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Saturday, March 8, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religion

Part of Ritzville Hutterite group is moving to Oregon

The East Oregonian

RITZVILLE, Adams County — Behind the modern dairy, farming equipment and housing, Hutterites preserve a lifestyle that dates back to the 16th century.

Sheltered in a communal setting derived from a strict Biblical interpretation of Acts 2:44-47, stating "living together, take care of one another," Hutterites have learned to share everything.

From the moment of a child's birth in the community, it shares in the group's holdings, an equal with everyone else, said John Stahl Sr., a Hutterite and president of Stahl Farms in Ritzville. Meals are eaten together, work is shared and nobody knocks when entering a home.

Part of the group in Central Washington state will leave its home in the next couple of years, bringing to Northeast Oregon a new ingredient in the cultural mix.

The Hutterites are moving to a place near Stanfield on about 8,800 acres in Umatilla County. While it's the first Hutterite community in Oregon, hundreds like it are scattered across the United States and Canada.

The Hutterites were formed in the 1500s by Jakob Hutter and others in Moravia, in the present Czech Republic, during the Protestant Reformation.

They can be described in many ways: smart for their business savvy; pacifists for their refusal to shed human blood; farmers for their principal means of income; and patriots for their love of country. But perhaps the best description is "simple."

"The idea among the Hutterites is to get away from pride," Stahl said. "If somebody dresses in red or bright green, that indicates they are not down to earth."

Work is central to Hutterite life. If it's not work in the fields (a job everyone is involved with), jobs such as machine repair or woodworking occupy the months when the fields require less attention.

The Washington Hutterites are expanding to the Oregon farm partially because the community in Ritzville has outgrown its land. It has almost more hands than work to go around.

"We are firm believers that idleness is the devil's playground," Stahl said.

As early as they are able, small children join with women in the community vegetable garden. As the children grow they learn other jobs, including machinery, woodworking or how to run the dairy barn.

As boys grow older they try their hand at many jobs on the farm to see what suits them best, Stahl said.

In the dairy barn, 6-year-old Chris helps adults prepare to milk the cows. Later he's seen observing work in the machine shop. Where Chris' interests will take him nobody knows, but his observations help him learn, he said.

"When youngsters grow up to manhood you know what they're interested in, and that's where we try to help them to any extreme," Stahl said.

About 120 people live in a Hutterite community, and while the group in Stanfield eventually might see those numbers, it could take several years, he said. The community will start with 50 to 60 people.

The women, who wear dark-colored dresses with kerchiefs tied under the chin, take care of the cooking, cleaning, gardening and garment making. All of the community's wood furniture — tables in the dining area, pews in the church, cribs and desks — start in the woodshop and are finished by the women.

The men do the heavier work: plowing, planting, harvesting or furniture construction.

At Ritzville, families live in identical units of either two two-story four-plexes or a row of single-story four-plexes. The no-frills homes have identical floor plans.

The smell of cooked food drifts from a central building that houses communal facilities: laundry, cooking, baking and dining.

A typical meal finds men lined along one side of a room, the women on the other. Children 15 years old and younger eat in a separate room.

Stahl said he understands that the close-knit family group and hard work may not appeal to some, but it's a choice he said he'll never leave. "It is not what I see, it is what I believe in," he said. "If I go to Pendleton, I see lots of things there. I see them, but I am not interested in them."

His son, Eddy, agrees. The first time he worked outside the community, people tried to swindle him, he said. But there was safety at home, where the Hutterite community generously cares for its members.

Still, the door is open should someone wish to leave the community.

"Nobody is forced to stay here. If I wanted to leave today I'm out of here," Eddy Stahl said.

The Hutterites attend worship service every evening and twice on Sunday. Like their lives, their simple church shuns adornment but shows their devotion to God. Not even a cross hangs on the wall. Rows of pews face a simple wood altar. Services conducted in German include singing and Scripture.

In Ritzville, the Hutterites employ three state-certified teachers from outside the community and insist on high quality, Stahl said.

"We put them through the paces and want to know who they are and what they stand for," he said.

Hutterites make regular contact with the outside world through shopping trips and business dealings. Their neighbors and others around them consistently characterize them as hard working and excellent farmers.

Lloyd Piercy of Hermiston was Stahl's neighbor for 12 years in Washington state and will share a couple of miles of fence line with the new community.

Although people unfamiliar with the Hutterites sometimes mistake them as a cult, that's not the case, Piercy said.

"This is just an old, old, old-time set of religious beliefs that they have continued to adhere to based on the same Bible we read," he said.

Although they strive to live simply, Stahl has a microwave in his house and a computer for keeping track of the community's expenses. Computers are used in classrooms and the farm uses modern equipment.

Although their beliefs prohibit them from fighting, Hutterites have shown their patriotism by supporting the country in other ways.

"In the last war some Hutterians worked in hospitals and the like, but we will not shed blood," he said.

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