Not Fit to Print for Amish

The community may grieve its slain children, but its newspaper will focus, as it always has, on ripening apples, shifting families -- renewal.

Los Angeles Times/October 7, 2006
By Ellen Barry

Millersburg, Pennsylvania — All week, in Amish communities around Nickel Mines, it was possible to see journalists in a hurry. Television producers strode down country roads, yakking on cellphones; reporters clustered around mourners; photographers with zoom lenses clambered onto cars, hoping to luck out and capture an embrace.

So it was notable that Elam Lapp, the editor of the weekly Amish newspaper Die Botschaft, had such an air of calm. When the Oct. 9 edition of Die Botschaft arrives in the mailboxes of its subscribers next week, they will find the kind of news they have come to expect: news of pitchfork accidents and appendectomies, tame foxes and the corn harvest, newborn babies and painful fishing experiences.

Although the Oct. 16 paper will reflect the loss of life in Nickel Mines, where a man burst into a one-room schoolhouse on Monday and shot 10 Amish girls, killing five, Lapp hopes not to devote too many column inches to the incident. Long-standing policy at Die Botschaft prohibits the publication of stories about murder, as well as stories about war, love or religion.

"We might mention that it happened," said Lapp, 53, an Old Order Amishman who edits the paper from his family farm.

Amish newspapers are not like the one you hold in your hand. Die Botschaft, which has a circulation of 11,000 across the country, is written not by reporters, but by 600 unpaid Old Order Amish and Mennonite "scribes" who write down happenings in their communities. The category of information that most newspaper editors consider news — crime, dissent, politics, warfare, disaster — is absent.

Never has this contrast been more pointed than this week. Lapp is a daily reader of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, so he knows the details of Charles Carl Roberts' attack on the schoolhouse — for instance, that he shot each girl at close range, execution-style, with a 9-millimeter handgun. But Lapp sees no reason to pass this information on to his readers, who need, above all, to forgive and move on.

"Soon it's going to drop out of the scene," he said. "It's really not important to point out all the knickknack items." When scribes' letters come in referring to a gunman, for instance, "we just talk about the tragedy in the schoolhouse," he said. "We don't want to get into too much talk about gunmen."

A typical edition of Die Botschaft — a Pennsylvania Dutch term meaning "The Message" — consists of 50 to 80 pages of chatty letters sent in from rural outposts. There are no pictures, so each page is a solid block of text. But that does not slake the enthusiasm of Die Botschaft's subscribers, who pay $32 a year and pore through it for news of their scattered families.

Letters in the Oct. 2 issue described Eli Gingerich's cataract operation and the difficulty of drying clothes outside when it is raining. A scribe from Monticello, Mo., wrote this:

"Levi Stutzman had a bout with a big, mad male hog. That knocked him down, ripping his arm open with his tusk. They, with the help of a neighbor, took him down and gave him an attitude adjustment, also cutting his tusks off."

From Clearbrook, Minn., came the news of Aunt Rhoda Sturgis' cancer and the adorable behavior of Ida Stutzman, 2, who "emptied a box of apples at Dannie J.'s where the women had work day, crawled into the box and fell asleep. Grandma thinks that was cute and thinks Grandma Stutzman would think it cute too."

Death is recorded but not dwelt upon, as in the case of Emanuel King, a 12-year-old hit by a car on Sept. 24 while riding his scooter:

"His birthday was in November, so he didn't get to be a teenager," wrote a scribe from Paradise, Pa. "Oh, how soon one's plans can change and we think of yous so much. He was our son Allen's age, and only two months younger. Guess that's why it hit us so much! Keep looking up!

"On Sunday, we had a very relaxing forenoon at home, then in the afternoon went to Merv and Ada Marie Lapp to see the precious bundle, Anna Marie."

For the 32 years that Die Botschaft has existed, its editors have discouraged scribes from writing on subjects that are morbid, controversial or titillating.

The paper was founded for strict Old Order Amish and Old Order Team Mennonites, who use horses for transportation and refuse to allow telephones or electricity in their homes. There was already an Amish newspaper — "The Budget," which began publication in 1890 — but it printed writings from more liberal New Order Amish and Mennonite groups that split from the larger church in the 19th century.

Offended at what he saw as proselytizing, a prominent Old Order Amishman named Andrew Kinsinger decided to begin his own paper in Lancaster County, said Jim Weaver, who worked as its publisher. Kinsinger hired Weaver, who is not Amish, to edit and print the paper, tasks that require the use of forbidden technology.

Over the next decades, Weaver met regularly with an editorial committee of six Amishmen, who set a strict standard for what could appear. Weaver, 71, remembers one meeting at a farmhouse when a committee member asked whether it was true that he had started receiving submissions by fax.

"Any Amishman who runs a business has a fax," Weaver said. "An old guy who was on the committee said, 'What is a fax?' I said, 'It's like a copy machine but the copy comes out in a different place.' He said, 'You mean in a different room?' I said, 'In a different country.' He looked at me so funny. He sat there quite a while. Then he said, 'That's too modern for us.' " In short order, a new rule was added to the paper's editorial guidelines: No faxed letters accepted.

Other times, the board's objections were over content. A few weeks before the 2004 presidential election, conflicts between pacifists and supporters of President Bush became so heated that the committee decided to ban discussion of politics in the paper, Weaver said. "Once everyone got stewed up about something, they would say we couldn't put in any more about it," Weaver said.

Weaver remembers consulting with the editorial board over whether to print Radio Shack advertisements featuring cellphones; although cellphones are still discouraged by the church, many Amish carry them. The committee refused the ads. Two years ago, when the committee decided to replace him with Lapp, Weaver said he was relieved: "Even though it was profitable, it was a big headache."

Lapp now runs the business and oversees a staff of seven. Like all mature Old Order Amishmen, he is bearded; he wears his gray hair long and in a bowl cut. At an outbuilding down the hill from his farmhouse, he has laid out templates for the Oct. 16 edition, pasting up advertisements for quilt batting, homeopathic remedies and buggy repair services, among other products.

Die Botschaft is printed and mailed out on Mondays; because of the ban on electronic equipment, the editorial process is a bit tortured. Every week, Lapp receives about 400 letters in the mail, and then sends them out to non-Amish (or "English," as the Amish have it) employees to be typed. Lapp edits the galleys and returns the texts to his English colleagues, who take them to the printer. By the time the news reaches subscribers, it is one to two weeks old.

Lapp said he rarely has to edit out objectionable material, although typographical errors, he said, "can create words not fit to express." And this week he did red-pencil a section of a letter from an elderly correspondent in Thompsonville, Pa., who described in remarkably vivid detail the 1889 murder of an Amishman, Christian Yoder, at the hands of a "vicious robber gang."

Discussing the scribe's lapse, he caught the eye of his 15-year-old son, Chester, who works for him as the newspaper's advertising sales representative. "Her lamp must be getting thin," Lapp said, and they both cracked up.

Lapp has 11 children. As he talked, his 5-year-old daughter, Miriam, was sitting beside him, drawing with a black marker. She had two teeth coming in, and her hair was parted in the middle and pinned in a tiny, gold-blond bun at the back of her head. Every time she turned to her father, interrupting him, he stopped what he was saying, smiled at her and answered.

When Lapp returned to the subject of the killings, it was as if a weight descended on him. His brother, who lives near Nickel Mines, had attended viewings of the bodies and left a message on Lapp's voicemail (he has a phone for his business, although, in accordance with Old Amish law, there is none in his home). The voicemail described the scene inside the schoolhouse in such awful terms that Lapp erased the message "because I really didn't want anyone to hear it."

"I felt sick after listening to the message," Lapp said. "There are facts that we really don't want to repeat."

It was hard to disagree with him. Three days after the murders, the facts of the case had already been repeated to numbness. There seemed nothing more to say about Roberts' malignance, or about the vulnerability of 10 small girls in pinafores, lined up for execution. And yet the reports kept going out from Nickel Mines, in gory detail, beaming out to every corner of the world. Once heard, the details of the crime stick in the head and are hard to banish.

What a relief it will be, then, for a reader of Die Botschaft to open the newspaper next week and learn that the goldenrod is blooming, that the corn is tasseled and turning brown, that the trees in the apple orchard are heavy with fruit. Lapp has just begun to receive the letters for the Oct. 16 edition of the newspaper. So far, they are shorter than usual. People do not feel like writing, he said.

"I even have a problem with a pen right now," he said. "Paper will hold still for anything you write on it. In such a grieving time now, it really concerns me of writing the right things, so you don't hurt somebody."

He shared one letter. It details a move to the former home of Daniel and Mabel Newswanger, and then, with no other comment, repeats this thought from Mennonite author Peter J. Dyck: "Forgiving is a serious business because it is basically for our own spiritual, emotional and physical benefit. We may or may not establish a new relationship with the person who injured us; that is not the heart of forgiveness. When we forgive, we finally stop hurting ourselves, hand the whole matter over to God, and believe what he says: Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord."

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