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Amish rely on faith, family and friendship in times of crisis

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HEUVELTON — An unwavering faith in God and the close-knit support of family and friends were the tools that the family of Mosi J. and Barbara Miller used to cope with the heartbreak and despair they felt when two of their children disappeared Wednesday evening, according to a SUNY Potsdam professor of linguistics and anthropology who is an expert on Amish culture.

Hundreds of law enforcement agents combed an area in the town of Oswegatchie on Route 812 near Heuvelton for 12-year-old Fannie Miller and her 6-year-old sister, Delila, who had been last seen waiting on customers at their family’s vegetable stand on Mount Alone Road about 7:20 p.m. Wednesday. Karen Johnson-Weiner, a SUNY Potsdam professor who has written several books on Amish culture and lifestyle, spoke to the Times before the girls were found.

Ms. Johnson-Weiner said she knows the Miller family well. Although she said no one can ever fully comprehend the anguish the Millers were feeling, she said she is certain the family and larger Amish community in the region were relying on their unshakable belief in God, family and friends to work through the crisis.

“The community is with them. They have their faith, and for that they are very fortunate, because they do have such a strong faith,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “They will have friends and family gather to help them. There will be a strong community of folks offering friendship.”

Ms. Johnson-Weiner said she has known the Miller family for years and considers them close friends. She said her own heart breaks at the thought of the girls being abducted, and she described Fannie and Delila as sweet, loving and innocent.

“I know the girls. They are little girls. Sweet little girls. And right now something terrible has happened to them,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “All I can say is they are sweet and delightful little girls.”

Ms. Johnson-Weiner said that because Delila is only 6 it is doubtful that she speaks any English. She said that it is typical for Amish families to speak only their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect at home, and that children don’t start studying English until they start school.

She said Mr. and Mrs. Miller are hard-working, kind and caring parents.

“Right now they are living a nightmare,” she said. “I think this is a case where right now they will do anything they can to find the girls. The Amish know bad things happen in the world, and they will do everything they can to protect their children.”

Ms. Johnson-Weiner added, “I think that this is not an Amish story. This is the story of a family whose little girls are in danger. This is a sad story.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, traveled Thursday to the Miller farm, where she met the family and other Amish community members to express her sadness and dismay at the girls’ disappearance. She said she was moved by the family’s faith in God in the wake of the incident.

“It’s a tough day for Heuvelton,” Mrs. Ritchie said with tears in her eyes. “You never think something like this could happen in your hometown.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she did not know the Millers personally until meeting them Thursday.

“They are very religious people,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “What struck me is that their father said, ‘It’s in God’s hands now.’”

Anna M. Hurst, Heuvelton’s village clerk, said that she and others in the community were equally shocked and saddened by what occurred, and that the community was pulling together to show its support. She said she can’t understand how someone could hurt or take advantage of someone so young and innocent.

“I think the kids in our public schools are taught not to trust strangers,” Ms. Hurst said. “But I don’t know if the Amish are taught that. I don’t think they are.”

Heuvelton Mayor Barbara A. Lashua called the alleged abduction of the Amish girls a “heart-wrenching” occurrence in the community. She said she and countless other volunteers were doing all they could to help support the law enforcement investigation.

“I can’t think of anything that is more devastating than this kind of news for any community,” Ms. Lashua said. “There are no words. It’s a hellish nightmare.”

Behind the command post at the Heuvelton Fire Department on Thursday, Rensselaer Falls dairy farmer William L. Fobare set up his massive smoker cooker and loaded it up with hamburgers and hot dogs to feed the many law enforcement officials working to find the missing girls.

Mr. Fobare, 44, lives down the road from the Miller family. He said the community had been torn apart by the girls’ disappearance and wanted to contribute in some way.

“The Amish folks have been neighbors since I was a kid and have been wonderful to the community and they love to give back,” Mr. Fobare said. “I see that when they are in a time of need, I want to do my part.

While members of the community were hoping for the girls’ safe return, Mr. Fobare said everybody wanted to help but didn’t know how to do so.

“So I know a lot of people that have come down here today to lend a hand. It is good to know that there are people like that around that will help out in times of need,” Mr. Fobare said. “We are all going to keep those Amish girls in our prayers and keep hoping and praying that they are going to come home safe.”

Johnson Newspapers writer W.T. Eckert contributed to this report.

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