Amish alarmed by teen drug use Arrest of two youths prompts evaluation of 'timeout' tradition

July 09, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PARADISE TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Just as the tour books promise, the hills in Lancaster County roll gently, and pastures glisten when the sun sets right.

Come relax in this sublimely perfect land, visitors are told, and you can glimpse the Amish, the honest-living, God-fearing people who farm this land frozen in history, wearing simple smocks, shunning creature comforts such as cars and electricity and chugging alongside whizzing cars in their horse-drawn buggies.

But that mythical image was shaken last week, when two Amish men stood before a federal judge in Philadelphia to be arraigned on charges of dealing drugs to their own community. The drugs, federal officials say, were bought from members of a biker gang called the Pagans.

Even more startling has been the buzz emanating from the Amish community since the indictments were disclosed a couple of weeks back: that the arrests reflect a broader drug problem among youths in the conservative religious sect.

"We may dress a little different," said a local Amish man, swatting a fly away from his beard on a road outside the village of Strasburg, a favorite tourist stop. "But we're not a group of people who cannot make mistakes. We're human beings."

In particular, the arrests of Abner King Stoltzfus, 23, and AbnerStoltzfus, 24, who are not related, have opened a window on a long-cherished Amish ritual that some say has gone awry. The ritual, called "timeout" or "running around," is intended to give Amish youths the chance to indulge in worldly pleasures before they decide whether to join the church and begin a life of strictly observed restraint.

For some, "timeout" has meant merely playing a radio. Others have gone so far as to sample alcohol or marijuana. But in the past few years, sect members say, some youths have increasingly made hard drugs -- cocaine and methamphetamine -- part of the ritual.

Parents on alert

In September, about 20 Amish parents circulated a letter warning fellow parents to be alert to signs of drug problems.

"If we could see all the saddened faces at mental hospitals and jails just within our area that have come from addiction, I believe we would realize in our hearts there is a better way," the letter read.

One parent said that some leaders of the county's 20,000 Amish were appalled by the idea of raising the subject at church meetings. "Some ministers and bishops thought it was horrible," said the parent, a produce farmer. "But since this all happened, they may have a different outlook. They just didn't think it was that bad."

Warned recently by their bishops to avoid drawing attention to themselves, most Amish speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.

Amish leaders are being forced to re-evaluate their time-honored traditions and to consider whether their ways have fallen victim to the area's changing demographics.

In recent years, as commercialization in Lancaster County has squeezed the supply of farmable land, the Amish have entered other professions like carpentry or construction, which have meant more contact with outsiders. With hotels, outlet malls and restaurants springing up, many new social problems are seeping in. In a county with its share of drug problems and crime, Lancaster's city schools now have metal detectors.

"It's sad that people from all over respect us for what we are supposed to be, and we're not living up to it," said the Amish man in Strasburg. "They have higher standards for us than they should."

Trouble with the law

In the wake of the drug arrests, the Amish have been besieged by the media and thrust into a harsh national spotlight, a painful experience for a people who treasure privacy.

While federal agents say the Amish played a small role in the drug ring -- a handful of Pagans were arrested on more serious charges -- it is the first known federal drug indictment involving the Old Order, the most conservative portion of the Amish community. Linda Vizi, a special agent with the FBI's Philadelphia branch, called the indictment "unusual."

"We go where the investigation takes us, and the road led us down a path to the Amish," Vizi said. "It points to the fact that drugs permeate many communities."

John F. Pyfer Jr., the lawyer for Abner Stoltzfus, who has pleaded not guilty, acknowledged the existence of drug activity in the community. "They do the same dumb, stupid things," he said. "That's why we call them teen-agers."

His client's co-defendant has also pleaded not guilty. They face trial in October.

Last weekend in Gap, a town near the Stoltzfuses' homes, Brian Kopp, an auto parts dealer, said he was not surprised by the arrests, considering how rowdy the Amish dances can become during the "hoedowns" that Amish youths hold during timeouts. "Some of those kids party," Kopp said. "They carry on pretty heavy."

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