Religious group says they are unfairly portrayed by ex-members, UND eventINKSTER, N.D. — Ex-members of the Forest River Colony of Hutterites near Inkster, N.D., are speaking out about their former lives in the close-knit religious community based around a far-flung farming operation here in northwest Grand Forks County.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
INKSTER, N.D. — Ex-members of the Forest River Colony of Hutterites near Inkster, N.D., are speaking out about their former lives in the close-knit religious community based around a far-flung farming operation here in northwest Grand Forks County.
In a book released in August, “Hutterites: The Nine — Our Story to Freedom,” three former members of the Forest River colony and six former other young ex-Hutterites describe a cultish, “corrupt” system they say uses child slave labor, and is too isolated from true Christianity and normal society.
They are traveling the region speaking about it and are being hosted next week on UND’s campus in classrooms and other venues, including dinners with school officials.
The events are sponsored by the Anthropology Department and the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Two public forums will be held: 7 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Education Building and 6:45 p.m. Oct. 30 in Christus Rex Lutheran Campus Center.
It’s bringing attention, much of it not welcome, on the farming community nestled along the Forest River where 110 people in 28 families live and work together.
Leaving the church
Titus Waldner, 25, and Jason Waldner, 29, are brothers who left the Forest River colony five years ago.
Seven other young adults who have left Hutterite colonies, including Glenda Maendel, who also grew up at the Forest River Colony, cooperated in the book.
On Monday, the parents of Titus and Jason, Tony and Kathleen Waldner, sat surrounded by their other five children in their kitchen and told visitors why the book isn’t a fair portrayal of their life.
“Is there sexism, favoritism, nepotism among Hutterites? Sure,” Kathleen said. “Just like there is in many other groups.”
She would have no problem with criticism of the colony if it also told of the good things, she said. “But this is all one-sided.”
It’s not fun, Tony and Kathleen said, to have two of their sons criticize their upbringing so sharply.
One passage especially gets to Tony, he said, leafing through the book to find what Titus wrote: “I was not being trained up to be a good citizen, nor a person of character nor a good Christian, but instead a good Hutterite.”
Looking up from his kitchen table, Waldner said quietly, “That hurts.”
More forcefully, he added: “And it’s simply not true. I was their Sunday school teacher and their religion teacher.”
More than some other Hutterite colonies, Forest River has consistently taught a warm form of Protestant Christianity, that “Jesus comes first,” Kathleen said.
As with any member of the colony, their children are “free to leave, but of course, we hope they stay,” said Tony Waldner, a UND graduate who teaches the Colony’s children in their schoolhouse.
Asked if she feels kept in a cult-like prison at the colony, Abigail Waldner, 17, sister to Titus and Jason, smiled and said, “Not that I noticed.”
But Tony and Kathleen Waldner do say a cult-like group is involved. They are certain that Fred Phillips, pastor of a tiny church in Rolla, N.D., where most if not all the ex-Hutterites now live, is behind much of the sharp criticism.
“They are deceived,” Tony Waldner said.
“He brainwashed them,” Kathleen Waldner said.
Phillips, who is 57 and divorced, married one of “the Nine,” Glenda Maendel, who is 27 and who grew up in the Forest River Colony, said Kathleen Waldner.
Because Hutterites don’t approve of divorced people remarrying, that was a difficult issue to face, she said.
Phillips encouraged several of the ex-Hutterites to sue the colony in 2008 in state district court in Grand Forks, seeking millions of dollars in alleged damages, Tony Waldner said.
A judge dismissed the case and ordered Titus and Jason Waldner to pay the Colony $4,200, according to state court records.
The book doesn’t mention Phillips, even in Glenda Maendel’s chapter, in which she simply writes about marrying him without naming him, after she received “wisdom” from his teaching that she should not marry her fiancé, who also was an ex-Hutterite.
Phillips has never been a Hutterite and is being supported by the young ex-Hutterites, including Titus and Jason, who work as carpenters, Tony Waldner said.
Tony and Kathleen Waldner emailed a UND professor who organized next week’s events, asking to be part of the program to counter what they said were the unfair charges in the book.
Melinda Leach, an anthropology professor who organized the event, emailed a response to the Waldners, which they said they appreciated, although it didn’t result in giving them room on the agenda next week.
“A university community is a place for discussion of ideas, even contentious ones, in pursuit of learning about diverse opinions, cultures, experiences, beliefs and histories,” Leach told the Waldners. “We, in the academic community, do not take sides, or ascribe ‘truth’ to any one perspective. We only provide a forum for the presentation of ideas and reasoned discussion.”
Leach invited them to attend the Oct. 28 event in room 113 of the Education Building on campus.
“The event is free and open to the public in the hopes that wide-ranging, cordial, respectful dialogue might be part of the evening,” Leach wrote. “The Nine will give a brief presentation and then we will be asking the audience to provide appropriate questions or make brief comments. You are welcome, as well, to voice your thoughts within that context of difference and respect.”
Kathleen Waldner smiled as she said she would like to go or perhaps have her children attend to ask questions.
But Tony Waldner said he didn’t think it would serve any good purpose and he didn’t want a public spectacle.
“Let them have their say,” he said.
Kathleen said she’s not sure the best way to respond to the accusations of her sons Titus and Jason.
“We just pray.”