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Monday, May 18, 2009

Amish face crisis of faith


Raylee Hayes, 5, rode a wooden horse rocker at a store in Nappanee. Amish deacon Lester Chupp said business is down about 40 percent from a year ago

Job losses force Hoosiers to choose money or tradition

By Tom Coyne
Associated Press

TOPEKA, Ind. -- A part-time construction job strengthened Orva Fry's financial foundation after he was laid off from a recreational vehicle factory. It also kept the 41-year-old Amish father of two on steady spiritual ground.

Another way to make ends meet that Fry briefly considered -- unemployment checks -- went against his faith, which shuns all forms of government assistance.

That Fry even pondered signing up for jobless benefits illustrates a marked shift in this Northern Indiana Amish settlement, the nation's third-largest.

Suffering steep unemployment following a decades-long shift from farming to factory work, a growing number of the area's 23,000 Amish are breaking with centuries of tradition and taking government help to stay afloat, church and economic leaders say.

Bishops who once might have censured those who sought public assistance are reluctantly looking the other way.

"We prefer to supply ourselves, but I told people that if they have no other option and no other way to make ends meet then they can take it," said Paul Hochstetler, bishop of an Amish district east of Goshen.

Of more than two dozen Amish approached recently in Topeka, a town of 1,100 about 40 miles southeast of South Bend, only six would talk of the unemployment situation, and all were reluctant to be identified.

The unemployment rate in the Elkhart-Goshen metropolitan area approached 19 percent in March -- the most recent month for which data are available -- in large part due to the misfortune of RV factories that have laid off thousands of workers. It is the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate and is up 13 points from March 2008, the country's largest increase.

The Amish's refusal to take assistance such as unemployment and welfare is shared by like-minded Anabaptist traditions that grew out of 16th-century German sects that sought to separate themselves from the world, said John Farina, an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. That would include Hutterians, the Church of the Brethren and the Church of the United Brethren.

It's part of a simpler way of life for the Amish, a Christian denomination with about 227,000 members nationwide that uses bicycles or horse-drawn buggies instead of owning cars and avoids connecting to the electrical grid because of a belief that doing so will lead to a dependence on the outside world.

"We want to be producers, to be an overall good to the community and to the nation and not be dependent upon the nation for our livelihood or for the federal or state governments to give us our livelihood," said David Kline, an Amish minister in Mount Hope, Ohio, whose county has the nation's largest Amish population.

For centuries, that has meant taking care of their own, supplying food, shelter and other necessities in times of need. Those who seek outside help can risk being forced to make public confessions in church or told to refrain from taking communion for six months, said Steven Nolt, a Goshen College history professor who has written several books on the Amish.

But tradition has had to bend as Northern Indiana's Amish continue to move away from their roots, becoming heavily reliant on a single industry.

A survey of 3,358 Amish heads of households in Indiana's Elkhart-LaGrange settlement in 2007 found that 53.3 percent earned their living working in factories. In contrast, the economies of the nation's largest Amish centers -- the Holmes County area of Ohio and around Lancaster, Pa. -- focus primarily on small shops, construction trades and, to a lesser extent, farming.

"When the RV industry shut down here as well as the mobile home industry, it hit them really hard," said LeRoy Mast, director of the Menno-Hof, a nonprofit information center in nearby Shipshewana that teaches visitors about the Amish and Mennonites.

"They can't handle the 19 percent unemployment rate on their own because the needs are just so great."

Hochstetler said it is impossible for his church district, where about half the 31 families had people employed in the RV industry, to make up the lost wages. The laid-off Amish are eligible to receive jobless benefits of $50 to $390 a week.