Photo by Bonnie Manning, Feature Photographer
One of the things Leo resident Marilyn Witmer is profoundly grateful for is the way she was raised.
“We were taught to work hard and to have self-discipline, and I appreciate that very much,” said Witmer, who was born into the Amish faith.
While Witmer’s mother was never baptized in the Amish church, her father was, and both left the Amish community before she was born, but continued to raise her in a similar, newly-emerging faith whose members became known as Beachy Amish-Mennonites.
This developing Christian minority group grew out of a faction of Amish who were open to more modern innovations; i.e., phone, auto, farm tractor and electricity. Still verboten were television and radio.
“Before we became Beachy, we had no electricity, no car, no phone and every Sunday we went to church in someone’s home,” explained Witmer, adding the family also far med with horses.
When she was 7 years old, her parents got their first car and tractor. When asked why her parents switched to Beachy, Witmer said it was because they were not allowed to have “lazy backs” on their buggies so they started their own church along with five other couples. Because they dared to leave the strict Amish clan, her family was shunned, but infrequently, they did meet at other relatives’ homes and are still in contact today.
“Lazy backs” refers to Amish buggies have backrests and covered buggies. Today, some sects still forbid backrests and others now allow closed buggies, which are – as expected – very desirable during the harsh Midwest winters.
The new faith also kept the women’s caps and aprons the same (always black, never red or purple, said Witmer) whose chores included farming, cleaning houses, babysitting and other domestic duties.
“My brothers and I finished 9th grade and our parents offered to pay for us to attend high school if we wanted to go but at that time, higher education wasn’t encouraged, so all three of us dropped out,” said Witmer, who added that Amish and Mennonite women are not allowed to cut their hair nor wear pants. Amish men cut their hair by placing a bowl on their heads and cutting around it, and this is done – along with wearing beards – to show they are married because they are not allowed to wear wedding rings.
“When Amish boys turn 16, they get their own horses and buggies, but women do not. Men are the providers and take care of women. During rumspringa, an adolescent rite of passage, both genders are permitted a relaxation of rules to see if they want to remain in the faith or to become ‘English.’”
Younger people have been caught with drugs, alcohol and smoking – and crimes do occur, such as domestic violence, said Witmer.
“Many Amish couples don’t get along, but they stay together because the Bible says to do so. Because of this, there have been extramarital affairs. Also, there is prevalent incest with fathers and their children and grandfathers with grandchildren. Most kids don’t tell, but some have, and an arrest is then made. I truly think that a result of this inbreeding results in many medical cases among the community. (Writer’s note: a quick Google check shows that studies have long been done on this very mutation.)
“Our religion encourages turning the other cheek but not all members practice that. Some even have their own vigilante justice.”
Most Amish use cell phones, said Witmer, and some even have landline phones. “Even though they’re not allowed to have electricity, they do use their generators for that, and a lot of them even have computers.”
When she was in her early 20s, Witmer turned Mennonite, and eight years ago, she became discouraged in her faith and wanted more in terms of a strong relationship with Jesus, so she sought another pathway.
“I had a friend who went to visit friends at Keefer Creek Baptist Church in the old Irene Byron Center, and when I heard the minister there, I felt that was where I belonged, and I still feel that way,” said Witmer, who drives her own car, tills her garden, cuts the grass with her lawn tractor and tends to her household where her mother resides with her. Witmer’s almost nonexistent spare time would ideally be spent bicycling, walking, reading, and fishing.
“Also, the Beachy, Amish and Mennonites do not watch movies, but since I now attend a Baptist church I can ultimately enjoy movies,” said Witmer, who when younger played youth group sports such as volleyball and softball.
“One thing I appreciate about the Amish and Mennonites is, if you’re in trouble, they’re always right there to help and they are always ready with lots of food. Another thing is if you want to visit someone, you don’t have to call; you can just drop in and you’ll be welcome,” said Witmer.
If curious readers would like to attend a Plain Anabaptist service like the Beachy Amish-Mennonites, they should visit www.beachyam.org, fill out an online form and the nearest church location will be emailed to them. The website familiarizes the reader with the Christian beliefs, behaviors and background of the faith. Visitors will be made welcome and most likely invited to stay for the noon meal afterwards.