A Mennonite man and his family straddle the past and the future

Reuben Habegger shuns technology, reads the Bible every day, and his beard reaches his chest. Even though he lives a throwback-life in a modern world, he worries about the future.

Photos and story

by Rasmus Straka

SCOTTSVILLE, Kentucky — Reuben Habegger is going to church.

He looks at his vehicle. Even though it has wheels, seats and a handbrake, it moves at best at about 10 mph. Unlike most Americans, his preferred means of travel replaces a car with a trotting horse-drawn carriage.

He walks to the carriage, presses his boot against a foot iron and climbs up on it. He gently lashes the horse reins. “Kuh-chhhh.” Now, the horse is on the move.

He sits in the front.

“The weather is overcast — we have been blessed,” he says initially.

He’s tall with bowl-cut hair and crooked bangs because he doesn’t go to a barber, and his beard becomes less black and more fluorescent as it reaches his chest. He enjoys wearing a straw hat, suspenders and a plain shirt.

“I don’t need more than one style,” he says.

In the back, his wife, Sherin, and their daughter Julianne sit. They wear sky blue dresses and white prayer caps.

The parking lot of Reubens’s shop draws carriages and cars. The hand soap bottles are brought from the “push-button-society.”

At 55, Reuben Habegger has chosen to be caught in the past, while the rest of the world can’t withhold its eagerness to modernize. He lives without electricity and produces his own vegetables.

He’s part of a community, but he doesn’t know the population well, only that there are 100 religious families. A cornerstone of their belief is that Christians should be in the world but not ofit. For him, this means that he owns no television, no phone, no credit cards and no car.

He calls himself a conservative Mennonite, which is closely related to being Amish.

“We believe in God and living a simple life,” he says.

///

When riding to church, Mr. Habegger passes the cornfields, piles of horse stool and the blue sky that he has known for many years.

He was born on Sept. 17, 1963, in Pennsylvania. He later moved to Tennessee, before as a 19 year old he swapped the mountains for the flat landscape of Kentucky.

In the community, he saw Sherin. The first part of his courtship to his future wife involved telling his parents about his “interest” in her. They permitted him to write a letter to her parents.

Fortunately, she was interested in him, too, and so he visited her parents to get to know the family. At last, they got married. Today, they have 10 children.

Habegger’s family history is like most Mennonite people who originate from the European Anabaptists. The movement first appeared in the 1500s and advocated for a strict Christian lifestyle.

In the 1690s, the Anabaptist leader Jakob Ammann broke with the movement, because the members veered from the founding principles. Ammann’s followers became known as the Amish. The remaining Anabaptists turned into the Mennonites – named after the early, prominent leader Menno Simons.

The Anabaptists were not only battling with themselves. 

Their interpretation of Christian scripture threw them into conflict with Magisterial Protestants and Roman Catholics, which included official state churches and governments.

They lost their property, faced torture and burned alive, which prompted them immigrate to Northern America in the 17th century.

While both Amish and conservative Mennonite communities are now history in Europe, they live in Canada and in the U.S.

The population of conservative Mennonites is unknown. But as data from Elizabethtown College shows, the Amish population is on the rise. The number of Amish in North America is estimated to be 330,000 people, an increase of almost 12,000 since last year.

Most Mennonites and Amish live in U.S. states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. But in 1978, some Mennonite people from Pennsylvania moved to Kentucky because they could get three times as much land for the same price paid in nearby states.

///

“Easy, easy,” Mr. Habegger commands the horse, as he drives off the road. Here, chestnut trees have grown so tall that they cast shadows over the area. It’s an enclave that holds the church.

He passes the church before he stops. He waits for his wife and daughter to get off the carriage before he steps down and begins to tie the horse rein to a post.

While Sherin and Julianne walk to the left side of the church, he goes to the right. There’s an entrance on each side — one for men and one for women — and as he comes closer to the men, who have already arrived, he blends in.

A hand-drawn map shows where Reuben lives. The Mennonites don’t use map apps. They have the maps in their heads.

All of them wear straw hats, suspenders, overalls, boots and shirts.

One thing differs: their shirts are either navy blue, sky blue, forest green or the color of the earth that the Mennonite community works for food.

One thing doesn’t: When a family shows up, both father and sons wear single-colored shirts.

He greets every man who has arrived. He reaches his right hand out to shake the hand of the man in front of him. While doing so, he moves his head forward to kiss his cheek.

The men exchange some words in Pennsylvania Dutch, the native language of the Mennonite and Amish communities.

“May the Lord bless us,” they say.

Inside the church, they sit down on wooden benches. The men sit on the right side, the women on the left. On the white walls hang a wind-up clock and an elongated paper, where a colorful alphabet has been drawn, as the church also functions as the Mennonite school where the children go until Eighth Grade.

Mr. Habegger isn’t here. He waits outside. Once everyone sits, he walks up to the front of the nave, where three other men accompany him.

Like them, he’s a minister.

///

The worshipping service begins. First, the Mennonite people sing a psalm without the use of instruments.

“It is more plain, when we just sing to God without a dang-dang sound in the background,” Mr. Habegger says.

After singing in their native language, a reading of the Bible follows, before the four priests change to worship during a sermon.

Mr. Habegger reads from the Epistle to the Romans:

“A day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness.”

When he stops preaching, everyone turns around to kneel. They lift their arms, place their elbows on the benches and place a fist on each of their cheeks.

Darkness.

Then silence.

Only a child playing with a toy rattle, people breathing and buzzing cicadas outside break the silence. One person, Reuben Habegger, stands. He stretches each of his hands out to the altar sides and prays for blessings on the community.

Three hours of church time later, the men and women go out of the same entrance that they entered. Reuben Habegger spends 10 minutes talking with the other men, before he and his family head home.

Now, it’s time to head home for lunch.

///

When riding home, Mr. Habegger talks about that he can embrace some technology. 

When he visits one of his sons in Maine or meets preachers in Ontario, Canada, he travels by bus or car, which his faith allows if he’s a passenger, and the driver isn’t a Mennonite.

Still, the use of cars worries him, as it’s becoming more frequent. He believes the best way to travel means using his feet or a horse.

The poem hangs in the outhouse.

Mr. Habegger arrives at his home. It’s a two-story house with a tin roof. There’s a front porch, where two of his children play on the swing.

He goes inside.

To his left is the living room, where his sons sit. There’s a cast iron sewing machine, a caged budgie — a small, Australian parakeet — a bookshelf with “Mathematics for Christian Living – Series” and three kerosene lamps fueled by oil.

On the walls, neither paintings nor framed photos of the family hang.

“We just don’t like to pose,” he says.

Mr. Habegger points at a Mennonite magazine. It contains articles but mostly advertisements for Mennonite-made products. In addition, his “news” source entails talking with his non-Mennonite neighbors.

Despite his lifestyle, he knows that Facebook pages can promote faith or shops. And even though he doesn’t own a “telephone, cellphone, or smartphone,” phone booths are set up in the community for emergencies. Although Habegger never used them.

To his right is the kitchen, where his wife and daughters talk. There’s a fireplace, a Christian-themed sign, and a sink, where a bottle of store-brought hand soap stands and a cast iron wood-burning stove.

At the stove, Sherin cooks soup.

He passes her and goes out to the back yard. There are sunflowers, another swing and the outhouse. It contains a deep hole for stool, toilet paper and a poem, ‘Wings of Faith,’ which hangs on the wall. It reads:

“Give us, Lord, a special faith, unlimited and free.”

///

“Lunch is ready,” Sherin says from the kitchen. The men go to sit in the living room, fold their hands and look downward.

“Father, this meal is the work of your hands,” Mr. Habegger prays.

His son, David, is first up. He grabs white bread, spreads butter on it and puts cheese on top. Everything’s homemade. He adds salami that a local Mennonite man produced and spreads out mustard from a store. Then he walks over to a pot of chicken noodle soup.

“We slaughtered the chicken yesterday,” Mr. Habegger says. “I don’t know about the noodles. We do make homemade noodles, but sometimes we run out of them, and then, you know, we’ll have to buy them.”

Reuben Habegger also grows his own vegetables. He produces enough to own a produce market close to his home.

The structure of the store is minimalistic. The posts are made from oak, whose light color disappeared years ago, and through the store’s gray, tin roof, a rusty chimney protrudes.

Unlike retailers like Walmart and Kroger, the produce market holds no lanes filled up with Coca Cola and buzzing cold compartments with windows filled with easy-to-prepare meals.

Like in the retailers’ stores, there are customer toilets – two blue portable toilets outside – and there’s a vegetable department, where 12 cayenne peppers or a basket with seven zucchinis costs $3.

All vegetables have been produced organically — no pesticides — and harvested on the fields next to Habegger’s home.

“We are self-sufficient,” he says.

///

When the men have taken their seats in the living room, the women grab lunch, and eat in the kitchen.

 
Most of the products that Reuben sells the Mennonites produce.

Mr. Habegger sits in a chair that is positioned in front of a door. Tiny magnets, which have printed religious texts on them, hang on the door.

One magnet quotes the Epistle to the Romans:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The dangers of sin are found in the “push-button society,” Mr. Habegger explains.

“Women want to follow a career,” he says. “They get a job, get a position, then a new position, and they don’t have room to be there for their children. People change their style of clothing all the time. I need this for this and that for that. We don’t need to stress about that. Ours is plain and simple. The Bible does teach modesty.”

In a push-button society, “people are texting or on the Internet” instead of connecting with God.

 “We feel sorry for people caught in the push-button society,’ he says. “We can’t do anything but to stay away and live by God’s words,” he says. “One day this life will be over. We hope we will be free and live in eternity. That’s what we believe in. That’s why we go to church.”

Sherin calls out that dessert is ready.

She baked cinnamon-sugar apple pie and made popcorn brought at a retailer. While noodles and popcorn from the push-button society doesn’t worry Mr. Habegger, one scenario does.

In his lifetime, he might live in a cashless society.

“What we will do? I don’t know,” he says.

Maybe, the community will live even more in the past than today. Maybe, they will trade services for goods, he expects. Until that day might come, he will live as usual.

With cash and without credit cards. With the Bible and without electricity. With horses and – almost – without man-made transportation.

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