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Naomi Dunavan

IN THE SPIRIT: Ex-Hutterites talk about life in colony, their decision to leave

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In their own personal chapter, nine ex-Hutterites write about a way of life they describe as a "very oppressive regime."

All were members of a colony from the time they were born in the 1980s until 2006 and 2007, when one-by-one, the six women and three men courageously walked away.

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The nine firmly believe that salvation is only through Jesus Christ.

"We all left to follow Jesus," Titus Waldner said. "That was something we couldn't do in the colony. The Hutterite way of life has become their salvation."

Besides Titus, others in "The Nine" are his brother, Jason Waldner, and Glenda Maendel, all from the Forest River Colony in North Dakota, and Cindy Waldner, Rodney Waldner, Junia Waldner, Karen Waldner, Darlene Waldner and Sheryl Waldner, all from the Hillside Colony in Manitoba.

Rodney, Darlene and Sheryl are brother and sisters, and Cindy, Junia and Karen are sisters. Since leaving the colonies Karen has married Jason and Darlene has married Titus.

Their book, "Hutterites: The Nine, Our Story to Freedom" was released in August. Book signings are scheduled later this month in Grand Forks and Fargo.

I spoke with Joe Maendel Jr., the oldest minister at the Forest River Colony. He said he has not read the nine's book and did not wish to comment on it.

A society apart

Who are the Hutterites?

About 45,000 members live in colonies in the United States and Canada. Colonies were birthed during the Reformation in the 1500s when people left the Roman Catholic Church.

Some who broke away felt infant baptism was not according to the Word of God so were re-baptized as adults beginning what's known as the Anabaptist movement. Hutterites are similar to the Amish and Mennonites in doctrine and dress but differ in their communal way of life.

Hutterites have their own unwritten language known as "Hutterisch," based on a German dialect. They also are taught basic English in their colony schools. Church services are conducted in High German, which they barely understand.

What the nine say greatly concerns them is that Hutterites separate themselves from the rest of society with an outward appearance of holiness. The nine say that Hutterites claim to be true followers of Jesus, but don't preach the importance of a personal relationship with him.

The nine write that the colonies govern their people contrary to the writings of their founders. They say Hutterites idolize their forefathers for whom they have a sacred reverence, yet they lack the fear of God to follow their founders' full counsel as being led by the Holy Spirit.

"They may have started out right 400 years ago as believers in Jesus," Jason said, "but they have become mostly about money and tradition."

Strict customs

Each colony has three or four high-level leaders including one or two ministers who control the lives of everyone else. There's a secretary in charge of finances and a boss overseeing large farming operations.

During church services and in the dining hall, men sit on one side, women on the other.

"Women have no voice," Sheryl said. "They are there to cook and have babies. They are seen as less than men."

"The Hutterite form of community life discourages family life," Darlene added. "And due to these customs, love and joy is severely lacking. There's more fighting, hatred and anger, and you are born into it."

There's also a strict dress code. Men wear black pants, suspenders, homemade shirts and beards. Women sew their dresses from two patterns and must have black coverings on their heads.

Junia recalls trips to the mall. Because of her appearance, "My brother would not walk with me," she said.

Restrained

Hutterite children begin kindergarten at age 2½. Formal education begins at 5 when they attend both English and German school. Turning 15 is monumental for then they enter the adult work force and are sent to the fields.

"It's slave labor," Jason said, "not based on love."

Karen added, "Acceptance was through work."

Each worker is compensated just $3 to $5 a month as money and all property belongs to the colony.

"God made us all unique and the system takes that away," Jason said. "I love computers. I love to write computer design and they put me in a chicken barn taking care of 60,000 chickens. They never came to ask, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' The leaders are over you but there's no personal conversation."

Titus added, "They tell you what career to have. As we know now, Jesus is all about freedom and liberty."

On their pages are stories of untreated anorexia, depression, nepotism, hypocrisy, the abundance of liquor on the colony, abuse and much more. Their accounts are heart-wrenching, Rodney's particularly so. At ages 3 and 7 he suffered serious accidents because of a lack of child safety.

"In the colony you are not allowed to speak," Rodney said. "After a while you keep everything inside."

"We were brought up not to express anything," Junia added.

Departure

The first time Sheryl heard about salvation through Jesus was when an ex-Hutterite came back to the colony to teach on that very subject.

"It was exciting news to say the least," Sheryl writes. "I wanted it."

Some months later she heard that speaker again and he personally prayed for her.

"That's something I had never experienced as a Hutterite," Sheryl said. "When I cried out to God with all my heart for help, he delivered me. I couldn't find what I needed until I had left the colony."

When it came down to leaving, one did not coerce another.

"It's an active grapevine," Titus said. "We knew of others' decisions, but it was the Lord who brought us together. There I would describe my life as miserable. Now, it's a total switch."

Some of the nine live in northern North Dakota and some in southern Manitoba. After they left their colonies, they were brought together by a minister who helped them get established and taught them how to live in American society.

Enjoying life

Today, all are very successful in multiple businesses.

Jason and Titus have a construction company. Every tool and piece of equipment they own is paid for.

"We don't owe anyone anything," Jason said. "The Bible commands, 'Owe no man anything.' "

"And, there's no lack of work." Titus added.

Rodney also owns a construction company with his sister Sheryl. The other five women have cleaning businesses with more clients than they can fit into a week.

It's a joy to sit around a table with the nine to see such vibrant faith and to hear of the enjoyment this life brings.

Now, they can even have fun. Before, if they happened to have a little fun, they said they had to hide it and turn back to the seriousness.

"Work was priority over everything," Jason said. "There was not the sustaining peace and joy I have now. Work for me now is about creativity, having fun and joy exercising my God-given gifts."

Along with their businesses and their faith, here's what makes them happy:

• Sheryl loves photography, cooking, swimming and water skiing. She's learning to play the pan flute and to read music.

• Karen loves interior design, calligraphy, arts, crafts and travel.

• Titus plays drums and harmonica. He's learning to pilot a single-engine aircraft.

• Glenda's loves are quilting, playing harmonica, landscaping and swimming.

• Cindy's interests are playing piano, listening to classical music and designing and sewing flags for a Christian dance troupe.

Barbra Streisand probably doesn't know it, but because of her, Darlene is taking voice lessons. And by her faith in Jesus, she has conquered anorexia nervosa.

• Junia has a green thumb and a passion for all types of gardening. Listening to the brass in a symphony has inspired her to pursue the trumpet.

• Jason now is able to excel in computer design. He also loves to water and snow ski.

• Rodney has a boat and enjoys slalom and trick skiing. He plays drums, loves farming, mechanical work, carpentry and the symphony.

"It's incredible what God has done for us," Rodney said. "We get to preach Jesus with no strings attached."

The book is "all about getting the message of hope out for people who also are oppressed," Jason said. "Even the Bible, it's just ink and paper unless people have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Book signing

The nine authors of "Hutterites: The Nine, Our Story to Freedom" will be at book signings in Grand Forks and Fargo later this month.

The dates are:

• Oct. 24: 6:30 to 8 p.m., Zandbroz Bookstore, Fargo.

• Oct. 26: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Ferguson Books and Media, 3750 32nd Ave. S., Grand Forks, and 2 to 4 p.m., in Ferguson's Columbia Mall location, also in Grand Forks.

• Oct. 29: 3 to 5 p.m., UND Bookstore.

More On the Web: www.thenine9.com.

Reach Dunavan at naomi-inthespirit@aol.com. Read her blog at inthespirit.areavoices.com.

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