Christian community aquires Hiwassee College, establishes new home in Madisonville
By Dan McWilliams
The Bruderhof Christian community, which has some 3,000-plus people in 27 settlements worldwide, has come to East Tennessee and is eager to work with Bishop Richard F. Stika.
The community, which has purchased the former Hiwassee College campus in Madisonville, hosted a luncheon Oct. 12 for some 60 dignitaries to offer them a look at the Bruderhof’s new home. The college closed in 2019 after 170 years of operation.
Bishop Stika was among those attending the meal and program at the Rymer Student Center. Also present were retired Congressman Jimmy Duncan; Gus Davis, mayor of Madisonville; Maxine Gernert, office manager for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who was scheduled to attend the luncheon but was called back to Washington for an important vote; state Rep. Lowell Russell of Monroe County; Tommy Jones, sheriff of Monroe County; Jim Henry, state director for U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty; Larry Sloan, Monroe County clerk; state Sen. Mike Bell; and Bob Griffitts of the Bruderhof, a former chief of staff for Congressman Duncan who helped organize the luncheon.
The Bruderhof community, an Anabaptist Christian movement, was founded in Germany in 1921. Members fled Nazi rule in the late 1930s and moved to England and later to Paraguay. The Bruderhofs came to the United States in 1954 and eventually returned to England and Germany. They also have a presence in Australia as well as Paraguay, where they returned in 2010.
“In so many of their beliefs, especially dealing with certain social aspects—marriage and pro-life and all that—we’re completely together,” Bishop Stika said of the Bruderhof community. “I admire them for the work that they do, for their witness to the faith, and I look forward to working with them into the future because we have so much in common.”
Luncheon emcee John Burleson of the Bruderhof community was quickly corrected (in a friendly manner) by Bishop Stika and others when he used the term “Eastern Tennessee” instead of “East Tennessee.”
“It’s a challenging time we’re living in the world. All the more, we need to get together and build bridges and work for causes that we all believe in. I know that’s uppermost on everybody’s mind, making the world a better place for our children,” Mr. Burleson said.
The Hiwassee Bruderhof community has existed for just over a year, he added.
“It’s been an adventure,” Mr. Burleson said. “This campus has been here for many years and also needed a lot of work done and is getting a lot of work done, but there is a lot of work to do. It’s a work in progress. It’s not going to be done today or tomorrow.”
Mr. Burleson then stated the community’s purpose.
“Building up God’s kingdom is really what we’re here about. We’re thrilled to be here,” he said.
Mr. Burleson said the Bruderhof community has renovated the room where the luncheon was held, has renovated single-family homes on the Hiwassee campus, will redo three dormitories into family apartment buildings, will convert the science center into an elementary school, and will convert the former library into a licensed daycare center.
Congressman Duncan was among the first speakers at the luncheon.
“I was so pleased that one of the last earmarks I got was $450,000 to start a dental-hygienist program here at this college, and I’m glad that they moved it over to Tennessee Wesleyan and kept it going through the years,” he said. “Monroe County was great to me, and I really appreciate that. I think you all have a wonderful future here, especially with this project that is being done here with the Anabaptists.”
He also had a kind word for the bishop.
“I’ve always been a great admirer of Bishop Stika, who’s done so many good things. We just couldn’t have a better bishop than him anyplace,” Congressman Duncan said.
Mr. Henry saluted the luncheon hosts.
“I couldn’t have been more pleased when I saw the present organization take over and buy Hiwassee College and continue the Christian atmosphere that we’ve created,” he said. “Thank you so much for continuing this tradition of Christian leadership and being raised in the right way.”
Bruderhof Elder Paul Winter of New York, a native of Paraguay, also spoke at the luncheon and introduced Bishop Stika.
“It’s a tremendous joy to be here today. That all of you have come today is wonderful,” he said. “The Bruderhof is a small group, compared to the Catholic Church, and yet in God’s eyes what is small? We are trying to live out family values: marriage for life, one man and one woman for life.
“We started in Germany in 1921, so we’ve just celebrated 100 years. We were driven out of Germany when Hitler came to power. We’re pacifists. We’re peace-loving. We went to England. The English were worried about these German people. The government knew we weren’t spies, but the local people thought we were spies. So after seven years in England, we went to Paraguay—that’s where I was born.
“We were down there for 20 years in the jungle, pretty cut off from humanity. So in the late ’50s, ’60s, we moved back to England and to the States. Now, we’ve grown to about 3,000 to 3,500 souls all over the world—Europe, Australia, in America mostly, New York and Pennsylvania, the main groups. Twenty-seven communities, some of this size, some bigger.”
Mr. Winter said the Bruderhof community is “trying to live out the Christian values that the Bible teaches you. The Sermon on the Mount is our handbook.”
He said the Hiwassee community currently has 50 residents.
“We look forward to the community growing here. We hope in a year or two there’ll be 200 brothers and sisters and children living here and becoming part of your community,” Mr. Winter said. “I can see from today how many of you have come, what this place means to you, and we want to keep that tradition going, of loving God and loving our fellow man, working together and caring for each other, looking after our young and our old. Thank you for how we have been welcomed. We really appreciate it. Just the fact that you all have come today shows us what this place means to you, and we look forward to building up together.”
In introducing Bishop Stika, Mr. Winter said “we’ve had very good contact with the Catholic Church over the years, including Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan in New York City, who’s a good friend of Bishop Stika. We really thank God that you’ve come today.”
The bishop, who also led a prayer at the luncheon, started his talk with a warning.
“The worst thing you can do is give a Catholic bishop a microphone,” he said.
Bishop Stika told Mr. Winter that “Cardinal Dolan has spoken very, very highly of your community.”
The bishop commented on the shared beliefs of the Bruderhof and Catholics.
“We have very, very similar values, and many of those values are being attacked,” he said. “You can see what’s happening to the family unit, the understanding of marriage and commitment and working together.”
Mr. Winter said after the luncheon that the Bruderhof “were looking to expand the community, and we found this college for sale. It was a good price, so that’s how we ended up here.”
The community in Monroe County is growing, he said, but has not decided “what kind of business we do.”
“Over the next years we’ll come up with something, some kind of manufacturing,” he said. “Today meant a lot just to meet all the local folk and further afield and to feel the welcoming of the neighborhood and the county for our community.”
Johann H. Huleatt is the outreach director for Bruderhof.
“It’s a great pleasure to be here, celebrating with the community leadership, including from the business, the government, and churches down here,” he said. “I was here a year ago, and to come back and see all the development that’s happened on the campus but also to see the deepening of the relationships in the neighborhood and the wider community is a joy to see. It’s an honor to be here, and the hospitality is amazing.”
Also attending the luncheon was Joe Bailey, regional director for Sen. Hagerty and a former one-year player for the Hiwassee baseball team.
“I think [Bruderhof] is going to be a great addition to our great state. They’re here for all the right reasons. We’re just down here to welcome them to the community and embrace what they’re trying to do,” he said.