Most evangelicals know a bit about horse-and-buggy driving, technology-shunning Amish and conservative Mennonite communities. But unless we've grown up in the Dakotas or on the Canadian prairie, we likely don't know much about their Anabaptist cousins, the Hutterites. The Hutterites have the same spiritual heritage (the radical wing of the 16th-century Reformation), but are distinguished from other Anabaptist groups by their distinctive communal lifestyle. Community members share a common purse and do not own individual property, and community leaders make all the financial decisions.
Canadian author Mary Ann Kirkby's memoir, I Am Hutterite (Thomas Nelson, 2010), is her account of life in the Fairholme Hutterite colony in Manitoba, Canada—and how her life changed after her parents uprooted the family when she was 10 to join the "English" (non-Hutterite) world. The book offers a fascinating glimpse into a world typically closed to outsiders.
Kirkby's childhood impressions of the nurture and familial warmth of the community were at odds with the power politics and dysfunction that her parents were experiencing at the hands of the community's leaders. When Kirkby's parents uprooted their seven children in 1969 without warning (but as much advance, adult preparation as they could muster under the watchful gaze of the tight-knit community), the entire family had to learn a new way of living. They left the colony with nothing, as Hutterite communities share a common purse. This translated into lots of awkward growing pains for the poverty-stricken family:
Mother had never made school lunches before. Now she had to make five of them every night while I tried to explain to her what the English kids were eating. We were complete sandwich novices. On the colony we ate full-course meals daily, and only on special occasions, such as weddings or funerals, were ham sandwiches served as a night snack … the only luncheon meat we could afford was bologna that was weeks past its 'best before' date and mottled with mold. Mother trimmed the green edges from the meat with a knife and tucked an uneven piece between two slices of stale white bread.
Kirkby describes her painful experiences as a teen desperate to fit into the English world while clinging to the cloistered Hutterite community she loved. When she is entered into the Miss Winkler Queen beauty pageant by her boss at her after-school job, she surprises the entire (heavily Mennonite) town by winning. Though Kirkby no longer dresses or lives as a Hutterite, she still identifies with them. Yet she has simultaneously achieved her goal of assimilating into non-Hutterite culture. The tension between her two worlds comes in a particularly poignant moment following her pageant win:
On the way to the photographer's studio with my runners-up, I saw my parents leaning against a storefront, dumbfounded. "You're supposed to say congratulations," I coached … "Nitt foll in den Brunn einhin. Don't fall into the well," Father warned …. Pride was considered the ultimate flaw in Hutterite culture, and we were taught to diligently guard against it. In my moment of triumph, Father was worried I might get my hose too high in the air and wouldn't see where I was going.
As a counterpoint to Kirkby's attempts to merge her cloistered past with her English present, the final chapters of the book highlight her parents' attempts to forgive Hutterite community leaders who had abused their power. Though it is not explicitly stated in the book, both her parents and her paternal grandfather apparently were born again, and eventually found the freedom and the blessing of integrating past and present that they longed for the day they left the colony.
I Am Hutterite is compelling reading not just for those interested in religious subcultures, but for anyone who finds themselves living between two different cultures. Our faith community of origin shapes the way we perceive both God and others, and often forms the contours for understanding who is "in" and "out" of the community. Though Kirkby's family moved only a few miles from their Hutterite home, they suddenly found themselves outsiders in both Hutterite and English worlds. The pain of exclusion is palpable throughout the book.
It is a pain all of us would do well to understand because it is all around us. It is found in varying decibel levels among those belonging to immigrant communities, those who have relocated from one suburb to another, and those who have left a tightly knit church to wander the ecclesiological landscape. We do well to tune into the pain of exclusion, because the truth is, each one of us who follows Christ finds ourselves living far from home.