Everyday Faith: Quiet Piety Permeates Hutterite Thought, Deed

Aksamit, Nichole. "Everyday Faith: Quiet Piety Permeates Hutterite Thought, Deed." Forum, 15 November 1999, sec. A1 & A12.

The modest women of Spring Prairie Colony share a quiet moment in the early morning sun on a trailer behind a tractor headed for a cucumber field northwest of Hawley, Minnesota.

Everyday faith
Quiet piety permeates Hutterite thought, deed

By Nichole Aksamit, The Forum, Staff Writer

Published in The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota, November 15, 1999, page A1, A12

Spring Prairie Colony, Minn.

A bell in the courtyard chimes the time for the noon meal.

At once, the men and women of this Hutterite colony northwest of Hawley walk briskly toward the central dining hall, heads bowed slightly.

The kerchiefed women enter a door on the north, the men a door on the south and, like two flocks of birds, they fall into formation.

The women seat themselves at long tables on one side of the room, in order by age and marital status. The men hang their hats on the wall and seat themselves in order on the other side.

At once, as in response to some silent signal, 284 metal chair legs grate against linoleum as 71 bodies slide their chairs toward the tables and wait in silence for the leader to say grace.

They fold their hands at their chests and bow their heads in supplication as a deep voice from the male side of the room intones the opening prayer in German.

After the "Amen," the men and women begin dishing up the roast pork, homemade potato chips, coleslaw, boiled carrots and onions, creamy egg soup, tomatoes and whole milk that has been set before them.

They eat quickly, silently and in near-perfect unison.

Two teen-age girls move swiftly from table to table, collecting the uneaten food from the serving dishes at the women's tables and redistributing it to the men's. And the kitchen manager brings out a piece of chocolate cake for each person, a special treat for the ladies who butchered 1,400 chickens this morning.

Exactly 12 minutes after the opening grace, the same deep voice recites the closing prayer:

"Danke, Gott, fur diese Speise. Bitte geben uns mehr - unser geistliche Speise. In den Namen Jesus Christus, Amen."

(Thank you, God, for this food. Please give us more - our spiritual food. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.)

At once, 71 bodies push their chairs from the table.

Like so many aspects of everyday life at Spring Prairie Colony, even mealtime has a religious undercurrent.

"What is in our society a routine function, such as the gathering of a family around the supper table, becomes to the Hutterians an expression of worship," writes the late Moorhead State University sociologist and archivist Victor Peters, in "All Things Common," a sociological study of the Hutterite way of life.

"The taking of nourishment to them is more than just that; it is a religious service, a tribute to the glory of the Provider of all."

And, if asked why they do something a certain way, Hutterites at Spring Prairie will usually quote the Bible or say simply, "God wills it."

Even the Hutterites' modest clothing style has its roots in religion: the biblical imperative that women cover their hair and believers have "all things common." They believe their uniform dress code identifies them as Christians, sets them apart from the world and reduces the coveting of material things.

From birth, Hutterites are taught to value piety and humility. Daily prayers are among the first words a child learns to speak. The colonists at Spring Prairie typically pray at least 13 times a day - once in the morning, once at night, before and after three meals and two snacks, and during church services held Sunday morning and each evening before supper.

Prayer, they feel, is part and parcel of a life guided by God and the Bible.

"If you're going to be a Christian," says John Waldner Sr., the colony's elder minister. "You can't be a half-Christian. You must read and live by the whole Testament. You must strive to be like Christ in thought, word, and deed."

The daily services at Spring Prairie are a serious affair. At about 5:45 p.m. each day, the same bell that calls the congregation to dinner reminds them it's time to go home and prepare for church.

The men and women wash their hands and faces, put on their black jackets and aprons and wait in the dark of their houses for the colony elders to begin the somber procession to the meeting hall.

As at mealtime, it is considered rude to arrive early or late and the congregation assembles quickly, parting at the main aisle of the church. Again, everyone has his or her place by gender, age and marital status.

Men sit on the left with their hats in their laps. Women sit on the right with their hands folded. The youngest Hutterites sit toward the front, the oldest at the back - with the exception of the elected elders who sit at the front and face the congregation.

Children under age 5 remain at home with their baby-sitters.

The church at Spring Prairie is on the main level of the same building that houses the adult and children's dining halls, the kitchen, the bakery and the laundry. It is a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled rectangle of a room with linoleum floors, uncushioned wooden pews and three windows at the front.

It is notably unadorned. The only thing on the walls is a wooden clock. The plain windows wear ghostly white curtains. There are no crucifixes, no candles, no sound system, no piano or organ, no hymnals.

There is no altar, but rather a simple table behind which the two ministers kneel for prayers or stand to read the hymn verses and the sermons, some of which date to the 1500s.

The services, conducted entirely in high German, begin with a formal prayer asking God's help and guidance in thought, word a and deed, and about 10 minutes of song.

During an evening service in August, the younger minister, George Waldner, stands and reads several verses of the day's hymn, "Wer Ohren hat zu horen" (Those Who Have Ears to Hear") - from a small songbook.

The seated congregation sings the hymn unaccompanied, line by line, recalling the plaintive melodies from memory. With strong, reedy voices they sing eight verses about the importance of Demut (humility) when tempted by the apparent splendor of Pracht (fancy, unnecessary, material things).

John, the elder minister, then reads the sermon, word for word, from a black-bound book. A breeze billows the curtains behind him and the congregation sits with slightly bowed heads, their eyes averted from the minister as if to better hear and understand his words.

One of many passed down from the 16th century, the sermon talks of Christ's example. It centers on biblical accounts of his behavior on Earth: turning water to wine at the wedding of Canaa, throwing merchants out of the temple, healing a sick man, and forgiving his persecutors.

The sermon argues that man must live by Christ's example - strive for the spiritual, abandon the material, help his neighbors and love his enemies - in order to attain heavenly reward.

The congregation then kneels for about 10 minutes on the hard linoleum floor while George says the closing prayers.

After the benediction, the men file out, oldest to youngest, then the women, oldest to youngest.

They go home to remove their black jackets, discuss the sermon, hold their children and wait for the supper bell.

Prayer and preaching are an integral part of life for Hutterites, who attend church every day and twice on Sunday. The Spring Prairie colonists hurry to evening church services.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum

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