They are missionaries in our midst. Martin and Mabel Hurst have come to Connecticut armed with nothing more than Bible tracts and a desire to share their faith in a place where most people have never heard of it.
As Mennonites, the Hursts preach a theology that rejects the technology that is part of daily life for most people.
Many Mennonites do own cars and even cell phones, but some Mennonite groups, such as the Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., still can be seen driving horse and buggy on the side of the road, wearing their characteristic dark clothing and hats.
"There's some that you couldn't tell from anyone else," Martin Hurst says. "But we call ourselves the plain people -- we are in the world but not of the world."
Mennonites are descendants of the Anabaptists, Christians who were persecuted as heretics by Catholics and Protestants in Europe and who fled to America, where they settled in Pennsylvania Dutch Country beginning in the 1720s.
The Hursts, both 57, are the first to admit that they are strangers in a strange land. The idea behind their faith is not simply to reject technology but the habits and attitudes that come with it.
Adam Weaver, a Mennonite from Lancaster County, spent a week with the Hursts when they arrived six weeks ago from Lime Springs, Iowa.
"We don't participate in those things that would bring into our lives that which we consider harmful to the Christian faith," says Weaver, who with his wife spent more than a year as a Mennonite missionary in New England.
Young people, for example, are educated in Mennonite church schools, and while they may learn a trade or a specialty such as nursing, relatively few attend college. Mennonites were granted a religious exemption from compulsory public school attendance by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
"It's not that higher education is wrong; it's just that it fosters an elevated pride," Weaver says.
As adults, Mennonite men wear beards, and women, who do not cut their hair, wear a black prayer-covering over a bun on the back of the head. Women cover their heads with a scarf in church, do not speak from the pulpit and sit separately from men. Men and women are expected to dress modestly.
Married couples who divorce are excommunicated from the church. Drinking, smoking and gambling are prohibited, as is working in a bar or casino.
To spread the word, the Hursts -- like the Weavers before them -- rely on one-on-one contact, handing out pamphlets on street corners and talking to anyone willing to stop and listen. Weaver and his wife, Nora, lived in Hartford, Conn., and established a route with nearly 100 locations in surrounding towns -- mostly small businesses that allowed them to place their boxes of free multicolored Bible tracts on a front counter or windowsill.
Now the Hursts are planning to spend two years here, living in East Hartford and continuing the work of the Weavers, who recently returned to Pennsylvania. The Hursts say they hope to hit every state in New England while they're here.
They keep a written record of the places where their pamphlets disappear and of those where they don't seem to move at all. And they've learned a few things, Martin Hurst says. For one, their Spanish-language tracts never seem to get picked up at Chinese restaurants.
Hurst says they have no numerical goals, only a mandate to do the work.
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