by Celisa Fullmer
We were lucky to even be there.
Beating diligently overhead, the sun penetrated the plains with a dry heat, contending with gusts of Albertan wind in periodic spats. It whipped at our ponytails and howled in our eyes, yanking the moisture straight out of their blurred corners. It quarreled with the truck’s engine, drowning out its mechanical protests and hurling grasshoppers toward the windshield.
For how remote and foreign it was, our destination might as well have been a distant island. Our truck sailed through a sea of grain. Fields of wheat billowed on either side, hushed not by the wind like we were, but by a reverence I couldn’t quite quantify. The land radiated as if the sun itself had plunged fiery tendrils deep into the soil, defiantly rummaging beneath the plains for gold, before evaporating in a gentle retreat, leaving gilded stalks in its wake, each glittering with grain.
When I was assigned to serve in rural Canada, my untraveled mind defaulted to a snowy log-cabin scene with a moose somewhere in the background, not the never-ending flatness of blonde fields, not a dome brimming rim to rim with gold—and I definitely had not anticipated Hutterite colonies.
It was rare for the Hutterites to invite outsiders, let alone missionaries, into their private corner of the world. The boundaries of colony property were not treated lightly—nothing about their lifestyle was treated lightly. Laura Baxter and her husband, local members of our congregation, had long been neighbors of this particular Lehrerleut branch. Through shared experiences in farming and ranching, the Baxters had earned the Lehrerleuts’ trust and the privilege of visiting in person, on the mutually unspoken condition that religious conversation remained off-limits. My companion and I had spent weeks helping the Baxters with their cattle, and Laura had grown fond of us. It had been her idea to entreat the Lehrerleuts to give us a tour.
Our truck rumbled onto the property in a procession of dust, cotton seeds, and abnormality, attracting a flock of curious Lehrerleut women. Two men with wide-brimmed hats stood to greet Laura. My companion and I hopped clumsily out of the back seats of the truck, awkwardly lingering behind as Laura’s ecstatic sheepdog circled our legs. Besides the fact that they lived in religious colonies and made exceptionally good bread, I knew very little about the Hutterites, and I became keenly aware of my ignorance.
The women stared at us—amiably, but with obvious fascination. They stood in a cluster of blue skirts and polka-dot bonnets, all with freshly-washed faces and hair up in conservative, middle-parted buns.
I suddenly became self-conscious of my boots, my jeans, my uncovered head. In their eyes, these were men’s clothes. I stood there, feeling oddly defiant and a bit naked: my hair high in a ponytail, my shirt pleated, my jeans form-fitting, my eyes lined with makeup.
Like a heathen.
Laura and the colony leader gestured for my companion and I to join the throng, explaining that the girls would show us around the property. For how warmly they enveloped us, an observer would never guess that my appearance probably appalled them. The younger girls bustled excitedly around us, telling us their names and inquiring after our own, as if this simple act would officially make us friends. Though my companion and I, as missionaries, typically went by Sister, it felt more fitting to tell them my first name. The girls had never heard a name like Celissa before and were intrigued by the idea of my parents simply making it up because they liked the way it sounded, rather than choosing one from the Bible.
Next thing we knew, we were being whisked about the property. We visited the homes first, all uniform and utilitarian—not one decoration on the freshly painted walls, not a single speck of dust on the gray slatted floors. One family had a Roomba, and absolutely brimmed with glee upon demonstrating to us how the marvelous contraption worked. To the Lehrerleuts, home was a sacred space, and cleanliness truly a sister to godliness. Any technology that aided in that effort was a welcome gift. Already my misconceptions had been corrected: they were not exactly like the Amish.
This mentality of efficiency also accounted for their immaculate schoolyard, central to the perimeter of their homes. I stared at the playground; its minimalistic toys and rigid equipment were so different from the messy wood chips, pinchy-chained swing sets and fluorescent, static-shock-inducing plastic slides of my childhood. Nearby, I noticed a wooden scooter lying on the ground, painted green with the name “Thomas” in white.
“Can I ride this?” I asked abruptly, lifting it upright.
The girls laughed at my unintended joke. “That’s a boy’s toy! Girls don’t ride those!” But one of the older women smiled and shrugged, quite ready to let me make a fool of myself, so I gave it a go. Kneeling to fit onto the tiny contraption and peddling around in wobbly circles, I once again became conscious of the liberty of movement afforded by my pants and boots. The girls laughed and laughed! To them the act appeared so contrary, so ridiculously masculine, as to be downright comedic.
We moved on from the playground to the school, with its rows of tidy desks, absent of what was surely an attentive, obedient troop of children. On the front wall hung an alphabet chart in German cursive. All around us hung sheets of the children’s own impressive renditions of the cursive, along with endearing crayon doodles. The young woman leading the tour happened to be the schoolteacher; she explained to us that Lehrerleut girls could no longer attend school once they turned fifteen years old, but that they could sometimes continue in education by instructing the children in the basics of mathematics and reading.
“Amanda wants to be a teacher, right Amanda?” the teacher asked, turning to address a teenage girl with deep brown eyes and dark braids. Amanda nodded shyly, smiling.
The girls asked us if we had ever gone to school, and what we planned to do after completing our missionary service. My companion responded that she planned on becoming a nurse or a surgeon, which won smiles and nods of approval. A bit uncomfortably, I explained to them that I studied rhetoric and literature, and that I hoped to become a professor one day. Nodding gravely, one girl said, “The only way to go to university is to leave the colony.” The others nodded silently. I made a mental note to ask Laura about that exchange later. Amanda looked up, her brown eyes piercing me with their depth; she seemed to be searching my face for something.
Our group quietly shuffled out of the schoolhouse and into the dairy barn, where we ran into a handful of young men tending to the cows. The girls whispered excitedly as one particular boy walked by, tipping his hat.
“What?” I asked eagerly, “Who was that?”
“Jacob,” one girl replied while the girl next to her blushed and covered her smile, staring after him.
“He and Rebecca are cour-ting!” said another in a singsong voice, and the others exploded into giggles. Pretty soon all of them were telling us about the boys of neighboring colonies, who was seeing who, and who would be married soon.
I grinned. Missionaries don’t date while serving. I had missed girl talk.
After that, it was on to the nursery, then the hospital, and the bakery and the butchery and the dining hall and the warehouses and chicken coops and the stables—all of it an absolute whirlwind of foreign familiarity. Somehow, it felt like a long-lost home and another planet all at once. We spent the entire day learning about their lifestyle, conversing easily, and strolling pleasantly.
I was stunned by the massive machinery they had for drying meat, plucking chickens, making bread, and harvesting corn. For the level of isolation they strove to maintain between themselves and the worldliness of modern society, the Lehrerleuts were certainly masters of efficiency and consistency. One had to admire it. From their top-of-the-line farming equipment to the meticulous mechanics of their lifestyle, every gear and cog knew its place.
Finally, we arrived at the church, with windows and pews as pious and polished as a Sabbath sunrise itself. There, the eldest girl explained to us the practices and purposes of their fundamentalist Christian faith, rooted deeply in Germanic traditions of worship. They listened with fascination as we explained how we taught people about Jesus Christ and helped prepare people who wanted to be baptized.
One girl asked my companion and I to recite our favorite Bible verses. Fifteen pairs of eyes expectantly lit upon us. My companion spoke her favorite verse in German, which won her a reverent round of applause. I recited Isaiah 53:3-5. The girls clasped their hands to their chests, overjoyed at our shared ability to recite from memory verses about the Savior. Perhaps not all outsiders who came to tour the colony had such similar beliefs.
“Come,” they said eagerly, “You must meet the others before you go!”
And so our tour concluded at a construction site, a home being built for a newly-wed couple, following the exact same pattern as every other home. Teenage boys and their male mentors tracked sawdust back and forth through the framework, carrying planks of wood and hammering at door frames. The pounding and shuffling ceased when the women arrived; tipped hats and respectful nods accompanied us into one of the nearly completed rooms. We sat on the empty white floor and some of the boys joined us, lining all four walls, sharing cups of water and bags of popcorn for their snack break. From the cheerful chatter and back-and-forth banter, it was easy to tell that they were all good friends.
Suddenly, Laura suggested that the group of youth sing for us. I thought it an odd request, but they enthusiastically complied.
One girl began singing, her voice strident but confident, setting the tone for the others to join in. By the second phrase, I recognized the tune. It was not a hymn, as I had subconsciously anticipated, but the late-90’s ballad “One Clear Voice” by Peter Cetera:
Whole world is talking, drowning out my voice
How can I hear myself with all this noise?
But all this confusion, just disappears
When I find a quiet place, where I can hear
One clear voice, calling out for me to listen
One clear voice, whispers words of wisdom
I close my eyes, till I find what I’ve been missing
And if I’m very still, I will hear one clear voice
Their voices brought my mind to the wheat fields, rising and falling in tides of resplendent harmony. Each stalk a sweet sound, collectively: the symphony of the plains. Here, in the middle of nowhere, their own sacred privacy filled their lungs—lungs adapted to the virgin atmosphere of a haven untainted by the chaos of the world—distilling upon the air like audible, crystalline waves. A unified sea of gold.
One clear voice—I knew that voice. It was the same voice I had followed my entire life, the same voice that had brought me to Canada, the same voice that calmed my heart and heightened my joys and numbed my sorrows and silenced my fears. And the same voice that reassured me, in that moment, that there were people who still believed in Christ, people ready to tell the world all about Him, people who loved Him.
All too soon, the song ended. As we gathered back at Laura’s truck, the girls teased that they would be more than happy to sew us dresses and bonnets to properly outfit us. One even invited us to learn Germanic cursive in their school, alongside the five- and six-year-olds, which they found hilarious. They begged us to stay. A part of me—I couldn’t explain it—yearned to stay. This place was such a spiritual haven compared to the world we would soon return to. They wished us blessings as we searched for people to teach. How they beamed as they hugged us! And oh, how I needed that.
Saying goodbye was harder than it should’ve been for people who had only known each other for a day. And yet—even though I knew I would likely never see them again in this life—it felt powerfully introductory to a certain unspoken chapter of sisterhood. Something deep within me knew that these women had a place within my frame of experience that would extend far beyond this single day. From now on, my understanding of and questions about what it meant to be a woman would be gently sculpted by their unexpected influence.
We drove away from the property, the wheat fields nodding farewell to us with newfound intimacy. Laura broke the silence by saying, “Pretty different world out here, eh?” We agreed.
“That was amazing,” I said.
Laura nodded solemnly. “They have an impressive lifestyle.”
After a pause, I brought up the conversation in the schoolhouse.
“Ah, yes,” she said, “Yes, you ladies were certainly exotic in their eyes! Lehrerleut girls don’t often leave the colony. I’m sure the idea of university absolutely boggled them.”
“Do you know anyone who has left?” I asked.
“The colony? Oh yes,” Laura said. “George and I are good friends with several who have left. One young man, Jeremiah, told us that it all used to drive him so crazy that every morning he would run, just run. He’d run to the edge of the property and stare out at the fields, wanting to scream. He finally left. So restless. It’s hard out there but most of them make it; they figure it out. Has a beautiful wife and two kids now. They seem very happy.”
She continued, “If men leave the colony and happen to want to come back, they have to consult with colony leaders and work things out. If women leave, they can never come back. That’s why so many of them simply stay. Security and community.”
I looked out the window, unsettled. Something about the image of that boy, driven to madness, screaming into the wheat-field void, felt so eerie.
For the rest of the trip home, my companion sat in the front seat chatting with Laura. I lounged in the back of the truck, pensive. Despite how fascinating the day had been, a strange surge of concern settled upon my mind like the cloud of a summer storm, vast and bleak. The type of sky-sized cloud that seals its grayness from one horizon to the other, blanketing squalls of heat into fitful dust devils. The kind that hangs ominously but refuses to precipitate, clutching the dry ground below while garish light beats upon its back above.
I had nothing but profound admiration for the Lehrerleuts. It had been an incredibly eye-opening day. Those girls were some of the happiest, most delightful people I had ever met.
So why was I bothered?
To this day, the sound of their singing is as freshly sutured into my mind as if I’d been with them just yesterday. It was the most magnificently raw sound I’ve ever heard. They were searching for “One Clear Voice” amid a world of turmoil. They’d established a lifestyle entirely centered around preserving and heeding that Voice.
So why did their voices both enchant…and haunt me?
They seemed so happy; were they happy?
A summer storm did roll in, later that day. My companion and I returned home, waved goodbye to Laura, prepared for bed, said goodnight, and knelt to pray. Jealous of my already-unconscious companion’s steady breath, I knelt in the darkness alone. Slowly, I began untangling my thoughts by thanking the Lord for the experiences of the day. Tentatively, I prayed that someday we would understand. I wasn’t sure who “we” was, but the identity of a Christian woman has always been slippery, vague. Indisputably, there is joy in the life of a mother, a sister, a believer. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether, like the golden sea of wheat—planted, raised, and hewn for consumption, year after year—it didn’t matter how rich a soil was, if the harvest was always the same.
Were roots for stability? Or immobility?
This cloud of consternation followed me into bed, rumbling, unsettling. Someday, I thought, staring up at the ceiling, someday. I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt fitting.
I closed my eyes, listening to the thunder above, and all of a sudden—blessedly—it began to rain.
Ever since she could hold a pencil, Celisa has loved to write everything from poetry to essay. She currently works as a content writer and will graduate this spring with a degree in Professional Writing. Her husband is the joy of her life, and everything they dream of together revolves around a future family.