STANTON, Iowa — The rolling hills of southern Montgomery County are hosting some new residents, distinguished by their conservative dress and a simple Christian lifestyle that promotes hard work but eschews some modern conveniences such as radio and TV.
Some 30 members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite have quietly moved into the southern part of the county over the past several months. They have been buying up homes and property, mostly south of Stanton and Red Oak, since October.
The new residents intend to farm, start a small construction-oriented business and eventually form a formal church and school, as they have in a handful of other places in Iowa and Nebraska.
And they intend to be good neighbors.
“Our (goal) is to live a life like Jesus lived, to live the Bible,” said Keith Unruh, 46, who bought a home about five miles southwest of Stanton.
The new families have been met by longtime Montgomery County residents with a mix of curiosity and good will.
“We've felt welcomed,” said Grace Goertzen, 39, a newly arrived Mennonite who lives across the road from Unruh and his family. “We appreciate that.”
Mennonites are Protestant Christians who, among other practices, believe in adult baptism and pacifism. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite is a relatively small subset of Mennonite Protestants founded in the 19th century in Ohio by John Holdeman, an evangelist and writer who felt the rest of the Mennonite faith was abandoning its spiritual foundations. Hence, they are also called “Holdeman Mennonites.”
Holdeman Mennonites emphasize “distinctives” to set themselves apart, said Royden Loewen, head of Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. The men wear beards, and the women wear small black head coverings.
They don't watch television or listen to the radio. But unlike some other traditional faiths, such as the Amish, they use cellphones, drive cars and go online for business and wholesome purposes.
In terms of occupations, they tend to stick to craft- and construction-oriented trades. Agriculture is preferred, but it has gotten complex in recent years, said Dale Koehn, a spokesman for the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.
“We actually have a lot of families that are no longer in farming, but they still like that rural lifestyle,” said Koehn, who fills several roles at the church's headquarters in Moundridge, Kan.
Members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite have spread out, “colonizing” in small rural areas across the United States and Canada, Loewen said.
“They tend to migrate around,” said Loewen. “They have a program of intentional community planting.”
The “planting” stems from an evangelical desire to invite others to Christ.
Members also stick together, buying property next to or near each other. “We lean on each other tremendously. We wouldn't know what to do without our church family,” Goertzen said.
There are three Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregations in Nebraska: at Scotia in the central part of the state and Madrid and Paxton in western Nebraska, with about 300 members total. In Iowa, besides those in Montgomery County, there are three other congregations: in Bloomfield, south of Ottumwa; in the northeast Iowa communities of McIntire and Lime Springs; and in the West Union/Hawkeye area. They total about 350 members.
The Mennonites settling in Montgomery County come from a number of places, including Kansas and Alberta. They are drawn to the area because it's a good place to farm and relatively close to Omaha, where jobs are available.
“We like the country,” said Unruh, who moved to Montgomery County with his wife and three children from the arid plains of southwest Kansas. “I like that it's supposed to rain here. It's a green country, a little more rolly.”
One recent afternoon, when snow was still on the ground, children from the community laughed and giggled as they slid down the hill on sleds near the Unruhs' house.
“Our kids are used to sliding down ditch banks,” Unruh said.
Unruh said three of the families purchased larger tracts of land, ranging from 80 to 200 acres apiece.
“It's not a lot,” he said. “We don't tend to be big operators.”
He doesn't know how big the Mennonite community will grow. “I can see in 10 years we would be 20 families.”
The land will be owned by individuals and families, not the church, Unruh said. It will remain on the tax rolls.
Their presence has been welcomed in a county that has seen its population decline over the past decade. Karalee Unruh, Keith's wife, recalled that soon after her arrival, a neighbor brought fresh-baked bread to her door. “That was pretty special.”
The new neighbors sang hymns for residents of the Stanton Care Center one recent Sunday evening.
Among the hymns was a favorite of resident Eleanor Hallquist, 82: “In the Garden,” also known as “He walks with me.”
“They were just wonderful,” said Hallquist. “They sang in parts (bass, tenor, alto, soprano). It was really good.”
Donna Abraham, activity director at the care center, said a Mennonite family has purchased a farmhouse built by her husband's great-grandfather nearly 100 years ago,
“They've got good values, and family life is important to them,” she said, “so I think they will fit right in.”
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