~ DESTINATION TWO: ELSMORE, NSW ~
Serving Jesus to the max
It’s been two days since we left Bruderhof’s “Danthonia” community near Inverell, about 3 hours west of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales. In that time, Heidi and I have had numerous conversations and debates about the place: challenges, opinions and comparisons. The reason for all this ruminating is due to the depth and complexity that makes up this most intense community. While the point of this blog is to try and explore communities from a non-judgemental and objective perspective, Danthonia struck a chord with us in a variety of deep and personal ways.
Bruderhof is an umbrella organisation for a whole global network of intentional communities whose members live as if they are a single entity – despite being spread across vast distances. From beginnings in Germany in the early 20th century, they moved the community to England, were politely forced out and then found their way to Paraguay, eventually moving to eastern USA and more recently expanding to Australia. They now have communities in each of these regions with members routinely being relocated within the system. One odd feature: most individuals have an west coast American-styled accent, which was a bit bewildering (someone referred to it as the “Bruderhof accent” as it isn’t really specific to a particular part of the US).
Bruderhof is not easily defined as there is a lot of stuff happening on many layers. But at its core, it is a Christ-centred community, a point which they take very seriously (as in, literally commit their life to). The basis of their faith is largely around following Jesus in the way of early Christians, being people of immense faith, simple living, and “united in a bond of solidarity and equality in which each one says: Whatever I have belongs to the others, and if I am ever in need, they will help me.”
A major stipulation of being a member of Bruderhof is that you dissolve all assets and personal possessions and give them away. That sentence is worth re-reading and thinking about as it is easily one of the biggest commitments that anyone, anywhere will voluntarily make (consider: prospective members who are home owners will sell property, car and furniture, drain bank accounts, sell shares and relinquish pensions. All of it is donated to charity (or to Bruderhof if you desire, but they are quick to say that this is not a requisite. They would prefer that you sort out your affairs before joining)). The reason for this is that in order to fully and completely follow Jesus, the members of the “brotherhood” believe that this is only possible without a way to back out or with potential expressions of individuality becoming a distraction.
In terms of “authentic community”, Bruderhof takes the concept of sharing to the only logical conclusion given their beliefs, and it is truly impressive. Most dwellings are homes which are shared between several couples, singles and families with shared kitchens and bathrooms as well as modest-sized personal space. Homes are somewhat utilitarian (almost institutional) in their design, outfitted with all the basic needs but not much more than a handful of members’ personal ornaments, books or pictures on the walls. A dining hall furnishes members with at least one shared meal a day. Doors are not locked and money is never exchanged so keys and wallets are unnecessary. All clothing is supplied as required and they have largely settled on a “uniform” of sorts: blue jeans and checkered shirts for men, somewhat formless Amish-style long dresses with head scarves for women. Rather than see these as sacrifices, Members embrace them as gifts: a way to keep them focused and pure; a way to keep life simple and sustainable; a way to dispense of the frivolities and unnecessary intrusions of modern life; and especially a way to keep their mind on the task of serving Jesus.
There is a co-operative business that helps pay for ongoing costs called Danthonia Designs, a commercial sign-making shop that does very high-quality products which you can see throughout the region. From a community-and-business perspective, they have nailed this one on the head: the product is competitive in every way with no corners in durability, design or service; it can be staffed by nearly anyone in the community
(Heidi and I both paid our way by working there), and that staff doesn’t require a wage; the building is on-site so no rent need be paid, meaning that all profits from very low overhead goes back into maintaining the community. Brilliant.
Initially, I had some real concerns as soon as we entered into this community. I was a real fish-out-of-water in my inability to talk-the-talk biblically-speaking, which can be intimidating in a 300-person community who are all deeply committed to God. Then, upon arrival, when our friendly neighbour suggested that Kito would be fine staying outside in a meter-square cage, I was concerned that dogs were not going to welcomed warmly and our pup might have a terrible week (to their credit, they quickly welcomed Kito into the house when we balked at that, and he stayed in our cozy room most of the time). Concerns increased still as the entire community seemed to be 100% meat-eaters (not so convenient given we are mostly vegan; also a bit hard to understand why the compassion they show through their faith doesn’t extend to animals), although I give full credit for the whole community making a valiant attempt to accommodate us with a vegetarian diet instead (sidebar story: there was a funny moment when a “Tyrolean folk song” about the harvest was sung that featured the lines: “If we raised nothing for people to eat // Then what would they live on if there were no meat? // No roast and no dumplings, for coffee and cream // No eggs and no chickens – Oh what a bad dream!” which had people around us giggling. Heidi and I sang the ending “oh what a good dream!” instead 😀 )
We quickly came to appreciate how hospitality is central to how Bruderhof residents operate, although my fears about acceptance due to my “different” faith were always present.
The Bruderhof has an open-door policy. No matter who you are, we are delighted to meet and spend time with you.
As with most dedicated followers of Christ, hospitality plays a very large part of their lives and Danthonia’s members were certainly no different. Indeed, we were shown SO much hospitality over our 6 days there that we were fairly exhausted by the end of it. Some days, we had appointments for every meal plus afternoon tea, and this was besides the likelihood that most people we came across while walking through the village would stop and chat. Most people that we met started their day before sun-up, so breakfast invitations were a constant source of struggle for me to be ready to talk at 6am. And this wasn’t idle chit-chat; in nearly every circumstance, some deep-down faith discussions were the topic on hand. As I mentioned above, this was something I wrestled with as my spirituality is a complicated mix of things that doesn’t fit neatly into a box. It might seem petty to mention given the extreme hospitality we experienced, but the only thing that bothered me was the level of evangelism that seemed to be happening in numerous visits. I fully understand that if you are committed to your faith and it is supposed to be a joyful centre of your existence then you want to share that, but I certainly felt like we were being challenged and preached to (and me, a little judged perhaps) at times.
I don’t want to sound as though I am being too critical though; this community was the most well-formed, connected, cooperative and smooth-running as you’ll find anywhere. In fact, I suspect that by experiencing this before others on this trip, we’ll be seeing nothing like it and will possibly be disappointed if similar unity is not achieved. Members worked side-by-side with ease, played and prayed together, co-existed freely from young to old, broke bread en masse and planned to spend life with one another for now and the hereafter.
Some more stuff we learned and experienced at this unique community:
- people sing regularly: in the morning, singing can be heard from any window as families gather and sing before a meal or elsewhere on campus. There were never sounds of television or canned music playing (in public spaces)
- there’s no eye-contact avoidance that you expect in mainstream society these days; people all say hello and will stop and talk. This wasn’t just because we were new; I saw everyone doing the same
- the system cares for all people: single, families, disabled or elderly.
- quality education seems to be of high importance (as it should be) with mainstream groups starting to take note at the results coming out of Bruderhof’s own schooling system. The overall impression I got of students and kids in general were a well-behaved, respectful, and intelligent group.
- At 18 years old, teens leave the community for a “gap year” of sorts, but are usually placed in another community to experience a more independent lifestyle. Many of them stay on and become full members (committing themselves to a life-long arrangement in the community after they turn 21). We met many 2nd and 3rd generation individuals who had never lived outside the Bruderhof system!
- Aboriginal elders have been very taken with Bruderhof and our hosts spoke of how they have a permanent invitation to Aboriginal lands
- speaking of our hosts – Bill and Grace Anna – they were incredibly helpful, accommodating and forthcoming with their desire to make sure our stay went smoothly. Bill is soft-spoken with a wry sense of humour and gave us lots of reading material to take with us; Grace Anna was kind and fed us numerous times as well as provided guidance on campus. We are very thankful for both of them and the dozens of others we met and whom welcomed us in
- permaculture and rejuvenation of the former pasture lands are moving in full-force with widespread tree-planting, soil improvement, cattle pasture rotation techniques resulting in return of birdlife and other improvements
- the community reaches out to different degrees, from local support for people in crisis or globally with a particularly tight connection with World Vision, among others.
Overall, you can tell that Jesus is central and community followed in and around that. Most members were happy to tell us that and I believe that this is the only way a community like this can work. People were quick to say that this life isn’t for everyone and that community life is never perfect and can be terrifically difficult at times, but that it was all worth it. Heidi’s faith is more aligned with theirs, but she admitted that she would struggle with a few elements despite the benefits of an immersive Christ-centred community (she can tell you about her impressions in her blog. Her thoughts are far less critical than mine 🙂 ). For me, there are some powerfully unifying things that make this community one of the tighter ones I may ever come across, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have a level of faith that is required to personally commit to this community. Despite this, the people were wonderful and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch and visit sometime in the future.
For more on the Foundations of the Bruderhof community, check out their informative website.
Bruderhof also has its own publishing house, Plough, which produces a wide range of spiritually-focused print and e-books but that also cover a broad range of topics as well (while there, I was reading an interesting, non-faith-specific book called “Why Forgive?” which was very good). Visit their online bookstore.
As I mentioned earlier, Heidi’s impressions of this community can be found on her blog.
11 thoughts on ““Danthonia” of Bruderhof: a sacrificial commitment”
Thank you for sharing your impressions. Is always fascinating to hear other’s outside perspectives of the place where I grew up. Oh and Bill and Grace Anna are my aunt and uncle!
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Thanks Miriam. That’s cool that Bill and Grace Anna are your aunt and uncle! They are great people are were truly a joy to have host us.
Hi Mike, Just wanted to say I’m really enjoying your blog and and am super interested in your current communities road trip. I’m a fellow vegan in despair at the state of the world and wanting to live in a way more aligned with my values. I just spent 5 weeks exploring communities around the Northern Rivers of NSW with my three year old, and have returned to my life in Melbourne to pack it up and continue on the trip to find a community. We’ll be heading up the east coast next month, going slow and visiting communities, destination Nimbin, where I’ve tee-d up a 6 month housesit while we spend more time with some communities we liked whilst up there. So your blog is an invaluable source of information! Thank you so much for sharing it! All the best, Polly & Goldie
Date: Thu, 14 Apr 2016 10:14:05 +0000 To: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thanks for your response Polly and for following my blog. With regards to being vegan, yes, Bruderhof is not necessarily going to provide the best experience in that regard, though I suspect that if enough people felt like it were a concern, thing would start to change, just like in the rest of society. How great that you are doing a similar journey to ours, though kudos to you doing it with a 3-year old! Our fur baby is enough of a handful on such a journey 😛 Our next stop will be in the Nimbin area at The Channon, and we’re keen to see what Australia’s centre of the Intentional Community universe looks like!
Having been raised in the Bruderhof (In the NE US), I “hear” a lot of what you’re saying and can envision much of what you’re writing about even though I’ve never visited the one in Danthonia. I want to let you know, though, that there ARE limits to their hospitality when it comes to those raised there who have chosen to leave the Bruderhof rather than join and become members. We have frequently been completely cut off from any contact with our families, denied the right to attend our parents’ funerals, denied the chance to bring our children to visit their aunts, uncles, grandparents on the Bruderhof. Utopia can have a dark side, especially for those young people not fitting into the mold of what they expect you to be. At the moment, their policy towards those who have left seems to have softened somewhat from what it was 10-20 years ago, but, having been out of the hof for over 30 years now, I can speak to the fact that it’s cyclical: at times a much more open-door policy towards those of us who grew up there, at other times (this is my personal experience) denied the chance to speak to my dying father on the phone before traveling overseas, and then excluded from his funeral when he did pass away. There is so much of my childhood there that I truly appreciate, but much that is very painful about the implications for my life, as I chose to follow Jesus in a manner other than theirs. Others who have left for lack of faith reasons, or lifestyle reasons, or sometimes with no idea why they were kicked out, have also experienced this ambivalence of pain, and treasuring the good bits of our upbringing. They were very accommodating of your vegan choices while you were a mere visitor, but I’m not so sure that, if you were to join, they’d allow such a distinctive choice to be accommodated. They would challenge it as prideful if you wanted to retain a life choice distinct from that of the group’s.
For the first few years after I left, I was trying to figure out why it was that I couldn’t make it there. Because of my upbringing, I was pretty sure it was something wrong with ME that made me not fit in there. Then I began hearing from others a generation older than I, who’d had some horrible experiences in being thrown out during a “crisis” in the early 60’s. I finally had to conclude that they are a cult. Living in the Boston, Massachusetts area now. I read and heard a lot of stuff by some cult experts and realized that many features of the Bruderhof tracked exactly with the description these cult experts gave of cults. You’ve experienced the classic “love bombing” that they inundate potential recruits with. The accommodation of your puppy and your veganism were a part of that. But those might well be things you’d be compelled to give up to show your serious desire to surrender to the system, were you to decide to join them.
I could go on and on with story after story–my own and others’, but won’t bore you with unsolicited feedback.
I’m glad you had such a positive experience there, and find your pictures of Danthonia very compelling and attractive. I also am intrigued in their agricultural ventures, much more positive than what was done in my youth. But I just hope you maintain your contact with them with eyes WIDE OPEN! I was tickled to hear you were hosted by Bill and Graceanna. Bill sounds so much like his father was: a real deep thinker and lover of books. And Graceanna ever as gracious a host as her mother was. I do have fond memories of so many individuals there, of whom no ill could be spoken on a personal level. It’s just the group think, and the decisions made in aggregate that can become a lot scarier and more unpalatable.
Blessings in your search for your lives’ purpose! I’ve found the answer in Jesus, but do not believe He requires a formula for living, but a vibrant relationship that ebbs and flows with the uniqueness of each individual He encounters.
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Thanks Gillian for your considered comments about your experiences. It is truly helpful to hear from folks who had personal connection with the community – good or bad. As you probably gathered from my post, I don’t think I am the right fit for Bruderhof but have gleaned a lot of stuff from the way they do things, which could be helpful down the track. I personally don’t think such a hardline approach is necessary to still follow Jesus in an authentic way, though I can see how if people are willing to sacrifice 100% of themselves for their belief, it might well work for them. I hope you have been able to take away some of the good or simply just the learned experiences and used them constructively in your life! 🙂
What you see on the surface is not congruent with what is underneath.
Your response is a tease, Heidi. Please tell me more of your thoughts! There are some compelling responses to this post going on here and I’d love to hear your voice 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your perspective on the Bruderhof. I left the group 7 years ago at the age of 18. My mother, brother and sister live in Danthonia and it’s interesting to get a glimpse into their lives from this perspective. One thing I’d point out, that they don’t seem to have made clear, is the total sacrifice of personal autonomy you must make to be part of this lifestyle. For some folks, faith and trust is strong enough that you can do so and believe the leaders will always be spirit led and make the right decisions. Then all choices are out of your hands, from where and when you work, to what you eat and wear (and for women, with whom you associate). Crises of conscience can be horribly painful in this environment though, where the group consciousness is so strong that individual dissent can be cruelly stamped down with exclusion and loss of communal privileges, rather than being talked through and understood. It is certainly a huge commitment and one I was not, in good conscience able to make. Nonetheless I have the utmost respect for those who are able to erase the self to such a degree in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. My personality was just too strong to be hammered into this particular communal mold. Good luck on your journey. I’ll be following your blog with interest since I didn’t realize there was a movement to intentional community in Australia.
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Thanks for your generous response to my post Avalyn. It seems that there are some others here that have responded will similar concerns as yours which is interesting to hear. Obviously as visitors, I suspect we get a different impression, although I’d like to think that we were experiencing moments of authenticity among the community which we often read as relaxed and getting on with life. I think I mentioned that I had some moments of joylessness sneak into some of their routines which was a bit odd, so that might speak to underlying issues. Thanks for following my blog; yes, the intentional community scene is not huge here but there are some interesting spots to be sure! We’re looking forward to our journey into the IC heartland (northeastern NSW) on our next stop.