The Mennonite Year in Review
“They Left Everything and Followed Him”: A Year of Finding a New Way to Community
Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” . . . When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. . . . When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken. . . . Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be fishers of men.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him (Lk 5, NRSV).
In our house in Newton, Kansas, next to where I read and write and do most of my incidental living, I have a copy of a Romanian icon depicting this miraculous encounter on the shores of Lake Gennesaret, on the northwestern shoulder of the Sea of Galilee. It is a beautiful little icon, not much larger than an index card, and I enjoy looking at it and reflecting on what it has to say about our faith. I can summon the scene now-the straining nets, the men doubled over the gunnel of the boat, pulling at the catch, Jesus at the stern, the graybearded Peter kneeling before him-all amid a backdrop, not of Galilee but of medieval middle Europe, of granite castles and men fishing with poles, which is all the artist would have known.
But the place does not matter, for the moral is universal. The idea of renouncing all, of giving up all we have-or all we believe we have-is something central to Christianity, or at least used to be. That is literally what led our family to our life in a community of the Hutterian Brethren, where the communal way is central to the life of faith, and life in common becomes very real.
We joined Starland Hutterite Colony in 1995, after I had been a daily newspaper journalist for eleven years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Surrounded by stark violence and the depravities of life, as journalists often are, I felt a growing dismay in my soul-a terrible, yawning, despairing emptiness, that only a spiritual remedy could assuage. I began to sense a distinct and yet uncertain call to take up a life of another sort-a call my wife also sensed in her own way. This call not only led to my conversion to Christianity, after years of ethical and moral agnosticism, but to a particularly radical form of Christianity-Anabaptism and, later, communal Anabaptism. Even after we joined the Hutterites, a rare and fundamentally odd occurrence for people not born to that faith, I continued writing, and was called upon by our church to help edit and assemble a number of old Hutterite sermons and other writings. My writing appeared in many other places as well, and I embarked on a rather embarrassing (for a Hutterite) part-time career as a quasi-academic-speaking at colleges and taking part in important-sounding “dialogues.”
So even after we had left behind “the world” and the work we had done there, believing we were answering a call and turning our backs on something, we found ourselves doing a lot of the very same things we had done before, though certainly in a different and socially rarefied setting. And even as we continued our life in the colony, being baptized as full members and seeing two of our three children born there, we felt the subtle hand of God gently moving us, as if we were being prepared for something else in another place.
A year ago, when our community agreed to allow us to come here to Kansas, to do a different kind of work in a different place for a while, I still felt a strong sense of identification with the communal way. That made coming here very hard in one regard, because we had pledged ourselves to a life of devotion to the community, free of any individual claim to property. The communal way had become an article of faith for us, just as it is for all Hutterites. I still believe in the vows we made, and in the weight of responsibility such vows carry if one is earnest about them. They did not simply evanesce, or fall from our shoulders, when we pulled onto the highway and arrived in Kansas one day in January 2002.
For us, going to the colony, setting aside our material goods and concerns was not really an issue. With grace, it hardly mattered. But going the other way, taking these things on again out of necessity, was problematic. If we had not done so with the approval and blessing of our community, it would have been nearly impossible. Nonetheless, we have doubts that only a person who has lived in community can fully understand. Perhaps by returning to the world, I am actually snatching these things back. On the other hand, perhaps God is giving back to us those things that we need, so that we can do his work in whatever ministry or walk of life he might have in mind.
For six years we lived a distinctly religious life-an identity I felt very close to and protected by. In many ways, I felt as if I were part of a distinctly monastic culture. Indeed, many parallels exist between the day-to-day operation of a colony and the strikingly similar model of a Benedictine cloister. But where Benedict, in his astute Cassinese way, emphasized hospitality and conversion of life, the Hutterite way emphasizes community and its many practical virtues.
Because of its apparently narrow concern with spiritually austere communalism, the Hutterian way is not for everyone, and few have taken it. I don’t think many ever will, because it offers as many confusing obstacles as consoling fulfillments. Still, one can find a way to God there, which is what we tried to do in our community. Leaving this behind, then, meant a major change in the way we viewed ourselves, our life as a family and our faith.
We still live a religious life, but in a different form and with a different spiritual syntax. Even if I might find it a strange fit sometimes, God has asked this of us, just as he took us from careers and friends and sent us to the hard-frozen prairie of Minnesota. In community we seek to embody God, or a particular side of God-or, said differently, a thought of God. Those who have had a conviction to live in community with others truly believe that God desires it of us, and that he plants this seed of togetherness in our souls when we are converted. It is a great gift, and has much potential for being a good life. I still feel that a life lived in genuine sharing, with Christ at the center, is the best way for me to live and to survive as a Christian person. However, that is not always possible, and there is nothing to preclude hearing a different kind of call at different times in one’s life.
The important thing is at least to be willing to forsake all and follow him-whether we are called upon to do this in a literal way or not. Our spiritual renunciation is just as important, because it shows our hearts in the truest light. In a sense, any way of renunciation, if it has God in it, is the proper way. Nothing-be it material goods, money, fields or houses, prestige or even a net full of fish-should stand between us and the unchanging, ineffable truth of God’s love.
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There is no one more foolish than the foolish believer, except for the foolish unbeliever.
– Naguib Mahfouz
God’s time is not always what appears to be a good time by our earthly standards. By my own clocks, we probably picked the worst possible time to try to enter the world of the Hutterites. And a year ago we encountered a time of considerable change and adaptation amid the more mainstream, and not discernibly nonconformist, Mennonite world.
When we joined our community, the Hutterites were in the tides of a painful and drawn-out breakup with the Bruderhof Communities-a rancorous and combative split if ever there was one-as well as a variety of inner turmoils that were not exactly hospitable to outsiders. We weathered these sea changes among the Hutterites relatively well, though with great and unbalancing difficulty at times. However, coming out of an environment we had become used to-a distinctly conservative and established environment like the colony-and attempting to encounter the strange new realm of Mennonite Church USA was far more discomfiting in some ways.
We are a rarity in such things. Very few people, if any, have made a similar transition. But perhaps because we did, we have a somewhat clear view of what really happened. Coming into the merging Mennonite denomination, we saw an earnest and open church trying very hard to overcome something. What this was-centuries of insular acculturation perhaps’-we still do not know.
As a church, we are supposed to be a sign to others-a small and insignificant sign perhaps, but a visible witness of and testimony to something. As we struggle with who we are-as a people, as a denomination-we must remember this. Our responsibility to stand as a sign to the world does not stop, even as we go about cleaning our spiritual houses or hanging new curtains on our ecclesial windows.
Despite our encroaching worldliness, we remain a people on the fringes of society, at least in spirit-a people made marginal by our allegiance to Christ. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, therein lies our finest grace, if we are willing to embrace it as did our forebears and the first Christians. To think otherwise would make us foolish believers.
To continue to slide into closer league with the ways of the world, which we all know the cost of, is to possibly become something even worse, and to give up a big part of our distinct and valuable “peoplehood” (one of those curious Mennonite buzzwords that have mushroomed here and there).
Where is our witness then? What sign do we offer to those around us who are seeking hope? Ideally, we should provide an engaging voice, not only of social exchange and reform but of the pure and hopeful gospel. Thus far, the Anabaptist world has avoided the terrible traps of overt, global bureaucracy, which with today’s increasingly international church could be a serious temptation. So far, we are not attracting believers just to beef up our power structure, or to bolster our political influence in faraway cultures where western churches often run the risk of becoming just another alien influence.
Having said that, how well do we engage our brothers and sisters in, say, Congo or Indonesia? Instead of seeing them as “the other” or as “them,” we should engage them with the mind of Christ, anointing them with the myrrh of true mission, which defies cultures and is faultlessly color blind. That is harder than it sounds. But it will be the key to the future, a sign of how deeply we thrive as we continue to carry the gospel abroad.
Though I cannot identify with things I might see as “worldly” or compromises in the church, the potential we have for carrying the gospel to the farthest corners and for effecting meaningful nonviolent change is encouraging to our family. It is what was missing from our life in community, and from the ideals of many around us there. Of course, if we do not act on this potential, it is all for naught-a grace transformed into shame.
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Of all the things we have encountered in our far-flung spiritual journey, it was the fields-the land itself, not some sense of ownership-that stood hardest between me and whatever else there had been in my life. When it came time to renounce our common life in the colony, it was the sense of place, the sense of where we lived and who we were while we lived there, that presented the finest and most formidable blocks. Those fields, that place of noctilucent snow and wind and gravel roads-and the city nearby, Minneapolis, with its museums and Somali bazaars inhabited by mysterious African Sufis-all of these stood hard in the way. But the fields themselves-the open, fertile expanses of the Great Plains-those were the most haunting of all to leave behind. We were attached to these places by vows-by mystical locks and utterances that people of our world do not take very seriously any more. To our minds, we had attached ourselves not only to a church and a community but to God. And for me, God was most obviously present in the visible creation around us. I needed it-the smell and sight of it, the bitter slash of the wind opening and revealing every sense within me-and I couldn’t leave it behind for long. Even when I would go to the city for a day, my heart quickened whenever I saw on the way back the procession of squared fields and county roads and then the familiar mailboxes-Nelson, Klukas, Stark, Renner, Bjorklund-that told me I was home again, in the milieu God had given me.
The sad part was that no one-not one of our fellow communards-saw the same kind of blessing in our life together. Or if they did, they couldn’t find the words to describe such a vulnerable state. They had become so used to this way of life that its uniqueness, its grace, no longer seemed to exist for them. For many, the colony life had become a prison, or a palace-a self-reflecting culture instead of a place of spiritual fertility and ripeness. In large part, this pain and emptiness are why we eventually felt compelled-perhaps even called-to leave, though I still wish I could have made it otherwise. But farming, even when the soil is planted with human lives, is full of disasters and always will be.
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This past year was the first time in quite a while that the occupation on my tax return will not read “farmer.” Of all the transitions we have made, the occupational one may be the most significant. Not that I was much of a farmer. I only farmed part of the time. Like most farmers in our part of Minnesota, I had paying jobs as well.
Sometimes I was a welder, and sometimes I did other things in our metal shop that required a computer and looked rather mysterious to people not used to such things. People who know me, who know that I am actually an author and not a welder, laugh when they think of me doing such things. But farming was what I enjoyed the most-in part because I got to go outside to do it, and because I enjoyed the dust and rattle of the cornstalks and the cool October breezes and the blue-black skies of late afternoon and evening when we went out harvesting. I think of this time now as if it were a lifetime ago, and I nearly weep. I always considered farming to be a great blessing-a vocation of undeserved holiness.
For wisdom or folly, people tend to tie up their identities with what they do-and for me, the strongest bond during our years in community was with farming. A few years ago I wrote “A Devout Meditation on Harvesting Corn” in Mennonite Weekly Review that explained a little about my beliefs and convictions on farming-on farming as a Hutterite. In it I wrote, in part:
I come from a farming milieu, from the stultifying heat and thunder of the South, from amid cotton fields, and fields of other things no one can grow this far north. I come by my joy in farming honestly then; I am not a convert to agriculture, as I am to God. Farming made the journey with me, and though it is not my primary job here, the ones who manage our acres let me go out every fall, and drive a truck and bring in what the combines draw from the earth. . . .
Sitting there, waiting in the truck for the combine to make another pass, watching as the corn piles up in the hopper and overflows, I feel as close as I ever do to the true and meaningful presence of God. It is silent and unwordable, and despite the din of our machines, I really hear nothing but the wind, which is the passing of the year, and the dry flutter of the swaying stalks stiffening, rasping, now receding as the breeze dies down for a moment.
To the Hutterites, the farming life is a form of stationary pilgrimage, a journey to nowhere in particular but a journey nonetheless. It is a journey of the soul but also one that echoes the centuries of flight and persecution the Hutterites’ forebears endured. As with most pilgrims, the strongest links are not forged with other people but with places along the way, with the sacred land. I, too, miss people we knew, but I especially miss the home place where we lived-the living fields in summer and autumn, the deep and drifting snows, the frozen stars and the soundless jetliners that skated above us at night and dipped down into Minneapolis, or maybe just kept going.
Each fall, when we had completed the year’s harvest, we had an abschinka, a harvest celebration that came, along with everything else, from Russia-like the Hutterisch word for strawberries or the polka dots on the women’s scarves. At that gathering, which we usually held on Thanksgiving, as much from convenience as from any symbolic meaning the day might have had in the world, the minister would read from Psalm 126. This psalm is about harvesting God’s gifts, in one sense, but it is also a song of pilgrimage, of exiles returning from a long sojourn-very appropriate for the Hutterites. Sometimes when I was alone in the truck out in the field as we harvested, I would stand amid the stalks and recite the psalms. It seemed natural and it filled my heart with the most profound joy. I paraphrase here and there as I quote from memory:
When the lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
it was like a dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The lord has done great things for them.”
The lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, o lord,
as streams in the desert.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing in the sheaves.
To many people, a life like that led in a Hutterite colony-or a monastic community or, for that matter, any church that tends to set the tone for the lives of its members-is pointless, without value, wasting its time and squandering the graces God has bestowed on it. It is little more than sowing and reaping, and then sowing again after the long, inevitable winter. But others find infinite value in people who set themselves apart, endeavoring to follow a spiritual path and seek communion with God.
While I do value the lives led by many people in Hutterite colonies, I know from experience that such an isolated life poses many hazards, whether one is isolated with God or not. These hazards can easily and quickly turn a garden of grace and light into a contrarian ghetto of inversion and blindness.
So what is the relevance of such places? How do we relate to them as Christians, as fellow spiritual travelers?
I’ve just said it. Such places are as relevant as we are willing to admit. Either we accept their values or we do not. Most people, and likely most Anabaptists, do not accept the values that Hutterites embody-either because of their strict communalism or their distant, insular, kin-centered separation from the world. However, these are not the main values to consider. Instead, we should look at the possibility in such a life for meaningful prayer or as a form of living witness. Indeed, the life led by Hutterites and other Christian communal groups, is largely one of witness-even of a penitential witness that heals us of our sins. Most Hutterites do not look at the inherent, spiritual merits of their life together, at least not beyond the outward demonstration of living with all things in common. They have been living this way for so long, with so little freshening in their midst, that their style of life has become, in places, desperately stale and smothered by forms and fallacies. Like all of us, the Hutterites desperately need a revival, or a return to their original, suffering-inspired beginnings, when they gazed not at themselves so much as at Christ-when they were still communities of resistance, of an alternative, of a different way that meant something to more people; when they were a refuge that welcomed fellow travelers to the fold. God will bring this revival in his own way.
Still, there is something emblematic in Hutterite life, something that does not have a name. It is something of immense value, even if we cannot relate to it. Some of us can see it, others cannot. And there it will have to rest.
Living in our Hutterite community-as outsiders among outsiders, practically unseen, beneath several layers of inscrutable exile-was something we had to get used to, and arguably we never did. Indeed, in Hutterland exile was an obvious commodity that one could get too much of without realizing it. Getting accustomed this past year to not living such an exile anymore has driven me even more deeply into it, I’m afraid-but perhaps in a good way. Very likely, that way was not to be found in the colony, where spiritual fulfillment for outsiders is not a priority, having gone out of vogue, or necessity, hundreds of years ago. No matter. We were earnest and so were they.
Now, as one who relates to Mennonites and lives on a quiet street in a small Kansas town, I feel all the more like a spiritual hermit, which can be a dangerous sport, even if I appear in plain sight and walk about and do obvious things. But do not believe me. My heart is really far away from here-amid dismal cold, buried beneath a league of snow. When I feel particularly lonely, I put on my old Hutterite clothes again-the handmade shirts, the still-dusty barn coat-and the dim chill warms away.
At night I dream of the paved county road that passed a mile east of the colony. I dream of it as it appears at night, in snow, beneath ancient starlight and shimmering auroras. Across the sleeping fields, crisscrossed by foxes, I see the lights of the houses and hear the accents within-voices I realize I am a part of and yet cannot entirely comprehend at such a distance.
In a world filled with such barbarity as 9/11 and the many wars we insist on waging, and the sinful starvation we inflict on so many around the world even while we build more bombs to kill them with, I can only say that my spirit resides on a distant road, in a faraway place where I no longer live, under moonlight.
What a gift God gives us, when he sends us into his many forms of exile, sometimes again and again. As the psalm reminds us, the Lord has done great things for us. Indeed, the Lord has done great things for me. Let us magnify him by our lives and by our witness as a people of faith, as a people of resistance, wherever we are and whomever we are with. Let us leave everything, and follow him.
[*]Robert Rhodes is assistant editor of Mennonite Weekly Review at Newton, Kansas.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Year in Review: They Left Everything and Followed Him