It is often believed that the Amish shunning rules are universal throughout all Amish communities and if someone leaves they are shut out of their family and community forever. In reality, rules vary widely from one community to another, from those who adhere to “strict shunning” to those who don’t believe in it.
Strict shunning can be very traumatic. For someone to be told by their parents that they may never come home to visit, and “please don’t come to my funeral,” is understandably experienced as a rejection.
Some who leave the Amish are never shunned because they had not been baptized into the church, their parents refused to shun them, or they joined another church (usually Mennonite) and their original community “lifted the Bann.”
And there are those in between, which is what I experienced when I left my community. I was the first baptized church member to leave our district in quite a few years, so it wasn’t clear how strict the bishop would be, though we soon found out. During my first visit to my parents, David (my boyfriend at the time) and I ate at the table with my family. My parents were criticized for that, so the next time we visited, we ate at a separate table, about six inches away from the family table.
Here is a photo taken during that first visit David and I made to my parents’ house.
Several weeks later, my mother sent a letter saying that she and my father had made a public confession for having eaten with us. She wrote, “I know you will say we needn’t have, but at our age, we need to obey the rules of the church.” During subsequent visits, David and I arrived between meals to avoid the issue.
Once we were married, David was shunned right along with me, even though he was never Amish. There were five things my family and community members could not do with me: eat with me, accept gifts from me, do business with me, visit me in my home, or ride in my car (though they can ride in yours). That my parents could never visit me and see the life I had chosen, was by far the hardest of these. But at least I did not experience strict shunning, so I could still visit them.
When my father died in 2004 and my mother in 2005, my family and I attended their funerals. Even though I was officially shunned, I was welcomed by extended family and community members alike, which I was very grateful for. It was a fitting closing of the Amish chapter of my life.
Saloma Miller Furlong spent her first twenty-three years in the Amish community of Geauga County, Ohio. She is the author of two books, Why I Left the Amish and Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds. She appeared in two Emmy-nominated PBS documentaries “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned” that premiered on American Experience. She writes about issues at the intersection between the two cultures that have been published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Watertown Daily Times. She is the author of the blog, About Amish.
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