The National Geographic reality show Meet the Hutterites is about a small religious colony in Montana, King Ranch Colony, which is part of a larger community of Hutterites. The show demonstrates the Hutterite colony’s way of life—how they cook, how they eat, how they manage colony work and possessions. But, interestingly, the one thing the show has not truly broached at this point is how the Hutterites approach religion/faith.
Rodney Waldner is an ex-Hutterite, formerly of a Hutterite colony near Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. He was 22 years old when he left the colony almost six years ago. He was ex-communicated, he says, after accepting Jesus Christ into his heart and becoming a Christian. This, he realizes, may surprise many viewers of Meet the Hutterites, as Hutterites are often described as being of a Christian faith, but Waldner has a different point of view.
Waldner was born into the Hutterite colony near Brandon, Manitoba. As he was growing up, he remembers his father’s strong faith, and the many days in Waldner’s youth when his dad taught Sunday school in the colony. However, Waldner also remembers how his life changed when his father, against the belief system of the Hutterite faith, accepted Jesus Christ into his heart, and was ex-communicated by the Hutterite community. Waldner also eventually accepted Christ and was ex-communicated, as well, but says today that he has no ideas of hatred or revenge against the community—only a drive to teach others about Christ and spread the truth of the Gospel as he now knows it. So, when he began watching the National Geographic reality television series, Meet the Hutterites, he realized that, as an ex-Hutterite, he had an important testimony to share with others.
“Hutterites are all Christians, is what people on the outside know to be and think. … My dad received Jesus into his heart; he had an experience with God. And, he gave his testimony at Sunday School. Well, that instantly caused a lot of friction, because the minister’s kids and the leaders’ kids went home and told their parents, and said, okay, this man’s got a strange belief. He’s going against what we believe. We believe the way we live, that is our salvation."
The Hutterites base their lives—and, explains Waldner, their very salvation—on teachings in the of the Book of Acts. While they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he says, they do not believe He is the source of their salvation. Communal living, Waldner explains, is the rock upon which they set their faith, and any swaying from that interpretation is deemed, as Waldner describes it, “strange,” and reason for the community to turn its back on a fellow Hutterite.
“My dad didn’t back down,” Waldner said of the inquisition that followed his father’s testimony of faith. “He felt strongly in his heart that that was the right thing for him to do. … They brought like 40 elders together and questioned him. The question they really got him down for was, ‘Can you call a Christian from the outside your brother? Yes or no?’” Waldner’s dad answered, “Yes,” and, Waldner explained, “That was it. They took away his job, they wanted to kick him out of his house, they even went to a lawyer. … They couldn’t kick him out of his house, but they took away all of his rights and basically pushed him out.”
Waldner was still allowed to stay, to continue living and working in the colony, as long as he did not follow in his father’s beliefs. But, Waldner did take Jesus into his heart and, eventually, the entire family was ex-communicated.
Hutterite Salvation Found in Colony Life
The Hutterite faith, he explained, is based only on those teachings in Acts regarding the communal lifestyle, not on the acceptance of Jesus Christ into one’s heart. “You live in the colony, you do the best you can, you be a good person and you take whatever comes your way, whether you like it or not. And, at the end, you just hope for the best. You’re just hoping you make it into heaven by your good doings and that your good doings outweigh the bad. It has nothing to do with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with Jesus Christ being your Lord and Savior.”
Waldner has dedicated much of his post-colony life to spreading the Gospel, and to helping ex-Hutterites like himself, who are often unprepared to live in the English world when they find the courage to leave the colony. Education, he confirms, is strongly discouraged and devalued, and colony members are brought up to believe that education is unnecessary for the lives they will lead—a teaching that Waldner admits has some truth to it.
“It is true. For what they are going to do for the rest of their life, if they’re going to stay on that straight and narrow … to cook and to clean and have babies, no, you don’t really need an education. So, in that aspect of it, yes, it’s true. But, the very reason for them to limit that education is so that you don’t get curious and you don’t want to taste the outside world, because most people would leave. … The reason people aren’t leaving, is because they can’t. They don’t have the money to do it. They don’t have the know-how. They are so uneducated, they don’t even know how to write a check. I didn’t know how to write a check when I first left. I didn’t know anything about a bank account or mortgage or insurance. So, people are scared. So, that’s the tactic that they have. It’s purposeful, that they do what they do. It’s to keep you stupid. Fearful.”
Today, Waldner has gotten beyond the ignorance that plagued him when he first left the colony, as have his sisters.
“My two sisters and I have our own business in Canada,” he says of his life today—something they never could have dreamed, of course, when they were still living on the Hutterite colony. “We have a residential and commercial cleaning business. It is an awesome vision from the Lord Jesus and it has proved to be very successful.” Additionally, Waldner says he also works part-time for local farmers in his area, when they need extra help. “We do stay very busy, and we are in Christian discipleship, which is most important.”
His education has come mainly from mentors since leaving the colony. This mentorship has helped him in almost every area of his life, he says. He also spends time researching different areas of interest, and is even taking flying lessons, “which has been an awesome learning experience,” he relates, “which I never would have been able to do in the colony.”
In addition, Waldner says members of his family are experiencing other things that they never would have had the opportunity to do in the colony, such as waterskiing; owning their own cars; owning their own construction and landscaping equipment; even things as seemingly minor as choosing their own clothing and their own furniture for their homes. And, he adds, “It is all paid for and we owe nothing to anyone.”
Today, sharing his faith in Jesus Christ with others takes priority in Waldner’s life—yet another experience that he was not allowed in the Hutterite colony. Waldner is very clear on the Hutterite stance on sharing their faith—or much of anything, for that matter—with non-Hutterites:
“You’re not welcome. You’re English. You’re an outsider. You’re an evil influence. What kind of faith is that? It’s like a cult that doesn’t want to spread their wings, doesn’t want to share, because they want to keep everything inside it.”
But, Waldner also believes strongly that the Hutterite faith today has gotten far off-course from what founder Jacob Hutter believed:
“I believe that Jacob Hutter believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that He was his Lord and Savior, and he got killed for it. But, that’s the not the testimony of the Hutterite colonies right now.”
Meet the Hutterites itself, Waldner says, while obviously not a documentary, is bringing light to this closed society, and is an opportunity for God to work.
“It reveals the truth in certain ways, even if it is just minimal. Even if it is only specifically for that colony, a lot of the stuff, to me, shows what is going on. I know it’s just that colony, but a lot of the colonies do exactly the same thing, even way worse stuff than that. So, it’s opening a door for people to get more curious, and I know God has a plan for it. … I think God had it planned right from the beginning. That’s my belief.”
There will no doubt be those whose opinions differ from Waldner’s, and who will dispute his words, but he is not swayed from giving his personal testimony by potential backlash from others.
“I can testify, because I lived it. I lived there, I understand.”
Meet the Hutterites airs on National Geographic on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. E/P.
Image: Courtesy of Rodney Waldner