Friday 19 December 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
'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.”

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.

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