August 12, 2020

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Hutterites surprise teacher on first day

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THE reports of stigmatization against Hutterites bring to mind the real-life experience of my friend Michael.

He is a teacher who was hired to instruct elementary-level Hutterite kids at a colony about 20 kilometres north of Moose Jaw, Sask.

I initially doubted whether teaching on a religious-based colony was a good fit for my friend, who self-identifies as an atheist. But Michael needed a job and the colony needed an instructor who was certified to teach the Saskatchewan curriculum, which didn’t include teaching religion.

Like many people, Michael knew little about this branch of the Anabaptists beyond stereotypical images. He was understandably nervous on his first day in the colony.

The deal included providing lunch for the teacher because it was a long drive to Michael’s home in Moose Jaw so, after the first morning of teaching, he joined the colony in a dining hall.

They sat him at the head of a long table. Murmurs of Low German conversation filled the hall as women wearing long dresses and head coverings took their places on one side of the hall, and men wearing suspenders over long-sleeved shirts sat on the other side.

A prayer was offered before the meal, and Michael inclined his head respectfully, although likely not in interior acquiescence to the deity mentioned.

What came next flabbergasted Michael and quickly altered his opinion of Hutterites.

Everyone watched as a woman from the kitchen brought out a large bowl, and served Michael first, setting it in front of him. He peered into the bowl. The severed head of a goose floated in steaming-hot water.

Michael was thinking frantically of ways to refuse this unique culinary delicacy without offending his hosts, when he looked up to see everyone smiling at him. Another woman came out from the kitchen and served him salad and a hamburger.

The goose-head prank relaxed Michael and dispelled some of his preconceptions of Hutterites as grave and dour, perhaps more interested in finding glory in heaven then having fun on Earth.

This happened years ago, but he now recounts the colony gig as a highlight of his teaching career. He got to know the Hutterites as chill, friendly, more playful than he had expected, and often helping other people, including people outside the colony.

On a deeper level, he noted their counter-cultural lifestyle seems to go a long way towards solving many social problems that stump mainstream communities: poverty, loneliness, unemployment, crime, possessiveness and the disrespectful treatment of older people.

The admirable examples set by the Manitobans who live on these colonies seem to have been forgotten in recent weeks. It’s ironic and sad that their altruistic work — donating vegetables to off-colony soup kitchens, making and donating face masks, helping water rescue efforts with valuable expertise and highly advanced equipment — hasn’t been enough to stem a spurt of pandemic prejudice. The ungracious treatment of those wearing the kerchiefs and the suspenders is due to the public announcements of an outbreak of about 35 cases of COVID-19 on the 120 or so Hutterite communities in Manitoba.

The Hutterian Safety Council said in a recent statement that, as a result of the publicity, Hutterites have experienced cultural profiling at medical and dental offices, and have been refused service at retail stores and massage therapy clinics.

The council asked Manitoba to stop singling out Hutterites when new cases are announced, and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin agreed to do that, unless there’s a risk to public health.

Hutterite spokesman Paul Waldner also said: "The government should really almost (make) a public statement and say, ‘We were wrong here."

To date, the government has not offered this requested acknowledgment of error, although Premier Brian Pallister on Wednesday urged Manitobans to treat Hutterites with "respect, patience and kindness."

Many of us regret the stigmatization Hutterites are encountering. We hope they understand the prejudiced people are not acting on behalf of most Manitobans. Most of us realize the colonies have instituted strict pandemic precautions, including picking up food in pairs instead of eating in the communal food halls, and listening to church services through audio streams instead of gathering in pews.

It’s also relevant that this stigmatization comes at a time of great tension for all Manitobans. For more than five months, we’ve been warned to be wary and, because the deadly virus is invisible, some people have gone beyond a realistic appraisal of risk and see great danger where there is little. Such exaggerated fears have now found a target in a group of Manitobans who dress differently and live in a different way.

We ask the Hutterites for compassionate understanding that we’re all enduring a high level of stress with no end in sight, and it’s brought out the worst in some people. We ask for grace.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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Updated on Tuesday, August 4, 2020 at 11:56 AM CDT: Fixes byline

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