Nine members of a Hutterite colony left their community and have written a tell-all book.
Back row, from left: Cindy Waldner, Rodney Waldner, Jason Waldner, Karen Waldner, Glenda Maendel, Titus Waldner, Sheryl Waldner. Front row, from left: Junia Waldner, Darlene Waldner. The group, known as “The Nine,” have written a book — “Hutterites: Our Story to Freedom” — explaining why they left life on a Hutterite colony behind. (SUBMITTED)
Titus and Darlene Waldner pause for a snapshot during a trip to Arizona. A trip strictly for pleasure would be rare for a colony resident. (SUBMITTED)
Junia, Rodney, Cindy and Sheryl Waldner enjoy a vacation on Catalina Island, Calif. (SUBMITTED)
Seven years ago, nine young Hutterite men and women left the only world they’d ever known, life on the colony, to begin anew in the outside world.
According to their Hutterite beliefs, leaving the colony would put them on the path to damnation. Instead, the group that calls themselves "The Nine" say they found freedom and salvation.
What follows is an abbreviated version of Titus Waldner's story as presented in "Hutterites: Our Story to Freedom." He left his Hutterite colony in North Dakota at the age of 18, shortly after his brother.I heard the phone ring in the chicken barn. One of the workers called me to the phone. My heart began to pound in anxious anticipation."Hello," I nervously answered. It was an awkward moment, and yet filled with relief since my hour of decision was at hand.My brother Jason, who was at our family's home in the colony for a short visit, was on the line."We're leaving here in a couple of hours. Are you leaving the colony today? Are you coming with us? It's your choice."It seemed like an eternity before I responded with an emphatic, "Yes!"I was 18 at the time, living in a Hutterite colony. I wondered why I was so miserable. I couldn't contain the tears and found myself weeping uncontrollably.What was wrong with me? The problem had to be me. After all, I grew up in a respectable Hutterite family. Hutterite life itself was supposed to be the best way to live, at least that is what I was told.It took a long time before I understood that the unreasonable and fanatical religious system in which I was raised was wrong.The structure of a Hutterite colony causes its members to focus only within the system's narrow confines. They focus best within this religious framework of business and are very uncomfortable outside of it.The only future I had in the colony was to give up my own future, my hopes, and my dreams. This wasn't for my spiritual benefit like I was told.The only benefactor was the economic system of the colony. The economy of a colony operates by keeping the members ignorant about the world outside.At the age of 15 the physical work grew. There were many times of physical exhaustion from lack of sleep during the long hours of seeding and harvesting.All I had to look forward to was more of the same. Worse yet, there was no one I could open up to and share my feelings with, nobody that would understand or help me. I was left alone, starving for love.In the colony no one's preferences, desires, or goals are intended to mean anything.I always wanted to be an airplane pilot. I was never encouraged to find out what God's plan was for my life. It was already chosen for me. I was born a Hutterite and I should stay a Hutterite for the rest of my life, and learn to submit to whatever career the leaders had planned for me.I thank God I was blessed to receive biblical teachings from sources outside the colony, where I learned that salvation is a gift of God only through Jesus Christ.These messages of salvation from outside the colony brought freedom and liberty that mere words could not suffice to describe.I was desperately searching for an opportunity to break free and leave my tormented life behind. Just then the phone rang. My heart was fixed. I made my choice to quickly pack a few belongings and say goodbye to my family.Stepping into my brother's car I made a decision that would change my life forever.As the miles began to click away there was a tense gnawing in my belly, but as we drove on the nervous fear slowly gave way to the most satisfying peace I had ever felt. With joy and relief I knew I would never go back.
Now, they’ve written a book, "Hutterites: Our Story to Freedom," a tell-all account of their struggles under "oppressive" Hutterite life and why they left.
"This is directly from our heart — our struggles, the hardships leaving, what we experienced growing up, our feelings," Titus Waldner said in a recent interview.
Hutterites are a communal branch of Anabaptists whose roots lie in the Reformation of the 16th Century. They originated in Austria and in the late 19th century, immigrated to North America, where they continued their communal lifestyle based on the New Testament.
Colony economies are mainly based on farming or ranching, but there is some manufacturing. All property is owned by the colony, which runs as a corporation and earnings are held communally.
The Nine left their colonies — the Hillside Colony northeast of Brandon and the Forest River Colony in North Dakota — between July 2006 and January 2007.
The three men and six women were 18 to 25 years old at the time — Cindy, Rodney, Junia, Karen, Darlene and Sheryl Waldner from Hillside; Glenda Maendel and Jason and Titus Waldner from Forest River.
While some are siblings, they say they each independently decided to leave their colonies around the same time, although their book indicates their departure came during a wider strife as some of their family members were excommunicated over being "born again."
Some of The Nine first made headlines back in mid-2008 when six of them sued their former colonies for damages such as unpaid labour and mental anguish. The lawsuits — three in Canada, and three in the United States — were potentially groundbreaking in North America.
But the lawsuits floundered on both sides of the border.
In the U.S., the court determined it didn’t have jurisdiction due to freedom of religion.
In Canada, the lawsuits are no longer being pursued, in part due to costs. No settlement was ever reached and the colonies never acknowledged any wrongdoing.
Still wishing to be heard, the group took another approach to telling their stories.
Rodney said their attorney advised the group to write a book and it wasn’t the first time someone had made that suggestion.
"People were encouraging us all along to do it and get it down on paper because it would help people and open their eyes," Titus said.
Released Aug. 19, the 170-page book will very likely open eyes. It shatters the notion that a Hutterite colony is a quaint, idyllic place where residents labour, live and pray in harmony.
Each of the nine former Hutterites has taken one chapter each to share their personal story.
They describe a Hutterite colony as a cold, fearful and oppressive place — a heartless money-making system that exploits its people under a veil of Christianity.
"The colony is more about making and hoarding money than providing for the needs of the people," Darlene writes.
Their stories of colony life touch on such subjects as sexual abuse, depression and mental illness, nepotism, sexism, racism and religious persecution.
Darlene, for example, writes how life as a teen on her colony contributed to her anorexia, for which she only received help after leaving. Rodney writes of the disfiguring injuries he suffered while working on the colony as a child and of hopelessness at the prospect of spending his life working in a chicken barn.
Despite the grim description of Hutterite life, each of the authors’ stories concludes with a happy account of life away from their colonies.
Some write of being inspired to leave after they or their families had contact with outside believers in Jesus Christ and some were assisted when they left by members of a North Dakota ministry.
The authors joyfully write of being born again, salvation through Jesus Christ and the Word of God. They cite religious freedom as one of the reasons for leaving their colonies — they didn’t leave to do whatever they want, but to follow their faith.
They point to Hutterite church services which are delivered in German, even though residents speak little of it. Residents generally understand English better, they say, but Bibles in that language are banned from church or banned outright in some colonies.
At church, the congregation has no chance to speak and must listen to the drone of 400-year-old sermons.
"Even though we grew up in the United States and Canada, we did not have freedom of religion," Jason said.
But the group says they’ve not only found religious freedom since leaving the colonies, but personal freedom since departing that regimented life. They describe how, at the colony, children typically stop going to school and start work at 15 years of age, but have no choice where they’ll work.
"I had so many dreams, desires of what I wanted to be and things I wanted to do," Titus said. "But inside the colony there was no point even talking about it or sharing it, so I kept it all inside."
"I didn’t even have dreams," Karen said. "I didn’t look that far ahead."
Men take on farm labour or take leadership positions in the colony. Women work in the garden, cook, clean and raise children.
Hutterites say all property is jointly owned, but The Nine say the colony as an entity owns everything and access to money and finances are controlled by leaders.
The Nine say they were given nothing when they left their colonies and knew little of how to live in the outside world. Despite that, they’ve started their own cleaning and construction businesses.
They’ve formed a praise and worship dance troupe that performs in Canadian and U.S. churches.
While they all live within half an hour of each other — some in Westman, others in North Dakota — they’ve holidayed in Arizona and California and waterskiing is among the activities they now enjoy.
Titus is following his life-long dream of getting his pilot licence.
They take pleasure having cast off their traditional Hutterite garb — long-sleeved shirts and dark pants for men and long dresses and head coverings for the women.
"I enjoy seeing my wife shopping for clothes because she can actually pick out what looks good on her and try out different outfits ... It’s actually a joy seeing her being able to do that," says Titus, who married Darlene after leaving the colony.
They say that in most colonies, women aren’t allowed to have a driver’s licence. Karen takes delight in the fact that she recently earned hers and Cindy owns a car.
The Nine say their lives are better after leaving their colonies.
"We’re not saying it’s all roses, it’s all beautiful. But yes, it’s a thousand times better," Jason said.
While it’s true they have support from some family members who also left the colonies, they admit to missing family and friends who remain.
They say they’ve reached out to those relatives and residents, and at least some of The Nine have even visited their former colony. However, they say they don’t feel welcome — they’re either shunned or patronized.
"We still love the people, we still try to reach out to them, even this book is reaching out to them," Titus said.
The group has been hard at work in recent weeks promoting the book to area stores and media.
In Brandon, it’s available at the Brandon University bookstore. It can also be found at Abby Rose where there will be a book signing on Sept. 21 between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
It’s also at McNally Robinson Booksellers and Hull’s Family Bookstores in Winnipeg and at Metamorphosis Salon and Spa in Killarney.
While it details their struggles in Hutterite society, the group says their motive for writing the book isn’t revenge. The colonies aren’t named, nor are its residents.
They say their hope is to inspire Hutterites and non-Hutterites alike — anybody who is struggling with fear, depression or oppression.
"We’re writing this to help people, sharing our stories so we can help others," Rodney said. "That’s the reason we wrote the book."
The Brandon Sun contacted Hillside colony leaders, but they declined to comment on the book.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 7, 2013