"Is this for sure what I want to do?"
Seven years ago, this was the question Jason Waldner asked himself every day. A 22-year-old man, living and working in a Hutterite colony near Grand Forks, N.D., barely making enough money to cover life expenses, he was growing increasingly disenchanted with the life set out for him and wondered if there wasn't something more for him.
He was sheltered from outside experiences, and as he grew older and started to piece together what a life might be like on his own, an answer began to form.
One day, he left the colony. Just like that.
"You don't know what's out there," said Waldner, now 29 and one of the nine co-authors of Hutterites: Our story to Freedom, a book detailing nine stories of people making the difficult decision of leaving the Hutterite colony behind.
'There's got to be something better, I told myself. I wasn't happy'
The group landed in McNally Robinson Booksellers on Saturday afternoon.
"You're raised to stay separate from the world and that everything out there is evil," Jason continued. "And if you leave, you're going to go to hell. This is your safe place -- that is what (the colony leaders) tell you every day.
"There's got to be something better, I told myself. I wasn't happy."
"I thought it was the safest place in the world," added Sheryl Waldner, 24, who grew up in a colony just outside of Brandon. "But when I became of age, I started to understand and realize that it wasn't what they were saying it was."
Growing up heavily invested in their faith, "The Nine," as they like to call themselves, remain quite devout. Their faith is what guides them now, seven years after they all said good-bye to colonies in Manitoba and North Dakota. They feel a spiritual connection in what they are doing to get their stories out and how they might be able to help other people in colonies who are struggling with the same issues.
"The biggest thing before leaving was dealing with all the fear," Cindy Waldner said. She was 23 when she left her colony. "I was afraid of everything, or at least I was told I should be. I had no idea how to deal with people on the outside, how people interacted with each other. The was the hardest part, finding out..."
She corrects herself mid-sentence.
"Or rather, thinking that I wasn't capable of doing those things. I was able to be on my own without the colony."
Of course, there were some personal sacrifices that had to be made.
Rodney Waldner and Glenda Maendel say they still miss the interaction with their immediate family -- that was the trade off for most of the group; they basically had to sever ties with their loved ones forever -- but they are not second-guessing the decisions they made.
"Never had any regrets," Rodney said. "What am I really missing there? Am I missing the community life (in the colony)? No, there was a lot of friction there. I feel a lot better about my life and the direction it's headed now."
Titus Waldner, 25, is able to breathe freely, too. He reports a new confidence in himself now as compared with inside the colony. He can't stress enough how simple interactions with total strangers -- the daily scenarios many never put much value in -- have changed him as a person.
"The relationships are much more deeper with people now," he said. "The last year before I left, I don't believe I shared my feelings with anybody that whole year. I felt hopeless there, like my feelings on anything didn't matter."
Transforming out of this robotic way of being has taken time. "The Nine" have jobs and new roles now, but writing and promoting the book has helped soften the evolution, they say, as interactions with strangers curious about their story has forced them to find a certain comfort level in their personal anxiety.
Junia Waldner knew she wanted to leave for years, but couldn't wrap her head around what was out there. At 22 years old, set to be dropped into the middle of a lifestyle she knew little about, she knew it was going to be up to her to figure things out.
Karen Waldner nods in agreement. "Looking back, I got lost as a person in the colony. I don't blame anybody, that's just the way things were for me."
The group does have its detractors, with many of them coming from inside the colonies they left. Accusations of being traitors have been relayed back; some wonder if the group is simply taking advantage of pulling back the curtain on what goes on inside Hutterite daily life.
Darlene Waldner, 27, has a simple answer for the critics.
"It's just a way of life that wasn't for us."