I’m sitting across the table from Tyrone Hofer at a restaurant in Winnipeg. We are cut from the same cloth so to speak; off-colony Hutterites with an easy rapport that stems from the happy circumstance that we were both raised on a Hutterite Colony and speak the same Hutterisch language.
Tyrone has a cherubic face and a smile that makes me want to pinch his cheek in a motherly sort of way. He’s an impressive 27-year-old; well dressed in a collared shirt and dress pants with social graces that suggest he is well raised. Tyrone grew up on the Starlite Hutterite Colony in Manitoba. At age 5 he felt more at home with the girls and their interests than he did with boys his age. He didn’t fit the conventional mold. But as children do, he made the best of it. After all, he came from a loving home and preadolescence on a Hutterite colony with its wide-open spaces, nurturing environment and indifference to pop culture can be a pretty cool way of growing up.
From a tender age, Tyrone knew there was something unquestionably different about him but it didn’t have a name until he hit puberty. He had overheard adults on the colony speak in hushed tones about gay people and about how vile and disgusting they were. It scared him.
When boys his age started flirting with young women on the colony and his feelings veered the opposite direction, he felt appalled and betrayed by his own body. Tyrone fervently prayed to God to change him and make him like his peers. He chased girls to appear like other guys but failed miserably. His efforts left him cold and them broken hearted. The girls were beautiful and charming; everything a traditional young man could ever want. But he wasn’t a traditional young man and it was impossible to tell them or anyone the truth.
Who could he talk to? Where should he go? To his parents? That would be too risky and compromise their reputation on the colony. To his spiritual leader, the colony minister? Hell no! He was already full of self condemnation. He didn’t need more of that.
Flooded with anxiety, depression and self-hate, Tyrone left the colony. He enrolled in the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg where he eventually graduated with a degree in Business and Organizational Administration with a minor in Biblical and Theological Studies. In his final essay, a requirement of his Biblical Studies course, Tyrone chose to explore 3 questions: “What makes a person gay? Is being gay sinful? Is it possible to be gay and Christian?” His research helped him make peace with himself. It also gave him the courage to tell his mom and dad; “the most difficult thing I have ever done or will ever do in my life.”
In his letter, Tyrone takes pains to reassure them that they were wonderful parents and didn’t do anything to contribute to him being gay. And that neither did he.
“When did I choose to be gay? I never had any choice in the matter. Some people call it “sexual preference” but that is highly inaccurate. It is my sexual orientation because there was no preference involved. The only preference involved in being gay is that I now choose to live with it rather than deny it and lead a lonely, horrible life slowly driving myself mad with self-hate”
It shattered his parents. They cut ties with Tyrone and he hasn’t seen them or his 4 siblings for years. People in his community also abandoned him so he has had to create a new life for himself. The lack of compassion or understanding from his own family is a heartbreak Tyrone has come to live with.
That’s exactly what X is afraid of. He still lives on the colony and for obvious reasons wants to shield his identity. Like Tyrone, he knew he was different from a very early age. When puberty hit, he too realized he was gay. He too begged God to change him, tried to date girls and be like his peers. Sources tell me X is a great asset to his community and beloved by everyone. But keeping his secret has been agonizing and he has now made the difficult decision to leave the colony because he doesn’t think he can live a lie for the rest of his life. X is petrified the same thing that happened to Tyrone will happen to him.
There are 4 Hutterite sects and each sect has its own Bishop. Collectively they represent 50 thousand Hutterites. The political structure of Hutterite Bishops is not unlike that of the Pope. The Pope is surrounded by an influential inner circle of cardinals while Hutterite Bishops are surrounded by an inner circle of influential Hutterite ministers. As with Popes, Hutterite Bishops are usually advanced in age at the time of their election and serve until death. They wield a lot of power but that power is often compromised by their inner circle. It can cripple dialogue, paralyze decisions and render them bereft of policy on important social issues. Like Gay Hutterites.
X has good reason to be scared. Most of the Hutterite Bishops I spoke to lack even a basic understanding of what a gay person goes through and passively support the kind of ostracisation Tyrone has endured.
“I have been in the ministry for 45 years and I have never had anybody come forward or even act that way (gay) never mind talk that way,” Lehrerleut Bishop, Peter Entz, from Crystal Spring Colony in Alberta, tells me over the phone. When I ask Bishop Entz whether it might be due to his lack of approachability, he concedes that he would probably not tell a gay person what he wants to hear.
In Tyrone’s research paper, he cites the example of Jesus, who to the distain of religious leaders of the day, practiced with “overwhelming clarity” grace and compassion to all those who were on the fringes of society choosing mercy over reproach at every turn.
“Well it is out of our hands to act the way that He (Jesus) did,” Bishop Entz tells me. “We all have our ways and means to do what we think we have to do according to our religion.”
This ‘religion based’ response is in keeping with the acting Bishop for the Schmiedeleut Group 2 sect. Mike Hofer from Sommerfeld Colony in Manitoba hasn’t met a gay Hutterite either, but if he did he would not hesitate to “stand on the word of God” which he says condemns homosexuality. Hofer is distrustful of the media saying “there is no possibility of giving satisfactory answers except through human reasoning, and that would kill the spirit.” His response may be as true as it is ironic.
In effect Bishop Entz and acting Bishop Hofer don’t have an official policy on gay issues. Nobody has come forward, so why should they create a policy. Neither is the question of whether someone is born gay or chooses it much of a consideration. As far as they are concerned they’re both wrong, so same answer.
This permits individual colony ministers to be as alienating and inappropriate as they choose. Tyrone is a case in point. His sect’s Schmiedeleut Group 1 Bishop, Jacob Kleinsasser from Crystal Spring Colony in Manitoba declined to answer my questionnaire. But it was reported in a news article that Starlite colony minister Jacob Hofer who is Tyrone’s Uncle and one of Bishop Kleinsasser’s ministers, said “we raised him, we clothed him, we fed him and he goes and works for the devil,” when a reporter dared to call and ask him about Tyrone. The reporter says minister Hofer then had his lawyer phone her to demand she never call him again.
“The persecuted have become the persecutors,” Tyrone reflects over dinner. He is referring to the fact that our Hutterite forefathers were nearly annihilated for their belief in adult baptism. “They chose their faith. I did not chose to be gay,” he points out.
If there is some hope for dignity for gay Hutterites it comes from Dariusleut Bishop Joe Wurz from Hillsvale Colony in Saskatchewan. Bishop Wurz stands out for his efforts to emulate the courage of our forefathers. Wurz is the only Bishop who has earned the trust of a gay member of one of his colonies and as a result understands more closely the struggles they face. While he makes it clear that he considers the act of homosexuality a sin based on his understanding of the scripture, he insists those who struggle with gay tendencies must be treated “with truth and grace.” Bishop Wurz maintains that the “the practice of homosexuality is a sin that is no more or less offensive to God than all other sins that people commit such as anger, jealousy, alcoholism, adultery, disrespect etc.” Its a bold statement with wide-spread implications and shows tangible leadership on a divisive and difficult issue.
In meeting with his ministers last year, Bishop Wurz instructed them to be approachable and refrain from knee jerk reactions when dealing with a gay person coming forward. No minister is allowed to handle it on their own and must refer all cases to him and his committee.Wurz’s policy, based on the biblical tenets of love, compassion and forgiveness, is one that leaders of the 3 other sects must also consider.
Bishops set the tone on Hutterite colonies. If they charge their ministers with mercy rather than malice it makes a huge difference. Behind every gay person is a mom, a dad, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and countless relatives. When a colony minister acts with a sense of compassion it allows family members to do the same.
In his closing remarks to his parents, Tyrone wrote, “I don’t know how you will react to my letter. Just know that I love you very much. Your son, Tyrone”
Bishop Wurz’s policy opens the door for greater accountability from his ministers and more humane treatment for disenfranchised Hutterites. In effect, Wurz is saying that it is perfectly acceptable to say, we don’t understand, or we don’t agree or we prohibit the practice of homosexuality on our Hutterite colonies on the basis of our faith. But it’s not acceptable to vilify, berate or mistreat gay people or others like them. The reason should be obvious. Hate has no place in the Christian heart.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her award-winning books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available in book stores and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org
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