Documentary Examines the Amish Practice of Shunning

A new documentary explains why the Amish church practices shunning and reveals the struggles and sacrifices experienced by some of those who have left the Amish community.

The film, titled "The Amish: Shunned," aired on PBS on Tuesday as part of the award-winning "American Experience" series of documentaries. It examines the lives of seven people who chose to leave their Amish lives and communities behind.

Those who leave an Amish community can be excommunicated from the church and are sometimes completely cut off from seeing their own family. The goal of shunning, as one person interviewed in the film states, is to help people who are disobedient to become repentant, though it also serves to keep them from having a negative influence on the rest of the community.

"It's the disobedient people who leave the Amish church," an unidentified Amish man said in the film. "They wanted something that was not allowable so they just moved on."

"If we're not obedient, we will fall by the wayside," he added. "But how can you be obedient when you don't have any rules? Some people don't understand our church rules and they don't need to. It's not necessary that you people understand all the church rules that we have – that's our thing. When we lose obedience we lose the church."

Those who were featured in the documentary shared how and why they left the Amish culture and explained how doing so impacted their relationships with their families. Some of them also spoke about issues of faith.

Saloma, an ex-Amish woman who was interviewed for the film, said: "When I went to my first communion service the bishop said, 'Each individual grain must give up its individuality to become part of this loaf of bread. And in that same way each of us must give up our individuality to become part of the community.' I remember thinking to myself, 'I hope I'm one of those grains that falls off the grindstone. I don't want to be ground up.'"

The rules in an Amish community are rigid, and those who leave are believed to be at risk of ultimately going to hell. Joe, a former Amish man, said in the film that he left and returned to the Amish a total of seven times before he ultimately left the community for good. During one of his stints away from the Amish, he says, a friend used the Bible to show him that he could only get to heaven through Jesus Christ.

"To the Amish, Jesus alone is not enough," said Joe. "Working, trying your best, following the rules and traditions of the forefathers – if you do it all just right then hopefully you'll make it into heaven."

In some cases, being shunned means a person is totally excommunicated and is not allowed to attend even family weddings or funerals. Naomi, who was also interviewed for the documentary, says she is fortunate to be able to visit her family, even if she does have to dress in Amish clothes when she does so.

Naomi was educated in a one-room school house and graduated at 13 years old with an eighth grade education, she says. One summer, while visiting Florida and beginning to experience life outside of the Amish community, she started working in a nursing home and began wanting to become a nurse. She faced a tough choice, however, because pursuing a college degree was forbidden in her Amish community.

"Honoring your father and mother is really important to the Amish culture," she said. "And it's kind of hard to really know: When do you seek God's calling over what your parents are telling you what to do?"

She decided to leave home and pursue a nursing degree, which she eventually completed.

Several people shown in the film have worked to help others who have left the Amish community to assimilate into the broader American culture. Naomi ran a fundraiser to provide scholarships to former Amish who want to pursue an education. Saloma helped a woman with her transition out of Amish culture, though that woman eventually went back to her family. Joe and his wife, who consider themselves "missionaries to the Amish," have an apartment in their basement where former Amish can stay while learning to assimilate.

"The Amish: Shunned" is a follow-up of sorts to another "American Experience" film, "The Amish." The documentary's website says there are 40 different types of Amish, and rules vary from one group to another. It also says the Amish population has doubled in the last 20 years, and as of 2012 there were about 265,000 Amish in North America.