Manitoba

'We, too, are part of this world': How Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites are responding to COVID-19

Hutterite and Old Order Mennonite communities are struggling to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions as they balance public safety with their communal lifestyle.

Social, physical distancing rules difficult for many conservative Christian communities

Hutterites, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites live simply and separately from wider mainstream society, but it still makes physical and social distancing challenging. (Sheri Hofer/Baker Hutterite Colony)

Conservative Christian communities are struggling to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions as they balance public safety with their communal lifestyle.

Hutterites, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites live simply and separately from wider mainstream society.

"When a person joins the community, they take vows of poverty, and all of our resources, our time and our energy is shared and guided in a communal setting. We typically eat three meals a day together, we worship together, our lives are inextricably intertwined," said Kenny Wollmann, a member of the Baker Hutterite Colony in Manitoba. 

"When we hit times like this, it gives us pause. What does it mean? How can we now gather? How can we keep the vulnerable in our community safe?"

There is a diversity of views on technology among Hutterites, but overall, they believe their society is best preserved in a rural, village-like setting.

Even so, many operate large farms and some have also diversified into manufacturing. This has created some close economic ties to the outside community.

Members of Hutterite communities eat every meal together in a communal dining room. That practice has been suspended during this time of physical distancing. (Sheri Hofer/Baker Hutterite Colony )

"We, too, are part of this world and we are citizens of Canada and we need to navigate this well, just the way everybody else does," said Wollmann, who is a student teacher nearing graduation. "In many ways, it's easier for us as Hutterites, but in other ways it's more challenging."

'Massive paradigm shift'

For example, physical and social distancing is difficult. In Alberta, gatherings larger than 15 people are prohibited right now. That number is 10 in Manitoba and five in Ontario. It's as low as two in Quebec.

However, in Hutterite colonies, every meal is prepared and eaten communally in one large dining room. The entire community also attends church services, weddings and funerals.

Leaders of conservative Christian communities are trying to limit the spread of COVID-19 while seeking to preserve their traditional communal lifestyle. 2:26

"It's a massive paradigm shift for us, because our entire life is organized in such a way that we intentionally get up in each other's business," Wollmann said.

Despite a suspicion of technology and social media, some community leaders are starting to use video conferencing applications such as Zoom and Skype to conduct worship services.

"Because of this new reality, we are forced to imagine how the body of Jesus Christ gathers in new ways, and it transcends our limitations of time and space in a beautiful and astonishing way," Wollmann said.

Many Hutterites are following the news and are aware of the pandemic globally and closer to home.

The Hutterian Safety Council has also set up a task force to keep community leaders informed by sending out regular bulletins with the latest information and recommendations. It represents 350 Hutterite communities (a total of 38,000 people) in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and the northwestern United States.

The Hutterian Safety Council (HSC), which represents about 350 Hutterite communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and the northwestern United States, established a COVID-19 task force to co-ordinate the Hutterite response to the pandemic. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

The HSC gathers information about public health orders and gives recommendations on how to incorporate that into local community life.

For example:

  • All non-essential inter-community travel should cease.
  • Travelling outside their communities should be restricted to what is essential.
  • Weddings should be postponed; funerals by invitation-only.
  • Communion and communal meals are indefinitely suspended.
  • All federal and provincial orders apply to Hutterite communities.
  • Public health orders must be obeyed.

Changes in routine

But just as there's a diversity of opinion and willingness to comply in wider society, some community members are unnerved by the orders.

"I just fielded a call from a Hutterite steward who asked us to stop sending the information bulletins. They are scaring his people and they don't want to know that information," said Mark Waldner, of Manitoba's Decker Colony, and a member of the HSC's COVID-19 task force. 

"He told me that [his community] had restricted all traffic into and out of the community. Truckers follow strict protocols when picking up farm produce, and so on. They limit trips to twice a week for prescription pick-up and all packages are sanitized. 'Why can't we continue with our communal meals and worship services?' he asked."

Waldner applauded the steward for the safety measures the community was taking, but cautioned him to follow all public health orders about group sizes.

He then gave some specific advice: Prepare food in the community kitchen, but have families pick it up and eat it at home, rather than in the communal dining room. Use technology or the public address system to conduct church services.

"These temporary restrictions tear at the heart of our communal fabric, and many members are struggling to come to grips with the seriousness of the situation and identifying ways and methods of mitigating the risks of virus transmission," Waldner wrote in an email to CBC News.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, said the province is working with Hutterite communities on good physical distancing strategies. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Avoiding 'crowding situations'

In Alberta, physicians have been holding information sessions with Hutterite colonies to explain what COVID-19 is and how people can protect themselves. 

Public health officials have also reached out to Hutterite colonies in Manitoba.

"Crowding situations within any space we know is a risk factor, so we've been providing them with information just like all Manitobans — strategies to enhance physical distancing," said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer.

The goal is to protect the very young, the ill and the elderly, Wollmann said.

"It would be devastating to lose a large segment of our elderly people, because it is in them that we maintain the repository of our wisdom and of our faith that can only come through lived experience," he said. "This virus is going to be devastating if it hits our community."

However, they still haven't figured out what to do if someone becomes infected and needs to be quarantined.

When someone from one of the Hutterite colonies needed to self-isolate after an earlier trip to the U.S, their whole family had to follow suit. 

"I don't think we have adequately wrestled with that and that's been precisely the challenge for us," Wollman said. "This is, in many ways, still an abstract. We can read all the reports we want from China or Italy but we somehow feel, 'Oh it will not come to us.' And it is only when it will or when it will impact our our pocketbooks that I think that we will take this adequately seriously."

Members of this Old Order Mennonite community in rural Manitoba use horses and buggies as their main form of transportation. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Restrictions on electronic media

While Hutterite communities have strong connections to the outside world, Old Order Mennonites are already separate and self-sufficient.

For approximately 10,000 so-called horse-and-buggy people in Canada, the problem of physical and social distancing is multiplied because they reject modern technology, said Royden Loewen, chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

"This is a big problem for them because they really find a great deal of spiritual and even social strength from worship services and they can't meet, unlike many modern churches who have started Zoom or Skype services. They don't allow themselves that kind of electronic media," said Loewen, who has written a book called Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World.

He said they view it as "a slippery slope" and they "don't want to allow things that they then have to go back and second-guess whether that was a good thing, or how do you turn back the clock?" 

Some Old Order Mennonite leaders told Loewen they are contemplating writing out their sermons and delivering the text personally to each household.

Meanwhile, weddings will be postponed and funerals will be limited.

"They are law-abiding people and so whatever the law is, they will abide by it," Loewen said.

However, Old Order Mennonites are also not as worried about COVID-19 as other Canadians may be.

Being rooted in an agrarian culture, Loewen said, they are more comfortable with the cycle of life and death and what they see as the will of God.

They also believe in an afterlife.

"What will come, will come," he said.

Many are used to isolation

The self-sufficiency and simple life of Old Order Mennonites means they are less disrupted by self-isolation, compared to other Canadians who miss going to the gym, a hockey game or a movie theatre.

"In many respects, I suspect we have more to learn from them than they from us," Loewen said.

Old Order Mennonites live simply and shun technology, which means they may be more comfortable with some aspects of self-isolation. (CBC News)

Meanwhile, Wollmann and others understand this pandemic will change their Hutterite communities — in positive and negative ways.

In some of his down-time, he's been pondering an important question for all people.

"After this is all over, will we simply return to our celebrity-worshipping, individualistic ways? Or will this cause us to deeply reflect on how we live life and to zoom in on what really matters — and that is human relationships and the well-being of all in the human family?"

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that someone from the Baker Hutterite Colony in Manitoba needed to self-isolate after a recent trip to the U.S. The individual was actually from a different colony.
    Apr 01, 2020 8:40 AM CT

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc

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