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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.

October 07, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

MILLERSBURG, Pa. — 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.

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