The small community of Mennonites that multiplied along a web of dirt roads in rural southeast Georgia has steadily grown the same way it does just about everything: Quietly.
The community’s 100 or so members have raised their own church, started their own three-room school and seeded their own businesses since they settled the untouched plains on the edge of Metter in 1992.
And they’ve done it while remaining steadfastly detached from mainstream culture to abide by their strict religious beliefs, refusing to watch TV, listen to the radio and — above all — steering well clear of politics.
But a painful economic reality has compelled leaders to stray far from their farms and workshops and venture to Atlanta to cohort with politicians. Now the most reclusive of religious groups, whose members do not even vote, is turning to the government for help.
“We do feel like a fish out of water in that we try to separate ourselves from politics,” said Kenneth Kreider, a community minister who runs a tractor repair shop. “But this is the environment in which our request needs to be made.”
Their pilgrimage toward politics is an attempt to tinker with state laws that require their members to carry insurance for their personal vehicles — rules that conflict with long-held spiritual beliefs involving gambling.
This branch of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church believes that insurance is a form of gambling, which is not allowed. But Georgia, like other states, requires mandatory auto coverage. So drivers dutifully pay for auto insurance and then try to avoid any benefit if they get in a traffic accident.
“We’re not here criticizing society for the methods of depending on each other for insurance. The Bible says it’s better to trust the Lord than to depend on man. Society buys insurance on the promise that if anything bad happens to you, we’ll take care of it. We trust in the Lord.”
That has left some members paying their insurance premium to satisfy state law but also picking up the tab for the cost of an accident because they aren’t supposed to have insurance.
As Kreider puts it: “We are required to have it — and we’re trying not to use it.”
It has spurred a six-year effort to change state law to empower state insurance officials to recognize the group as a self-insurer for its members’ vehicles. The church says it has enough funds in a community pot to pay the costs for any accident.
“We want to keep our brotherhood assistance program alive,” said David Martin, another member. “It promotes interdependence instead of independence. We look at our brotherhood where we’re pretty much all equal.”
The community, which started in 2003, believes in a “life of separate from the world and its follies.” Its members live by rigid rules that govern how they dress — women wear head coverings — and how they spend their time. Homes have no TVs and radios are set only to emergency bands.
It’s a simple life, Kreider says, but a fulfilling — and industrious — one. His flock has started businesses growing chickens, raising cows, a hydraulic shop and, in Kreider’s case, a tractor repair shop.
The community is also steeped in tradition. The 30 or so kids running around outside the three-room school play the same complex game of tag that their parents and in many cases, grandparents, played.
They prescribe to a passive lifestyle, but church leaders decided in 2003 they had little choice but to start making the six-hour roundtrips to Atlanta. They modeled their proposal after similar plans in place in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and Maryland.
They’ve met with Georgia’s insurance commissioner, with lawmakers and sat in on committee hearings sometimes blindly hoping their legislation would come up. A few years ago, the Senate passed a version of their bill but it never reached a vote in the House.
The proposal’s sponsor, state Sen. David Shafer, said he has no Mennonites in his suburban Atlanta district, but felt compelled to introduce a proposal on their behalf.
“I thought that was the best way to reconcile the deeply held beliefs of their religious faith with the need to protect the motoring public,” he said, adding that he understands the reason for mandatory insurance laws.
“But I would rather be in an automobile accident with a self-insured Mennonite than most of the drivers who carry liability insurance with minimum limits.”
Kreider and his flock, though, will have to wait at least another year. Six roundtrips to Atlanta during the three-month legislative session proved fruitless. When lawmakers reconvene in January, he said he’ll likely return as well.
As he roams his property, which stretches more than 100 acres along a bumpy dirt road where a handful of his relatives live, two Biblical verses come to his mind: “Let every man bear his own burden” and “Bear ye one another’s burdens.”
“Our goal is to do both,” he said. “We believe both principles apply. These two concepts blend.”
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