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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published October 21 2013

Hutterites say they are unfairly portrayed by ex-members, UND event

INKSTER, N.D. – Ex-members of the Forest River Colony of Hutterites near Inkster 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 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 the University of North Dakota 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 are scheduled: 7 p.m. Monday 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.”