“May I be of complete and utmost service.
Let my every task be my grace.
In my every labor lies my salvation.
Let my effort not me wasted.
Through my works may I save the world.”
Creedish prayer (extracted from the book Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk)
I was leaving the Anytime Fitness in Goshen, Indiana on a freezing cold evening in February a few years ago. The blast of cold hit my face and I pushed the heavy door against the wind to exit the steamy environment. I had just showered, perhaps the first one in about three days due to being on the road on a tight schedule doing RV transport. Steam billowed from my naked arm skin, still hot from the shower, into the darkness of the parking lot. The gym itself was housed in what looked like an old Pizza Hut, but was gorgeous after the renovation, which was in the same parking lot as a strip mall. An already closed hardware store abutted a post office which cuddled next to the DMV office which was adjacent to a nail parlor. Other store faces sat like missing teeth on the façade of great building. There was a grocery store, sleepy due to he time of the night, and in a separate building there was a glowing mecca of red, green and white. You could almost hear the mariachi music from where I was, at least 1/8 of a mile away.
Arriving at the truck I toss my gym bag and damp towel into the back, atop the mattress that had pretty much been home for the previous two weeks. I spun around, knowing I took too much time in the gym, we were already fifteen minutes behind schedule and still needed to eat. My partner was already halfway through his cold can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli, so I had major catch up to do. Grabbing my can of herring, I pulled the top off and helped myself to my delicious dinner of semi-gelatinous fish and a few crackers. Sitting there in dark silence, I noticed the odd configuration of posts, and attached were plain black horses with their buggies. The horses seemed happy enough, and the buggies seemed charming, and at that moment I didn’t give it much thought. Horses and buggies are a dime a dozen in North Central Indiana. What those people do for transportation is none of my business.
Watching the horses got boring, just like the herring, countless cans of herring, had become. Running an efficient RV transport gig doesn’t include lavish meals and drive throughs, it was work. Work, maybe a moment of play a day, and then sleep. In between sleep cycles, you’d focus all of your attention on load boards, weather, traffic, back to load boards, gas prices, it’s a lot of work, not physically, but mentally. Staying on top of the boards and weather gets to you. The green blobs that you saw ten minutes ago have suddenly turned pink and the route that was paved in roses is now full of thorns. I was taking that moment, eating my herring and watching the horses to take a breather. From the corner of my eyes, I spied, something I couldn’t understand.
Trotting out of the Mexican restaurant, adorned in plain back woolen looking clothes, black hats and plain shoes were three young men. Accompanying these young men, two young ladies, adorned in long delicate floral print dresses draped around tiny frames and sweet bonnets. The only exception to the whole scene was one of the young men was wearing one of those tacky sombreros and one of the girls was holding onto what looked like a stuffed florescent colored monkey. I watched as they laughed and flowed across the parking lot, un-phased by the cutting cold and made their way into the buggies waiting patiently for them at the hitching post. The young men helped the young ladies into the buggy, carefully, and handed them their Styrofoam to go boxes to place on their laps. Off they went, and there I was left with questions upon questions.
Rewind the calendar about a month and put yourself in the frigid tundra that is central Western Minnesota, Morris to be exact. In order to create a more lucrative transport system, it was time to put the old million mile truck out to pasture and grab a gently used CPO from a dealership there which assured that this truck was better than any other on the used truck market. With intentions on grabbing the truck sight unseen, we were surprised to learn about the trucks past, as a work horse on a Hutterite colony. A what? A who? With a blank look and title in hand, I glace at the owners name, Sam something or other of the Hutterite Brethren. My partner and I looked at each other with curiosity and a splash of concern. Were these people like those in Indiana? Why did they get such nice flashy trucks? So many questions.
This all brings me back to the book, Survivor, which I purchased without even reading the back cover to get a brief insight as to what the heck it was about. I knew the author is solid, and I’ve read his other stuff before and expected something on par with prior experience. Upon the first few pages, I was extremely skeptical as to if I was even going to finish this book. It seemed raw for the sake of shock value and didn’t seem to bring any depth to the storyline. To be fair, I’m not one for lavish fiction that includes supernatural aspects and crudeness. I was concerned this book was going to turn into a stream of bitter dialogue from a disgruntled character. I was wrong, and pleasantly surprised.
To pull everything together, the elaborate painting of the upbringing of the young man in a church sect was fascinating to me. Immediately upon the first mention of this fictitious Creedish Church, my mind went directly to those young people in the parking lot, normal as can be, enjoying life. I though of Morris, Minnesota and the fine truck that was once used by the Hutterian Brethren. I felt like I had some sort of first hand knowledge about these church sects, and I refrain from using the word cult, even though in the book it referred to the fake church as such. The more the book went into detail, the more I frowned at the depiction of the Creedish Church. I understand, it was a book, it’s not real, and it’s not something that should be taken offense to. I did, though, and I couldn’t figure out why.
What the author was trying to illustrate was a death cult, however, it was more of a morph of existing modern church groups. There were issues and situations that resonated with reality and although I can’t speak for what sort of research actually went into the writing of the book Survivor, but it shadowed on realistic propensity and real people. Those same actual people are those that have fascinated me since learning of their existence. They’re real, and although the author of the book was intending on creating a satirical piece, I found it disrespectful to the cultures that were semi-shadowed in the book.
The common misconception of the public in regards to the structured church communities is antiquated. My ignorance was embarrassing, and it caused me to want to research as much as possible about these groups. The exhausting part, however, is it’s impossible to wrap your mind around an entire lifestyle just on a Wikipedia page. I needed to see it first hand, and needed to put this curiosity at peace. Thankfully we were placed right back in Morris Minnesota a few weeks after getting the truck for some work to be done. Twenty miles or so due west was the Big Spring Colony, a Huetterian homeplace that stood like a statue in the frozen winter landscape. As we approached, I compared what I was seeing in 3D to what the plot of land looked like on Google Earth. It was so gigantic, yet so tiny. Dormitories, maybe three in total, were configured around a garden and a church, unlike most modern churches, sat modestly on the same campus. Across the road, the massive rendering plants and steel rendering facilites sat separate, looking like a Stone Henge made of building, solitary structures separated by vast nothingness but symolizing so much.
Let me give you a tiny bit of background about the Huterrian Brethren. They have their colonies (a much better term than sect) in which families live and flourish, working together to achieve a certain lifestyle. This lifestyle is revolved around serving the lord and work. It sounded remarkably like the book, Survivor, however without the fiction. The labor and toil of the book resulted in nothing, mass suicide actually; the labor of these real people result in a colony of less than 120 people, the maximum at any given time, grossing close to 9 million dollars a year…relatively tax free. This isn’t without an unfathomable amount of work, when it’s bean season, everyone is out harvesting, when there’s a cattle emergency, everyone is out helping. It’s a community glued together with teamwork. I call it admirable.
Of course, upon cruising down the road and spying from the truck I couldn’t have gained this knowledge. Countless websites vaguely tell you what goes on, mostly because the Huterrians aren’t as big a fan of the internet as the rest of us screen zombies. There is a fantastic piece, written by a Donald Huffman on the official Huterrian website that zeros in on the basic facts that any non-Huterrian should know. He took a leap of total submersion and created a brilliant, easy to read explanation as to what life on a colony is like.
As we did a quick five-point-turn and headed back toward, what I would call civilization, I looked back on what was actually what a civilization should look like. I couldn’t look out the window anymore, because I felt a deep shame, almost like being a visitor at a zoo. This community of people, hard working and religious people. aren’t animals to be gawked at. I felt shame in my curiosity, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I dug deeper into their life.
My research and reading led me to absolutely admire this group of people and be a bit scorned against the book Survior. I understand, again, that it’s a work of fiction, however, what really needs to happen is a real life documentation as to how hardworking and admirable a small group of likeminded people working together can be. Isolated for the rest of the work? Yes. Innundated with old-timey ways that most of the world would probably laugh about? Yes. However, they have the best technology for manufacturing, they have the most efficient way of educating (although recently certain states have regulated their home schooling practices), and crime is absent. Not just low, completely absent.
There is a flip side to the amazing coin, however. The modern entertainment business has started to glamorize some of these religious groups, for what I can assess nothing but profit. Take for example the program Pure, put out by the CBC, then picked up by WGN America. I saw the commercial promoting it, and the claim that it’s based on the true story of the Mennonite Mob. Of course, my curiosity got my eyes and ears and I found myself programming my DVR to watch it, at my own pace (there is never a moments peace and quiet in this house, so I ended up getting up at 3 am and watching it in the dark, with a glass of wine as I would have done watching it during the original air time, I felt that was important). I settled into my chair and thought back to all of those “horse and buggy” communities of Northern Indiana, so when one of the first scenes featured a horse and buggy I was excited. Maybe a good visual depiction of what really goes on behind the scenes. Something seemed off. Despite the tepid acting and the odd choice of casting one of the Trailer Park Boys characters in a serious role, it just didn’t have that good of a story line, it seemed forced and without real direction.
I didn’t give up on it, however. I settled in again, in a quiet house, to see if the show would start firing on all cylinders the second episode. It had gotten better, but it left me wondering exactly how closely it was written to follow the real story. The answer in a nutshell, Dr. Suess books are probably closer to depicting the real life and struggles of that community than the show did. Investigators of Mennonite heritage in Canada were sort of upset at the fact they didn’t even use the right buggies, the ones used were Amish buggies. To the casual bystander and watcher, we don’t know that, but still, even I know not all buggies are created equal. I’ll keep watching, but with a more jaded mind towards it, knowing that it might as well be pure fiction.
In the non-fiction realm, however, those same glamorized Mennonites aren’t the only ones to gain some publicity. One of my all time favorite bloggers, Emily Smucker – The Girl In The Red Rubber Boots, is a Mennonite and an overall amazing person. I found her blog when I was researching the culture after the whole Mexican restaurant episode. I found her blog and learned more in three blog posts than I had reading any other webpage. I’ve followed her have never missed a post. She’s more normal than I am, but I can almost promise you, she gets looked at a million times more differently than I do. I applaud her for creating this incredibly revealing without being too extreme. Her articles about attending weddings and visiting family make me realize that simplicity isn’t really what we think it is. She eats donuts, shops at Goodwill and has illnesses like the rest of us. Just because she was raised in a different religion as most of us makes unique but not alien. She and I share an incredibly common bond, she feels sort of spiritual connection with the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, just like I did.
She embodies everything I wish my life was. Adventure, people, amazing writing, constant new experiences, and sometimes disappointment in the oddest things. In a recent article she had written about going to a beach and being snubbed by other Mennonite girls, something that any female, aside from maybe a bathing suit model, can probably relate to. I felt for her, and knew that insecurity, no matter how deeply veined you are in your beliefs, is a real thing and the only way to conquer it is with sheer confidence. She went on to talk about going to a pie baking contest (something I can’t relate to). Believe it or not, the people at the pie contest snubbed her too. I couldn’t imagine being rude to this incredibly bright young lady, who I sincerely hope goes places both physically and spiritually.
Beyond such termed Anabaptists as the Mennonites and Huterrian Brethern, there’s also those sects (I’m not going to give them the glorification of calling them colonies) that profit and prosper on the gullibility of the general population. The roommate and I were talking the other night and he made a playful reference to my sudden (to him) fascination to the church scene, although I haven’t stepped into a church to worship in a few years. I explained the colony concept and the Mennonite fellowship and he struck me with an unexpected blow. His aunt and uncle, who grew up in the south and had fallen prey to our incredibly unhealthy diet, had found salvation and moved to what he called “weight loss church”. With a caution ear, I listened about the principals of the church and how his family members went from having a house and land to living in a basement on a compound somewhere in Texas.
With the surface scratched, I dug deeper into the concept and was able to find out more, maybe more than I cared to. Titled, The Remnant Fellowship, the principals were pretty much rooted in the same principals as anorexia. You eat only when you’re hungry in order to keep your spirit full. Somehow, this woman, Gwen Shamblin, who founded the fellowship, was able to extract the exact words in scripture to create this profitable, what I will go as far as to say, cult. If anything, the shame that is cast upon members that are a bit fluffy so much that they restrict the entry to only those that fit the mold. An aryan race of church goers that are all sickly looking and in need of some multivitamins and a trip to the cheesecake factory. They looked hollow, and unlike the colorful writings of Emily, there is total lack of that lust for life. The excerpts I read, the fellowship were sort of following a light at the end of the tunnel, all the while throwing out some pretty impressive tithings.
I’m not qualified to give religious advice, nor am I in a position to title an entire fellowship as a fraud. After reading Survivor, which this entirely long post is actually about, it sort of opened my eyes to the unrealistic stereotypes we tend to put these religious groups in. Think of it this way, if someone told you of this group of religious individuals that was really into being compassionate and helping needy people, but they had a few skeletons in the closet, would you think less of the general good they do (there are limitations of course). They might appear plain to you, no flashy name brand clothes or plunging neck lines, but remember what your parents taught you when you were little? Isn’t it what’s in the inside that counts. In the book they were plain clothed in the group and worked as slaves but did so with no hesitation. Once the main character got a taste of pop culture driven on appearance he pretty much self destructed.
My jealousy of the simple life was amplified after reading the book. Seeing as how I’m the most insecure, ugly person in the world, in my book at least, it would be an absolute blessing to me to have something like a church, that isn’t whitewashed, to encourage me to become confident. Of course, you can ask to be absolved of sin and give alms, but are you ever really going to be whole inside? The book painted that picture, and painted it in technicolor.
This entire post was a bit long, and I apologize, but every time I thought I could wrap it up I got emotional and kept typing. Even if one person reads this, I’ll feel that all of this has not been in vain. On this day, when the majority of people are getting excited for a bunch of guys tossing a ball around, maybe take a moment to expand you mind and read some of Emily Smuckers stuff. You’ll find that she really in a gem in the blog world. If only I could be as optimistic as she while still being real someday.
Check out the Girl In The Red Rubber Boots Here
For now, I’ll watch the puppy bowl.