know a lot of people see us as an isolated community, like we’re sort of better than the rest of society, but we’re really not. We’re normal humans like everyone else," says Abigail Miller, 17, daughter of Kenneth Miller, one of two pastors in Waterford’s Amish Mennonite community.



The Amish Mennonites are distinct from the Old Order Amish. While they share beliefs based upon the simplicity and practice of the Christian faith, the Amish Mennonites tend to be more tolerant of technology and the wider society.



The Amish Mennonite community near Dunmore East has been growing steadily for the last 19 years, as an outreach programme originating from the larger Amish Mennonite community in the United States. This practice is in keeping with biblical teachings where Jesus Christ told his followers to go out into the world and serve him by serving others, and since the Amish Mennonites originally began in Europe, they are now eager to return to the lands of their ancestors. An effort is made by members to apply the teachings of the Bible, and New Testament especially, in a practical way, every day. Members refrain from drinking and smoking, do not enter the armed forces, do not watch TV or listen to the radio, and dress according to an agreed ‘plain’ dress code.



I ask Abigail if she knows much about the world outside her community. “Not really. I mean, I’ve heard,” she replies pleasantly. Would it interest her to know more? “No, not really, actually,” she tells me softly. “I know I don’t know a lot about it. I’ve been protected from it and I’m thankful for that. Although sometimes you look at society and you see that it is different. You wish that you wouldn’t be different, but once you remember why you’re here, and why you don’t want to be there, that helps a lot. I know this is where God wants me.” Abigail is one of six children and is being homeschooled for her final months of formal education. She is aware of the protection that living in a close community provides: “There is peace here whereas there isn’t peace in a lot of the world. There’s rest and there’s joy, too, that a lot of the world doesn’t experience.” Abigail pauses momentarily. “Of course there’s conflict, but underneath that there’s a peace and you’re just at rest. It’s not like you’re trying to succeed materially. We don’t want to be seeking earthly things. We’re seeking heavenly things, essentially.”



I’m struck by Abigail’s wisdom and obvious sense of self. One by one, as I tot up the different values in my head, I realise that my own priorities, and how I identify myself, are in a completely different realm; heavenly things relegated to the future, when my mortality becomes more of an issue. “You’re so much more free this way,” she adds. Marriage and family life are things that appeal to Abigail, but there is no great rush or master plan. “I wouldn’t just marry anyone, obviously,” she smiles. “It would depend on what his values were. I know my standards are high. They would have to be very similar to mine, but not necessarily of this denomination. I would value, of course, the church that he was going to and if the spirit of God was there and things like that.”



As soon as I gesture towards Abigail’s head covering, she predicts where the question is going. “We’re not feminists,” she smiles. “We would believe that women should be in subjection to men. It’s the headship order, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that?” She interrupts herself to explain the biblical roots of the practice: “Where the man would submit to Christ and the woman would submit to the man, as being her head, and she would also submit to Christ. It’s not like it’s a bondage; it’s just a choice.”



So this is why men and women sit on opposite sides during their Sunday service? “Yes, I suppose,” she concedes, “We value purity a lot.” None of the Amish-Mennonite community here have televisions or radios. “Because of the bad influence,” Abigail explains. But what about fashion, pop culture, make-up — all the things that we have come to associate with teenage girls in particular — do they hold any intrigue for her? “It can be hard to be different,” she replies in a serene, placid tone. “You’d rather just be like everyone else, but I think it comes back to values and that you value inner beauty more than outer beauty or fashion. That is the main thing.”



Pastor Kenneth Miller, 46, Abigail’s father, believes that many people, including the larger Irish community, are searching for some form of faith. “For many people in our modern world, God doesn’t seem at all relevant, and more and more give up on the idea of God completely,” he says. “But we think people are not as much disillusioned with God as they are disillusioned with Christianity as they know it. People are not disappointed with Christ, but with an impotent Christianity that has no practical relevance. People who once mistakenly believed that a life without God is liberating are now discovering that life without God is debilitating. Christ has revolutionised our lives. He is what holds this community together.”



In 1997, the Amish-Mennonite community in Dunmore East bought a shop which accompanies a petrol station on the road out from Waterford. Jaybees is your average newsagent’s shop with a few intrinsically Amish additions: a religious-books corner, crafts, wooden furniture and an old-fashioned bakery.



It is here that I meet Naomi Byler, 37, from Indiana, who works in the community bakery. Naomi followed her sister Ruth to Ireland, as Ruth came to teach at the school, then married Senior Pastor Dan Yoder’s son Nathaniel and settled here. “I visited a number of times,” says Naomi, “Then they asked if I would come over and work in the bakery. So I thought about it and prayed about it. I was a secretary. I worked in an office for 15 years so it’s very different, but it’s been very good. I was ready for a change.”



Naomi believes that her church’s rules have become more relevant as she matures. “Sometimes, as a younger person, you look at the things that maybe your church sees as things that aren’t good for you, spiritually and things,” she explains, “and as a younger person sometimes you don’t see that. You think, ‘Oh, they just don’t want me to enjoy life!’ But as you get older, you kind of understand.”



Though unmarried herself, Naomi is a firm believer in the headship order. “We would feel that the man of the house is supposed to be the provider and we feel it’s very biblical to do that. But if you’re not married then you have to kind of find your place as well. We all do, I guess, if you choose not to be married,” she tells me. While TVs are forbidden, Naomi has been known to watch the odd film. “I find it interesting because it’s a story and things like that,” she reveals. “Not everybody would do that, though, and I don’t know if I would do that with children. I think that if you don’t have a strong spiritual teaching, the lifestyle that those people have off screen can oftentimes be a bad influence.”



Wesley Sensenig, 32, is from Pennsylvania, where he worked at a camp for difficult young people. He came to Ireland with the hope of recreating such a camp here. Wesley and other members of his community have been hard at work. The result? Comeragh Camp, a fully functioning wilderness retreat, which has been used so far by Youthreach, Wytech in Waterford and other youth-training centres. The goal is to some day work with the HSE and Educational Welfare Board, providing an alternative to detention for young people.



“The young people with the most difficult problems often wind up being the young people who don’t really have a place,” Wesley explains, as we make our way through the surrounding forest. “It’s a very democratic group, rather than an autocratic thing, significantly different from the boot-camp model, where it would be about authority and obedience. The main work they do is attend to the really basic things in life, so living out in the forest in structures they build themselves, etc.” The camp would be considered Christian, but Wesley assures me that it is not about preaching. “It is not a religious training programme, but then I bring myself and I would see nature as a creation, so I would talk about it in that sort of sense,” he says. “It’s more an element of who we are. We would see it as more of the way Jesus lived was to go out and help people as best you can.”



Yann Larrieu, 32, is also involved at Camp Comeragh. Yann is different from many of the others in that he was raised in a secular society. “I was 17 and went to the States with my dad. We’re French, but my father worked in Qatar. We went to an auction and I met a Mennonite couple there that really inspired me,” he says. Yann kept in touch with this couple, spending summers working with them at a sawmill in Maryland. “They encouraged me to read the gospels and I discovered the Jesus of the gospels through that,” he explains.



So was it a difficult decision to leave secular, modern society behind? “It was a very easy decision,” Yann smiles. “The warmth of community far surpassed anything that I had before, and that’s not anything against my parents — they were wonderful people, but it was a nuclear family, in a very metropolitan city, no community. Later on, though, a few years after, you start thinking about it a bit more. When you get older, you’re not as generous. Younger people are more generous in giving themselves. You start thinking, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ That happens, but on a whole I think I made the right choice.” Yann has not yet married. “At this point I don’t see it happening,” he tells me. “I think maybe that God has other plans for me.”



On my descent from Comeragh Camp, I meet Ruth Yoder, 38, Naomi’s older sister, out for a walk with her youngest son Dominic. “Number four, four boys,” she tells me quietly, patting little Dominic’s back as he sleeps soundly against her chest. Ruth is quick to point out the relevance of what people might view as some of her community’s more quirky traditions. “There are rules that we agree to, and some of them in the overall picture of life aren’t necessary, but it’s something we’ve agreed to do, and by holding it and doing it together it gives us a strength,” she tells me. “It’s not something that I feel everyone has to do if they want to follow Christ. Some of it’s tradition that’s been passed down, and it’s very strong tradition and a lot of young people look at it and think it’s silly,” she smiles. “I think that people can find Christ in any situation. Our community does not have a monopoly on Christ at all.”



Ruth feels the Amish women’s head covering is of particular importance. “I wear it because I honour men as the leader or provider or protector,” she explains. “People look at it and think. ‘Oh, you’re being oppressed!’ But we’re actually not. It’s like any relationship. My husband and I, we have to talk about things and when we want to do something we have to come to an agreement. The reason I wear it is that I choose to let my husband be the provider and the leader for our family, in the same way that my father was, and that’s not saying that he’s above me. It’s saying that I’m free then to be who I want to be, because he takes the responsibility. I think men like to be honoured and that’s when they can excel.”



Another aspect of the Amish women that struck me was their ability to dress plainly: no make-up, no hair straighteners, no curlers, etc. During the time I spent with them — at times, I admit that I cut back on my own cosmetics to fit in — I began to wonder if this was more of a sacrifice for the women or the men. By casting aside the aids on which many of us women rely, had they overcome the worry and self-esteem issues associated with looking good? Ruth assures me that Amish women have the same body issues as anyone else. “Oh, yes! You have bubbles where you don’t want them and bulges, especially after having children!” she exclaims, “but I would say that in a sense we try to be whole. When I was young I would always compare myself to people I saw walking down the street, and I would sometimes say ‘Oh, thank God I wear skirts!’ because I always felt like the weight I carried was on my legs.



“I think it’s within everybody,” Ruth concludes. “We like the approval of other people, and of men, but as I matured I realised that I wanted my approval from Christ first of all.” Hew Gregory-Smith, 42, was until recently an Anglican priest. After years exploring the Amish Mennonite church, he decided to move his family from Wales, to live within the Dunmore East fellowship. “It was more academic to begin with and now it’s become more practical,” Hew says of the choice. “It’s attractive,” he adds, pausing for thought. “You have your day-to-day obstacles to get over, but it’s a place where the parents have the same vision.” Hew is particularly pleased with the Amish Mennonite school system, which has grown out of a shared vision among the families and is an extension of home education. “I think there’s a lot of emphasis placed on socialisation in public schools, but I don’t see it as particularly positive,” he explains. “I’ll give one incidence. Really, another of my sons finds it much easier to get on with girls here; there’s less sort of giggles and stupidity. You can just get on and play a game, it doesn’t have that sort of innuendo. There’s very little innuendo among the young people here.”



So how do they survive economically? “We’ve basically had to learn to live by the work of our hands,” Hew tells me. “I garden and bake; my wife bakes too.” As if on cue, Hew’s wife appears with a beautiful lemon drizzle cake. “There are some things there are agreement on, like no television, no radio,” Hew continues a couple of minutes later. “You live an interesting life like that. We read papers, though, you’ll be interested to know that,” he laughs. Hew is not yet a church member. “I haven’t signed up, so I still have a radio in the car and I tune into the news sometimes, so there you are, there’s a good confession,” he chuckles. “But I’m going to get rid of it. You don’t get much — just snippets, nothing in detail and then just a general sense of foreboding, really. It doesn’t do you a lot of good.” Another element Hew appreciates is the church’s inclusive approach. “It’s very democratic. If there’s a decision that needs to be made which affects everyone in the community, the pastors come and consult everybody and there’s a vote as to what direction the church will take.”



Yet, community members will not vote in elections or enter the defence forces. The Amish Mennonites firmly believe in ‘turning the other cheek’. “We wouldn’t vote in an election because that has implications too,” Hew warns. “You vote for somebody who may lead your country into war, you’re as responsible as the next person.” Hew’s son, Richard, 16, was baptised into the church just two weeks before we meet. “For church members there is a fairly small list of clothing standards,” he explains, “standards on how you live, or not taking part in armed forces. A number of the people who come here are trying to come out of the secular culture, so there’s a certain amount of going, not too far, but going further than would be needed to keep ourselves separate.”



Back at the school I meet Quentin Weaver, 22. Quentin was born and raised in Texas. He came to Ireland as a volunteer to teach in the Amish Mennonite school and although he has a beard, which all married Mennonite men tend to have, he has yet to take the plunge. “I don’t like shaving all the time, it’s just personal preference,” he laughs heartily when I make the faux pas of assuming he’s off the market.



“I would definitely like to marry and have a family, but I would feel that there are important things to do right now as a single person. I want to travel and figure out who I am first, and I guess God’s calling me to celibacy right now and the sooner I accept that, the better off I’ll be later on,” he laughs. I ask Quentin about his knowledge of the outside world. “I like to be culturally literate,” he replies, becoming notably more pensive. “I like to know what’s going on around me. I’m just curious about what most people are thinking. I wouldn’t like to know certain things, like I wouldn’t want to know what goes on in a nightclub, but I would want to know what kind of songs are popular right now. I wouldn’t listen to them necessarily, but I would kind of know a little bit about them.” Like Yan, Libby Turner, 34, who also teaches at the school, did not grow up in the Amish Mennonite community. “We went to church when I was little. I was probably 11 when I first heard of the Mennonite church and then I was 14 when I decided to join.”



I wonder aloud what Libby makes of the clear gender-defined roles within her church. “I don’t know if I’ve really ever thought about it too much,” she answers softly. “I would say I appreciate it. Like here at school, there are the two of us teachers and Mr Weaver is the one that can lead out and stuff. I don’t have to always take charge and I appreciate that. I think if it’s done properly for ladies to be under, or for men to able to take charge and the ladies to follow a little more, it’s more natural. It just works.” Like so many of the others I met, Libby was willing to leave her destiny in God’s hands. It’s an alien ideal in an increasingly secular Ireland. “I felt like God wanted me here, so I came,” she states with conviction.



“I would like to be married and I would like to have a family, but I suppose my main goal is to follow where God leads me.”



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