They grew up in a religious colony defined by old-world norms and rigid controls. Now they’ve left their upbringings behind, settled in Wisconsin and embraced rock ‘n roll, YouTube and waterskiing. But they remain very religious. Meet The Nine.
It’s a spectacular autumn afternoon in Park Falls, Wisconsin, and I am sitting around a rock garden, talking about Simon & Garfunkel with a group of millennials who have come to the United States seeking religious freedom. From Canada. It is a conversation that also touches on language, current movies, and their affection for Donald Trump. Altogether, it is a nice way to pass a fall afternoon.
Also, they let me drive their Bobcat.
How we all got to that plot of land requires some explanation. Me first. When I’m not writing occasional magazine stories, I produce and co-host a public radio show. In that role, I get a lot of phone calls, out of the blue, from people pitching interview guests. Most of these calls are from public relations assistants in New York, and I’m simply the latest name on a list of radio show producers they’re tasked with calling, hoping one of us will bite on an interview with their client – maybe a psychiatrist who can explain the “10 Ways Instagram is Ruining Our Children’s Lives”; or the former Ambassador to Suriname, who has the inside scoop on Hillary Clinton’s secret email server.
So when a colleague transferred a call to me on a winter day in late 2014, I considered letting it go to voicemail. But I noticed the area code on the caller ID: 701. North Dakota. I don’t get very many calls from North Dakota, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
And then there was the accent.
The woman on the other end of the line said a lot in a very short time in a brogue I was positive was Scottish. I learned her name was Sheryl Waldner, and that she was a “former Hutterite,” and that she and a group of other former Hutterites had written books about their experiences and that they were in the process of moving to northern Wisconsin and that they were coming down to the Milwaukee area to do a couple of book signings, and would I be interested in interviewing some of them on the radio show?
“Um, sure,” I said, before hanging up and immediately Googling “Hutterites.”
You won’t find any Hutterite churches in Milwaukee, or anywhere in Wisconsin, for that matter. The Anabaptist faith tradition counts nearly 50,000 followers in North America, spread mainly across the Canadian plains in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and in North Dakota and Montana. The religion has commonalities with better-known sects such as the Amish and Mennonite faiths – they dress in old-fashioned garb, they make their living mostly from farming – but the extent to which they set themselves apart from modern mainstream Canada and the United States is extreme.
It’s something the narrator in A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews’ novel of angst and coming-of-age in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, makes note of: “[Hutterites are] not especially a groovy people except for the fact that they are allowed to wear only polka-dot clothing, and the women must wear kerchiefs and the men, beards. My dad buys eggs from them. They are another sub-sect of our larger clan, except they live in colonies. Kibbutz-style. We are all, though, knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. The same door.”
The faith originated in the Czech region of Moravia, but religious persecution caused their numbers to drop precipitously, to a point where fewer than 50 remained in the early 18th century. Decades later, their population increased but most of the remaining Hutterites came to North America in a mass migration, where they resumed a communal, agrarian lifestyle.
The accent remained, as well. Their distinctive dialect is a holdover from their Austrian ethnicity, say anthropologists. Today, it is a brogue of rolled R’s and extended vowels that brings to mind Isla Fisher or Colin Farrell.
If it was religious persecution that led the Hutterites to found colonies in North America, it was a sense of religious repression that drove the group in our story to leave them. They call themselves “The Nine,” although the recent arrival of a newborn has pushed their numbers to double digits. Three non-Hutterites, who were instrumental in the group’s breakaway from the colonies, live with them, as well. It can be a challenge to keep track of the relationships among them. Sheryl Waldner and her brother, Rodney, are the two who have not permanently relocated to Wisconsin, as visa challenges have them commuting regularly from a home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The other seven, plus the baby, live in Park Falls: Glenda Maendel; sisters Cindy, Junia, and Karen Waldner; brothers Jason and Titus Waldner; and Darlene Waldner, who is married to Titus. Eight of the nine carry the same last name, which is not unusual – Hutterite society is so closed off that there are only 14 different last names among its 50,000 people, making it possible and maybe even likely that, beyond the known siblings, others of them are distantly related.
To further scramble their cultural heritage, they also trace part of their lineage to the Jewish people. “[Hutterites] have Jewish bloodlines,” Jason says. “We blend in, in Israel and New York City.” Names like Waldner and Maendel are common in Judaism, and Hutterisch – the Hutterites’ German dialect – does sound a lot like Yiddish.
I interviewed Sheryl and Rodney on the radio in February 2015. Their story was so unusual and so compelling that when Glenda, Darlene and Junia were in town a few months later, I interviewed them, too. They told stories that made me, a Milwaukee radio host, feel like an explorer who had unearthed a heretofore undiscovered tribe of people who’d never made contact with the modern world, and had suddenly been thrust into it.
The story of The Nine isn’t quite that extreme, but it’s also not especially common in Price County, Wisconsin.
We’re sitting in the group’s modest ranch house in Park Falls, where they’re living until they can fully develop a property we visit later on the outskirts of town. Members of the group drift in and out of the living room as they return from unseen bedrooms, having changed into khakis, jeans, sweatshirts and other casual clothes. They’re outfits that would never have flown in the colonies in which The Nine grew up.
And that, Cindy Waldner says, was one of the biggest leaps of faith she had to confront when she left the comfort of her colony. “I was the one who said, when I left, ‘If you ever see me in pants, kill me, because I’m not gonna do it,’” she laughs. “But it didn’t take very long and I was wearing pants, so I had to eat my words.”
Life in a Hutterite colony, say The Nine, is probably what you would imagine about an old-world, Anabaptist faith. Times ten.
There are the things that anyone would notice, like the black pants, suspenders and handmade button-down shirt that every man wears and the handmade dress and black headcovering on every woman. Married men are required to have beards.
Men and women have distinct roles in Hutterite life, and spend most of their time apart, sitting in different sections of the colony’s church for daily services and eating three daily meals in separate parts of a dining hall. “For a family to eat a meal together,” Sheryl recalls, “was, like, a special occasion. Maybe once or twice a year.”
Work roles are likewise divided. Men do construction, manufacturing, butchering and maintenance, and women are restricted to tasks such as cooking, gardening and housekeeping. All tasks are assigned by the colony’s leaders. Most women aren’t permitted to drive, and no one has an individual bank account. The fruits of all Hutterite labor go back to the colony.
That issue – the colony versus the individual – is what The Nine say drove them away from their Hutterite origins. Not that it’s an opinion they would have shared at the time. Hutterites are raised not to express opinions. “Once we left,” Sheryl remembers, “people would ask us, ‘What do you like to do? What’s your favorite color?’ I would have no idea.”
Deeper still, Sheryl says she lost track of something fundamental to everyone. “I don’t remember having any emotions, because I was so not used to sharing my feelings about much of anything that I came to the point that I didn’t realize they were there.”
In the Hutterites’ German dialect, she says, there are no words for, “I love you.”
Hutterite men can get driver’s licenses but need permission to leave the colony. And that comes with suspicion of the world outside. “We viewed it as an evil thing,” Rodney says. “Something you only partook of as much as you had to, to get by, doing business.”
Doing business brought the first chapter in their lives to an end. It was 2006, and Jason, then 22, was delivering eggs to a grocery store in Rolla, N.D., near the colony where he lived. Soon, everything he thought he knew was scrambled.
At the grocery, he met store employee Joshua Cullen, a sturdily built farm boy with short blond hair and an easy smile. Cullen was a man around Jason’s age who had himself connected sometime before with Fred Phillips, an older man in their North Dakota community who had become something of a freelance spiritual advisor, wandering the plains in search of lost souls. A one-time film school dropout, Phillips had cast aside his material concerns 25 years earlier to follow a path he says the Lord laid out for him – a path he wanted to share with others.
“The Lord told us to build a place in North Dakota,” he says. He’d never heard of the Hutterites. When he met Jason and others, he saw an opportunity.
“I have a heart for people,” Phillips says. “I could see the emptiness. They looked unfulfilled.” He says this a full decade later, sitting in the rock garden in Park Falls with us. Despite not being Hutterites, Phillips and Cullen, his protégé, made the move with The Nine and live with them in Park Falls.
Soon after meeting Cullen and Phillips, Jason Waldner would take up clandestine Bible study sessions and come to the conclusion that his heart understood a different, more personal version of God than the one he’d been taught, in High German, all his life.
“All of a sudden, everything started to make sense,” he says.
Things moved rapidly – Jason secured a used car that he stashed in a garage, away from the colony. Early one morning in October 2006, one of his brothers secretly borrowed a colony car and spirited Jason off the land of their youth and to his own car waiting in a garage in town. Just a month after that fateful first meeting in a grocery store, the son of a respected Hutterite German teacher left his old life behind.
Jason returned to the colony a short time later to attend the wedding of another brother. Encountering his dad for the first time since he left, he was told he wasn’t welcome at the reception. Once again, Jason chose to leave.
The specific details of the other eight members’ departures differ – The Nine grew up in three different colonies and are all in their late 20s and early 30s – but hew to the same general lines. They realized that something was missing in their faith, decided to follow Jesus on a path that led away from their colonies to a new home they shared in North Dakota, living secular lives in the same state but a world apart from some of their brethren.
The tension between the communal life and a life of religious self-determination is an abiding pressure Anabaptist faiths are facing in the 21st century, says Karen Johnson-Weiner, an anthropology professor with State University of New York at Potsdam. “Once you can claim a personal sense of salvation,” she says, “then your relationship to the group differs.”
She says a traditional Hutterite colony uses a nautical metaphor. “The colony is like this boat in the sea of this wicked world and only by working together can they hope to be worthy of salvation. If you can claim to have this personal relationship with God, and know you’re safe, then you don’t need the group. And that really alters how much you’re willing to give up to the group.”
Together in North Dakota, The Nine began to study religion and follow their evangelical calling, taking mission trips to places such as Liberia. But they also had to learn how to live in a world that demands opinions and checking accounts and, well, pants.
They got jobs – some on the cleaning crew of the International Peace Garden that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, others in carpentry – and went on vacations to places like Arizona and California and Florida, where these people who once needed permission to get a bicycle learned to water-ski. Jason saw the experience in a greater context of leaving their old lives behind. “It’s about facing our fears,” he says, “living life out of our comfort zone. You can never be too comfortable on water-skis, because you never know when there will be a bump.”
Jason has since taken to the slopes in winter, as well, adding snow skiing to his menu of leisure sports. Rodney got even further into water-skiing, learning to trick- and slalom-ski as well as buying a competition ski boat.
The women had the biggest transition after leaving mostly cloistered lives. What surprised each of them the most, they say, is not how hard it is to live in modern society, but how easy it is. Tasks that previously seemed insurmountable and otherworldly, like opening a checking account and getting a driver’s license, turned out to be a breeze with a little guidance from others, they say.
And they launched a nascent media empire, writing two books about their transformation – Hutterites: Our Story to Freedom and Since We Told the Truth: Our Life Can Never Be the Same – plus filming a series of videos featuring their religious teaching. Available on YouTube, the videos focus almost entirely on Scripture readings and how they should apply to modern American life, as told by very earnest, modestly dressed young adults with cheery dispositions and that Scottish-Yiddish brogue.
All the while, they got a crash course in clothes, movies and music. “We saw it as part of our healing,” Karen says. Their books feature before-and-after pictures – from old-world garb to North Face sweatshirts, swimsuits, and bright flowered dresses. Well, the women, anyway.
Where once they had no opinions to speak of, asking them about their tastes in movies is like sitting around with nine Siskel and Eberts. For people who spent their entire upbringing with little access to popular culture, their list of favorite movies now includes My Cousin Vinny, Schindler’s List, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shawshank Redemption.
Asking about music opens a similar floodgate – and reveals a source of tension among The Nine. Eight of them mention names like Phil Collins, Elton John, Van Halen and the Moody Blues. But Rodney stays conspicuously silent. “He’s into jazz,” Titus says, somewhat disdainfully, and everyone breaks into raucous laughter.
But before we can leave the topic of music, Sheryl says one song in particular rose to a level beyond just personal taste. “I Am a Rock,” she says, by Simon & Garfunkel. “That song was my testimony. I could not believe someone knew my story so well.”
The Nine gradually came to find, as so many have before them, that North Dakota isn’t necessarily paradise. Not long after returning from another mission trip, Fred Phillips says he got a message from the Lord to look for land north of Interstate 94. Pooling money – some of Phillips’ savings, some of The Nine’s from their jobs and the sale of their North Dakota house – they paid $71,000 for 80 acres in Park Falls, the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World, situated five hours northwest of Milwaukee. That’s where the rock garden has gone in, and a gazebo has gone up.
A promotional video for Plumbline Construction, their contracting business, features Titus and Jason, along with Joshua Cullen. They’re on the same set they use to film their spiritual messages, dressed in suit-and-tie, and make their case sincerely into the camera, over uplifting instrumental music playing in the background.
“We provide a consistent standard of quality for our customers,” Jason declares. “We stand on the principle of keeping our word,” Cullen adds, sounding noticeably less Scottish than the other two, “of course, sealed with a signature and handshake, and to treat others just as we would like to be treated.”
For all the appeal of the world outside the Hutterite colonies in which they grew up, the members of The Nine say they worry about the state of things. It is, Karen says, one of the abiding reasons for their outreach ministry – to make change in the world.
It’s also why many of them were admirers of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump long before he clinched the party’s nomination. At first glance, it can seem an unnatural fit. Trump is known for being bombastic, vulgar and X-rated. The Nine’s lives and language and style would earn a G-rating and high marks for humility. But they’ve found plenty about the world outside the Hutterite bubble to be less harmonious and virtuous than they imagined it was, and they see Trump as a lone authentic voice who can rectify society’s problems.
“He has a lot of zeal and energy,” Glenda Maendel says, “and I believe his heart is with reaching out and helping people.”
Rodney agrees. “One thing I like about him is that he says it like it is. Whatever is in his heart, he says it. Where I see other candidates – they might be thinking the same thoughts he is, but they’re just not going to say it.”
In fact, Titus sees elements in Trump’s candidacy that hark back to his own story and that of the other former Hutterites. “When we wrote the book, we got a lot of attacks for writing the things that we did,” he says. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Well, it’s not necessary to bring up all those things.’ Well, actually, it is. You first have to recognize the problem exists before there ever can be a solution. And so I admire someone like Donald Trump who is willing to just say it.”
What they don’t worry about, so much, is the Hutterites they left behind. “I feel sorry for anyone who’s still a Hutterite,” Titus says.
The Hutterites themselves have largely shunned those who left. While not all of The Nine have been met with the hostility Jason experienced at his brother’s wedding, they find the relatives they left behind are largely unwilling to listen to their reasons for leaving – or, more importantly, consider leaving themselves. Sheryl believes inertia is to blame. “Like with our parents – you can see, the Hutterite lifestyle has become a natural thing. The longer you’re in something, the harder it is to get out of it.”
Still, she and Rodney missed their families enough that – after more than nine years away – they moved back to Manitoba in spring 2016. She says it was an important experience, but it didn’t last long. “I would do anything for my parents,” she says. “But it came to the point where they just can’t embrace the whole ministry thing that we do. They’ve just been Hutterites for too long.”
Besides, they say, their mission in life is not about what they left behind. “We don’t even really like talking about Hutterites anymore,” Sheryl says.“I feel like our focus should be on what we’re doing now.”
That work has been a little slow-going. Sales of The Nine’s books – which each retail for $19.95 – haven’t gone as well as they’d like, and they’ve ended up giving some away, while still doing regular signings and discussions at bookstores and libraries. Business at Plumbline Construction was down a bit over the colder months, but Sheryl says it has picked up again.
The other issue they say they’re constantly keeping an eye on is the group dynamic. No one, they say, wants to have traded in one paternalistic, group-think situation for another. But, Rodney says, now that they all have skills and opinions, they’re not afraid to use them. “It’s so important to follow your heart,” he says.
They do occasionally have disagreements, which Sheryl says can be refreshing. “When we were in the colonies, if there were problems, you’d bottle it up inside and hold onto that thing forever. Now we share, we communicate, we pray together.”
Months after we first sat down in the rock garden, work continues on The Nine’s compound. Construction on their new house should begin soon. The gazebo is finished, a place envisioned for quiet contemplation, and a bucolic spot to minister to people who need to escape circumstances analogous to what The Nine faced.
How do they imagine they’ll find those people?
“I think about that question all the time,” Titus says. “And then I think of how we got to leave the colony. We met someone who was working at a grocery store when we were delivering eggs – that’s how that first meeting happened. But I’ll leave it up to the Lord to arrange those appointments.”
My own appointment with The Nine stretched long into the afternoon. And while I’m pretty comfortable with the faith and belief system I brought to Park Falls, it was an uncommon opportunity to talk candidly with people whose formative experiences are like no one else’s I’ve encountered. Still, it took me five hours to get there from Milwaukee – do they really expect a lot of walk-up traffic?
“You know,” Jason laughs, “we already have a big advantage in moving from North Dakota.”
Mitch Teich hosts “Lake Effect” on WUWM. Write to him about
this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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