Amish Mafia? Hogwash, say Lancaster locals

Lark and Michael McCarley at their bed-and-breakfast in Lancaster. They ignored "Amish Mafia" until producers wanted to stage an explosion nearby.
Lark and Michael McCarley at their bed-and-breakfast in Lancaster. They ignored "Amish Mafia" until producers wanted to stage an explosion nearby. (BRADLEY C BOWER / For The Inquirer)
Posted: August 24, 2014

LANCASTER - For a year, Lark and Michael McCarley simmered silently over the arrival of Amish Mafia in their community.

The couple own Lovelace Manor, a bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of town, and found the reality show that depicts black-clothed young men terrorizing neighbors distasteful, offensive and an affront to their many Amish friends.

The final straw was the phone call last winter from a TV producer who wanted to blow up a vehicle in the small parking lot behind their restored Second Empire mansion, next to the aviary housing several prized doves. The McCarleys later discovered the exploding car would be featured on the season finale of the popular Discovery Channel show, which purports to depict real-life events of armed Amish vigilantes.

"We had basically ignored the show until that point," said Lark McCarley. "But that was when we realized how much the network was infiltrating this area to do such outrageous staged scenes for the show. We definitely wanted no part of it."

Now they are part of a movement that took off this summer, counting elected officials, hundreds of churches and businesses among its supporters, to convince the Discovery Channel to cancel the show.

"It hit a nerve," said Mary Haverstick, a Lancaster-based filmmaker who created the website RespectAmish.org and is leading the effort. "We tapped into something that was unsaid."

Amish Mafia premiered in 2012 and quickly became a cable hit. Now preparing for a fourth season, the show centers on a foursome who take on alleged wrongdoers with strong-arm tactics and sometimes violence - such as torching the car of a non-Amish man illegally renting vehicles to Amish teens.

The Discovery Channel maintains on its website that the characters and situations - albeit reenactments - are based on real events. But experts familiar with the Lancaster Amish and Mennonite communities say there is no such thing as an Amish Mafia.

Haverstick and others also say the show doesn't reflect the real Lancaster - sprawling countryside dotted with farmsteads and vast fields of corn, soybeans and wheat - or its 30,000 Amish residents.

Even worse, she said, was targeting a tight-knit conservative community that's traditionally averse to publicity, has no centralized religious structure or an advocacy group to fight back.

"A show called 'Jewish Mafia' would be seen as problematic," Haverstick said. "The Amish deserve a voice of protection."

Still, killing the program, due to resume airing this winter, will likely be an uphill climb.

The success of Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish has led to more Amish-themed shows including Amish Haunting - a reality horror show - which premiers this fall on Discovery.

In an email, a Discovery Channel spokeswoman declined to comment.

But in Lancaster and throughout the state, political leaders and others have been condemning the show for what they say is "bigotry" and "a potentially damaging portrayal" of the Amish.

Gov. Corbett, along with members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation and other officials, signed a letter to Discovery Channel asking officials to pull the show and sponsors to drop their support.

Corbett said some reporters have questioned why he would speak out on the issue.

"I say 'Wouldn't you write a letter if it was any other ethnic group?'" said the governor in an interview. "It's insulting."

It's not clear how the Amish themselves view the brouhaha. One, a man named Jake who asked only to be identified by his first name, said he had not seen the show and had no desire to.

"I know it's not legit. I was kinda on the sidelines cheering it would go away faster than it came," he said. Jake said he appreciated the rising opposition against the show. Given the opportunity to watch a neighbor's television, he said he'd prefer to peek at a football game. "An Eagles game - all the boys love that," he said.

Lancaster visitors are both intrigued and frightened by the show, McCarley said. Some want to see Amish Mafia landmarks, while the show's blurred fact-and-fiction lines have left other visitors afraid to leave their rooms after dark.

Donald Kraybill, an author who is considered among the nation's foremost authorities on Anabaptist faiths, including the Amish, says the show is a completely false "assault" on the Amish.

"The fundamental values of Amish society are pacifistic and harmonious, following the teachings of Jesus and simple, peaceful living," said Kraybill, a fellow at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. "The central theme of the show is violence and retaliation. It turns those key values upside down."

The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau say the show damages the perception of Lancaster beyond the county.

"They say any publicity is good publicity, but I don't think this holds true," said Joel Cliff, public relations director for the convention bureau, which represents 700 businesses, including some that are Amish-owned. "The imagery of the Amish community broadcast to a broader public bears little to no reality to what we see, so maybe we should be shunning that publicity."

The RespectAmish supporters asked businesses to consider not allowing Discovery production crews to film on their properties.

Some have argued that Discovery Channel is exercising its free speech rights, while opponents counter that the show violates the religious rights of the Amish.

One area columnist accused business groups of being hypocritical for attacking Amish Mafia while engaging in their own form of exploitation for profit. The Amish are the leading Lancaster attraction, drawing eight million visitors a year and pumping $2 billion into state and local coffers.

Brad Igou, president of the Amish Experience, organized an " Amish Mafia Exposed" tour months ago and soon received a letter from Discovery Channel threatening him with trademark infringement.

"A lot of people who come here from around the world don't know what to believe," said Igou. "I'm glad to see people taking a stand."

Business leaders say there's a difference between what Amish Mafia is doing and the smorgasbords, craft shops and farm tours historically promoted as Amish tourist attractions, themselves often run by Amish.

"This is the reason to come to Lancaster and it is done so with degree of respect for the culture and recognition of the way they live," said Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, which represents 2,300 members. "The latest reality shows couldn't be further from the truth."

aworden@phillynews.com

717-783-2584 @inkyamy

www.inquirer.com/phillydawg

www.inquirer.com/commonwealthconfidential

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