Blog changes, phone booths, and an Old Order Bernie Madoff?

The blog will be relatively quiet for the next few days, as we are working on a few changes here.  The blog platform will be switched from Typepad to WordPress–which is a good thing, and something I’ve wanted to do for a long while.

WordPress seems to be a much more versatile platform (any WordPress users out there concur?).  But, expect Amish America to remain a simple format, similar design, with access to all old posts, etc.  I’m excited about the change and will have more details to come.

In the meantime, there are a few stories that have gotten my attention recently.

Haiti Relief Auction

The Sarasota Amish and Mennonite auction broke all records this past weekend, quadrupling the typical take to net $400,000.  If you missed it, over the weekend I posted a bit on Amish charity auctions.

Amish phone booth
End of the line for phone booths

This interesting story (no longer online) about the decline of the phone booth in modern society got me thinking about Amish phone ‘booths’, or shanties, common in many communities as a way to have telephone access yet preserve the boundary between the world and the sanctuary of the home.

An Old Order Bernie Madoff?

Also, Plain people in Lancaster County and elsewhere have been hit with what looks like could end up being their own version of a Bernie Madoff-esque scandal.  A Mennonite businessman in Lancaster County has apparently run an investment scheme which has left many investors in the Plain community high and dry.

While some Amish are involved, most of the 1,500 investors are apparently Wenger, or ‘Team’ (named so for their use of horse-drawn transportation) Mennonites. This Lancaster Sunday News piece (no longer online) details the very unusual course this story has taken.

The at-times very direct appeals of Sensenig to his investors (“Please do not go to the law!”) would shock most with money in the game, yet in Old Order communities, instinctive communal trust and an aversion to lawsuits prevented many from attempting to extract their investments until it was apparently too late.

On this point, I think this comment by Steve Nolt nails it:

“This is a classic example of an Old Order community relying on one another for advice and ideas,” said Dr. Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana, and author or co-author of nine books on Amish and Mennonite culture. “Here’s someone from your community who promises something good, and we know who he is, we know where he lives, we know he’s not going to take off for the Bahamas with our money.

“There’s a general level of trust,” Nolt said. “That can be a real strength. Or a real weakness.”

Strong relationships, especially as seen in Amish and other close-knit communities, can be powerful enough to create real advantages in business.  But when those bonds are exploited, a lot of people can be hurt–and when the culprit is someone deeply woven into your own community, the potential for damage is even greater.  With a possible $65 million in losses to investors, that seems to be the case here.

I asked an Amish friend for input.  He shares:  “These kind of schemes
have been around as long as I can remember.  What is different is that
a plain person is the operator of the scheme rather than the victim.”
He also mentions a few other schemes in which Amish have fallen victim,
including a well-publicized pigeon breeding operation.  Another
difference, he notes, is that “these usually don’t make any ripples in the media but this time it
has, because I think in part anyway, more plain people have been willing
to talk about it.”

…and Amish lawsuits?

The story is also remarkable for another reason:  an Amish lawsuit (or rather, suits).  Apparently two Amish investors have filed suit against Sensenig, mirroring a recent report of something similar possibly occurring in Ohio.

Seeing legal action as a form of violence, Amish are averse to filing lawsuits, an act which is generally seen as grounds for excommunication.  The fact that a few Amish have brought legal action could be seen as a small erosion of this pacifist principle, on a limited and localized basis.

One of the potential litigants described in the article, Leroy Fisher, was apparently a laborer who deposited his life savings with Sensenig.  Fisher’s actions apparently caused “a backlash” within his community.  Fisher ended up dropping his suit after being repaid, but two others have gone forward.

But does this mean the Amish are likely to “change policy” and start using the courts en masse to protect their interests?

Highly doubtful, but could be seen as more evidence of how closer ties to the world–stimulated at least in part by the culture-wide shift from agriculture to business–have introduced modern modes of thinking and resolving financial problems to Old Order society.

But, that doesn’t mean there definitely won’t be a slow erosion of this principle over time.  As my friend puts it, “as the Plains move from farming to business,the necessity of lawsuits are becoming more of a reality.”

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    1. Rick

      Well, if it isn’t the phone shanty on Orchard Road in New Wilmington! Your pic, Erik? It might be 3 miles from my sister’s, and certinly not the most attractive one around.

      Some intersting stories there – thx.

    2. Doug

      No doubt that the following verse (partial quote) is well known by the Amish:

      1 Corinthians 6: “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another

    3. Beth

      Great articles, Erik! Can’t wait to see the new blog ~ I hope it’s the perfect fit for you. I only know Blogger and am amply confused with that so I can be no help, but I’ve heard good things about WordPress so I’m sure it’ll be a good change. Have a good day ~ ?

    4. Rick, so I’m in the right neighborhood–yes that is a rough looking one. If you click on the ‘Amish phone booths’ link you can see another one from the West side of the settlement, can’t remember the road name.

    5. Mike

      The Amish Bernie Madoff – I do believe I once bought a drill press from that guy. 🙂

    6. garai


    7. Dave Carrig

      In regards to switching over to wordpress – I used to have a wordpress blog but had to shut it down because I would always get re-routed to porn sites just about everytime I went to make a post there. It’s been a few years – so hopefully they have the bugs worked out. I just wasn’t very happy with wordpress, Eric – I hope it is better now…

    8. Hi Dave, sounds like a very bizarre experience you had–maybe there were some issues at one point but from what I understand WordPress is basically the premier blogging platform and I don’t expect anything like that with mine.

      I’ve already really enjoyed the versatility and ability to change design on WordPress as I’ve worked with it the last few days–it just seems to offer a lot more than typepad does.

      Though there is a learning curve–I think typepad is easier to use from the start, but wordpress simply lets you do more once you get the hang of it (which I’m still doing!).

    9. Magdalena

      I agree with Doug as above, and as a devout Plain, non-Anabaptist Christian, have had to contend with this myself, especally after my husband was badly injured. We chose not to sue, but with resulting great financial hardship.

      But we have also been in situations within the church where anyone else might have sued, and did not, because it would cause strife and division amongst the brethren. There is the two kingdoms principle, and we chose to follow that.

      I believe though that sometimes the lawsuit is necessary to make public the misdeed and protect others from the same malfactor. Even if the suit is for a nominal amount rather than recovery of lost capital, it creates a situation under law that prohibits the continued behaviour.

      I use wordpress, and like it, as it is very easy to manage. I’ve had trouble posting photos at times, but assume they have that straightened out, although the problem was most likely operator error.

    10. Amish finance and two kingdoms principles

      Doug and Madgdalena, thanks for adding some context here. This principle is taken very seriously by Amish which is why it is surprising to see(though, perhaps in some ways, it’s not).

      And Magdalena, I know a lot about ‘operator error’, and expect to encounter a few of those myself once i get on WP! But hopefully you’ll all have patience with the operator here (;

      And Beth, thanks for your wishes–we’re going to keep the design quite similar, but there are a lot of plugins and things on there that I feel can make the whole blogging experience better (from both sides).

    11. Rooster Shamblin would you please spend a few minutes and read my blog. I have been raising 50 breeds of chickens for 40 years.

    12. Hello, Eric.
      First, on WordPress, I have been using it for a couple of years. Never had any problems, and it is quite versatile.
      On suing, besides going smack against the two kingdoms principle, taking people to court also runs amock of the idea of the 3rd baptism of Anabaptism– the baptism of blood, or suffering. One early Anabaptist even wrote “Righteousness can only come through suffering [evil].” In short, he meant that we can only return good for evil, if we have had evil done to us. If we have not been treated evil, we cannot return good for evil. Therefore, to live out the righteousness that Jesus laid before us, we have to pass through evil, so that we have an opportunity to do good in return for the evil done us. If all we ever get from others in this life is blessings, we can only return blessing for blessing. But when we pass through the “baptism” of having evil done to us, then–and only then–do we have the opportunity to return good for evil and produce the true righteousness of Christ.
      Ok, maybe my theological exposition has confused everyone. 🙂
      But if you think it through, it is a very powerful thought, one that historic Anabaptism held strongly to.

    13. David

      It sounds to me that this particular situation is being taken care of by his church and the government. It is regrettable, but I can see how someone from a plain background could get themselves in the situation that Mr. Sensenig did. There is a lack of knowledge about the world within the plain community due to lack of formal education and contact with the outside. Not to say that some could not run a very large business; there are some brilliant businessmen among them, for instance, the founder of CHI Overhead Door Company in Arthur, IL. But there is also an innocence coupled with an “I can do it myself” attitude that can cause problems. There is also the trust within the community that contributed to this problem.

      Still, I do not see the need for lawsuits in this case. Those who have lost “everything” will probably be viewed as those who have any other form of financial need. I think this is part of what is motivating some within the community to be critical of those within the community who have taken out lawsuits against Mr. Sensenig. The church will help those who have lost everything to get back to some financial stability, or they should. The problem will be if a number of members of one church have lost everything. My guess is that those who have taken out lawsuits will not long be members of the Old-Order community. They no longer have the mindset that will keep them there.

      Nor should this be viewed as the beginning of a trend, necessarily. Yes, the plain people groups are under more stress as a result of moving away from farming, but lawsuits will be a sign of the end of their way of life, not something that becomes accepted into their way of life. As the person who quoted 1 Cor. 6 points out, it just does not fit the Christian faith they say they have. Personally, I believe that these stresses are causing some to see the need for a real faith rather than a birthright way of life. When they have this real faith, they experience the truth of 1 Cor. 6 and cannot go to law, because now it is something inside of them, and not just a church rule.

      From someone who lives in the heart of Old-Order Mennonite territory, and not too far from Mr. Sensenig.

    14. Hey Mike, I think you laid that out very clearly–thanks. It is a profound thought.

      And appreciate your input on WordPress. Still getting the hang of it but liking it.

    15. Legalism and Old Order Christianity

      David, a point well made. Lawsuits and a legalistic mentality not being compatible with an Old Order manifestation of Christianity. For that reason I expect these will remain isolated cases. Though there may be some usage of legal means around the edges, as in the case of hiring lawyers to send claim letters to debtors, but stopping short of actual suing.

      And you mentioned CHI, which of course employs a good number of Amish and non-Amish in the Arthur community. I’m trying to recall though, was its founder Amish at the time, or Amish-born? It is an impressive business and job-provider in that neck of the woods.

    16. David

      Hello Erik. I don’t remember the name of the founder of CHI. I will have to ask. Yes, he is Old-Order Amish, back then and now. I believe that he had to sell CHI four to five years ago as it was getting “too big” for his church. He has also started several other companies that needed to be turned over to others for the same reason. I also heard that he is a habitual coffee drinker…

      I am not sure if the expansion to something like 750,000 sq. ft. was before or after the sale. I also think CHI employs perhaps 500 local people. They are one of the largest overhead door companies in the United States. The founder started with nothing.

      Also, thanks for your blog on the Amish.

    17. Thanks for getting back on that Dave, now that you mention it that sounds about right, a get too large and have to sell out situation.

      Selling books in the Arthur community a few years back I had a number of Amish CHI employees among my customers. For that matter doors and Amish seem to go together, especially if you consider Wayne-Dalton out in Mt. Hope, Ohio.

      Hey and I appreciate you reading!

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