A split over truth: ‘The Nine,’ ex-members of religious colonies, say their lives are new
The sheltered, simple life of a traditional religious colony isn’t what it appears on the surface, say members of a group who rejected their upbringing and are making a new life for themselves in north-central Wisconsin.
“There was always strife; there was always fighting,” said Sheryl Waldner, 25. “The older we got, the more we realized it was not the ideal place to live.”
Waldner is the youngest member of a group calling themselves “The Nine.” In 2006 and 2007, they left the Hutterite colonies where they had grown up in North Dakota and Manitoba. They embraced evangelical Christianity in place of what they considered to be an overly structured and spiritually dead way of life.
Their self-published 2013 book “Hutterites” brought requests for more details, they said, so they’ve formed their own publishing company and brought out a second book, “Since We Told the Truth.”
Most of the six women and three men, ages 25-32, will be in Duluth on Feb. 7 to sign copies of their books. (One married couple in the group is about to have their first baby and won’t be attending.)
But the truth they told is not the whole truth, said a member of Willowbank, a Hutterite colony in North Dakota.
“You don’t write books with half-truths,” said Dan Wipf, who paused in his work at his colony’s lumberyard to talk with a reporter. “I won’t say there is not stuff in there that isn’t true, but there is a lot of stuff in there that is half-right.”
The Hutterites are spiritual cousins of Mennonites and Amish. All came out of the early 16th-century Anabaptist movement in Europe that is sometimes called the radical reformation, said Rod Janzen, a humanities professor at Fresno Pacific University in California.
Janzen, himself a Mennonite, has spent years researching and visiting Hutterite colonies and co-authored the book “The Hutterites in North America,” published in 2010 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Like the Amish, Hutterites dress plainly and uniformly, Janzen said. Unlike the Amish, Hutterites live communally. All of the Hutterites have their ancestral roots in Austria.
About 50,000 Hutterites live in nearly 500 colonies in Canada and the U.S., Janzen said, and their numbers are growing slowly. Only about 15 percent of colony members leave permanently, he said, although more leave for a time and return later.
Many who leave do so because they are attracted to evangelical Christianity, Janzen said. “Hutterites are not evangelical fundamentalists,” he said. “There are dozens of people and families who have left the colonies because of that reason.”
‘The Lord said Wisconsin’
That was the reason they left, said Sheryl Waldner and her cousin, Junia Waldner, in a telephone interview earlier this week from the group’s new home in Park Falls, Wis.
“We love the Lord, and that’s why we do what we do,” Sheryl Waldner said.
The Waldner cousins are among the six group members who came out of the Hillside Colony in Manitoba. The other three grew up in the Forest River Colony in North Dakota. All but one have the surname Waldner. Eight left in 2006, the ninth in 2007.
Until recently, the group remained in North Dakota and Manitoba. But in December, they purchased 80 acres in Park Falls, and they’ve relocated to houses in town while they develop that property, the Waldner cousins said.
Sheryl and her brother Rodney still are Canadians and established a home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to maintain their citizenship, Junia said. But they are part owners of the property in Park Falls and spend some of their time in Wisconsin.
“We were searching for land and couldn’t find anything in North Dakota,” Junia Waldner said. “The Lord said Wisconsin, and we started to look.”
Sheryl Waldner described the Lord speaking as an inner prompting or gut feeling. “The Bible explains it as a still small voice inside us,” she said.
What they heard while growing up Hutterite were sermons preached in high German with words they didn’t really understand, the women said. Only through outside influences in their teenage years did they discover what they call a personal relationship with Jesus.
Their changed views caused them to be excommunicated by Hutterite leaders, the cousins said.
Although ill-prepared for life on the “outside,” they soon embraced the freedom they found, the women said. That was particularly true for the female members of The Nine.
As Hutterites, they said, women weren’t allowed to vote, weren’t allowed to have driver’s licenses and weren’t allowed to handle money. They wore head coverings and long dresses, with only two patterns permitted.
“Women aren’t considered much of anything,” Sheryl Waldner said of Hutterite teaching.
By contrast, on the outside the ex-Hutterite women have run their own businesses, dress according to their activities and embrace a variety of hobbies and interests. Sheryl Waldner, for example, has taken up waterskiing.
Janzen, an admirer of the Hutterite lifestyle, acknowledges the male dominance in their colonies.
“It’s a very patriarchal society, very traditional,” he said. “Women exert a lot of influence behind the scene.”
Dan Wipf made much the same point.
“Most of the decisions of the community are voted on by the married male members,” Wipf said, but added that women nonetheless have clout.
“Let’s say for instance we were discussing a new sewing machine,” he said. “(The women) decide which sewing machine to get.”
One thing Sheryl and Junia Waldner haven’t left behind is the Old World lilt in their speech. Although Hutterites are taught English beginning at age 5, the common spoken language is Hutterish, a German dialect. Talking to Hutterites and ex-Hutterites alike on the phone, one could imagine talking to a recent immigrant from Central Europe.
‘It’s their experience’
Janzen has read parts of The Nine’s first book and said it doesn’t match his encounters with Hutterite colonies.
“I was disturbed by some of the negative portrayals,” he said, but added: “It’s their experience. I can’t judge their experience.”
Janzen never visited the Hillside Colony, he said. But Janzen is familiar with the Forest River Colony and knows Tony and Kathy Waldner, parents of two of The Nine, Jason and Titus.
“I’ve always thought of them as model parents,” Janzen said.
He described an evening at the Waldner home in 2006, when Janzen’s son Chris spent time in the basement with the Waldner children, introducing them to jazz and discussing evolution.
“Chris was amazed at their Internet access,” Janzen said.
Tony and Kathy Waldner head one of the most progressive families in one of the most progressive Hutterite colonies, Janzen said.
“It was a surprise to me that his kids would have been ones who left,” Janzen said. “They were given tremendous freedom.”
Learning to work hard
The Hutterites have more than the usual mistrust of the media. Stung by their portrayal in a 2012 National Geographic special, a group of Hutterite bishops issued their first-ever news release, the National Post of Canada reported.
“I don’t know if I care to say so much,” Dan Wipf said when first contacted for this story. But he quickly warmed to the topic.
“Why they turned out the way they did, I don’t know,” he said of The Nine. “But it’s sad. The worst thing is it’s a sad situation for the families.”
Because of their agrarian way of life, all Hutterites have to work hard to survive, Wipf said. As long as people are willing to do the work, they thrive in their colonies, he added.
“The main reason for living the way we do is spiritual,” Wipf said. “We’re Christians. … But it wouldn’t work to live in the community if everybody had the attitude of The Nine.”
The Waldner cousins said they did learn to work hard in their Hutterite communities.
“Growing up, we learned labor, but we didn’t know the worth of our labor,” Junia Waldner said.
Sheryl Waldner said she felt angry about her Hutterite upbringing for a time, but no more.
“We love the Hutterite people,” she said. “I have no unforgiveness, no bitterness toward anyone. It’s more a thing of … I wish they knew the truth.”
Meet the authors
What: Book signing of “Hutterites” and “Since We Told the Truth”
Where: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Miller Hill Mall, Duluth
When: 1-2:30 p.m. Feb. 7
Learn more online: thenine9.com