This is the book I wished for when I first visited the Bruderhof almost thirty years ago. Back then the community’s publishing house, Plough, had only published a couple of songbooks for children, a collection of Christmas stories, and half a dozen other books of talks and essays. But there wasn’t one book that told what members of the community believed and how that influenced their daily life together. I hope this book will do that and much more.
Many things about the community struck me on my first visit, but the strongest impressions I took back with me were the stories people shared about their own journeys to find an alternative life – a life where loving God and loving your neighbor are truly daily priorities. Not long afterward, I returned for good and became a member (read my story here). Since then, I’ve had the chance to talk with hundreds of others in the community, and have realized how diverse the paths are that brought each of us here. I found myself thinking, “These stories need to be told.”
So when, almost three years ago, Plough asked if I’d be interested in collecting stories for a photojournalism book on the Bruderhof, I jumped at the chance. I left my job marketing Rifton Equipment, the community business that manufactures equipment for people with disabilities, and started scheduling interviews with very different people located around the world. It doesn’t get much better than that.
With the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bruderhof approaching, it seemed natural to bring these stories together in a book (and on this website) to show how an assortment of people could live out their shared vision of a just society. One of the most challenging parts of this project was choosing which hundred stories to include. There are literally thousands of possibilities, many of them fascinating and colorful – which should be featured? In the end, with input from Plough’s editorial team, I decided to focus on stories that, taken together, would provide a candid and balanced view into the community for readers who have never heard of it.
We all agreed we did not want a history book full of sepia-toned photos. I remember being impressed, on my first visit, by the inner vitality of the older members and their freedom from nostalgia. They rarely talked about “the good old days,” but instead lived in the present and looked toward the future, encouraging younger members to take on responsibility and leadership. So this collection of stories includes a representative cross-section of young and old; men and women; people, like me, who came as adults, as well as people who grew up in the community. It is not a list of achievements or milestones, but a record of God’s working in the lives of individuals.
We believe that God wants such a life for his people – a life of peace and unity, where no one is richer or poorer than another, where the welfare of the oldest, youngest, and weakest is a shared priority; where family life is treasured; where there is meaningful work for everyone; and where there is time for laughter, friendship, and children.
The next challenge was how to show a unique way of life. I wanted current photos of our communities, if possible all by one photographer. That’s when someone suggested Danny Burrows. Danny is a British photojournalist who had been documenting the plight of North African refugees in the Calais Jungle, the huge shantytown in France that sprang up during the European migrant crisis of 2015 to 2016. He turned out to be the perfect fit. After Danny agreed to the assignment, he and I visited communities around the globe, he shooting and I recording interviews. (Read Danny’s perspective here). Danny took thousands of photos and gave us more than three thousand that he felt were artistically worthy to carry his name. From that selection we’ve used about two hundred in this book. You can see many more here.
So if you’re that rare person who actually reads introductions, here’s the brief introduction to the Bruderhof that I missed having thirty years ago.
Simply, we’re a group of men and women who have each chosen to follow Christ above all else, and who have felt called to follow him, together, for our entire lives. We live with our families – or, as in my case, singles as part of families – in communities where we share meals, work, and income. We believe that God wants such a life for his people – a life of peace and unity, where no one is richer or poorer than another, where the welfare of the oldest, youngest, and weakest is a shared priority; where family life is treasured; where there is meaningful work for everyone; and where there is time for laughter, friendship, and children.
Today there are twenty-six Bruderhof community settlements around the world, each distinctive but sharing the same purpose. The bigger communities (200 to 350 people) are like small villages, each with an elementary school, dining hall, community kitchen, medical and dental clinic, community laundry, workshop, and other workplaces, like our publishing house, where I spend my workdays. Families eat breakfast together and then walk to school or work, meeting again at noon for lunch in the community’s dining hall and then returning to work (for the adults) and afternoon activities (for the children). Evenings may include a family dinner or, after the younger children are in bed, a community worship meeting, an all-hands-on-deck project in the workshop or garden, or just time for relaxation, socializing, or hobbies. (Since coming to the Bruderhof, I’ve spent many creative hours in the pottery.)
Our life together comes out of faith in Jesus and a desire to follow his commandments.
Daily life at the dozen smaller communities scattered throughout the world is naturally different, although they also meet for regular meals and worship. Some of the small communities run service businesses, while at others people have jobs outside the community or volunteer with local charities. Regardless of how income is generated, though, all of it is donated to the community, following the personal vow of poverty each member has taken. In return, people’s needs are all provided for.
Our life together comes out of faith in Jesus and a desire to follow his commandments. The founders of the Bruderhof were inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, with its uncompromising call to a life completely dedicated to God’s will. A glimpse of what that life might look like is found in Acts 2 and 4, which describe the first church in Jerusalem where “all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to any as had need.”
Just as Jesus called the first disciples to “drop your nets,” each of us has felt the same call to give up everything to follow him in a dedicated life. We’ve promised to give everything we have – “the whole strength of your body and soul” – in service of that calling. Because membership is for life, each of us has to feel called by God to make this commitment. Conversely, when someone asks to become a member, the circle of existing members also feels a responsibility to discern the depth of his or her calling. Baptism based on belief (sometimes in one’s late teens, and often later) is the first step toward membership. Only when someone has become an adult at twenty-one can he or she ask for membership – we do not have birthright membership. Wherever we live, all of us members have taken the same vows of lifelong loyalty to Christ and to each other.
Life in community is different from living as a Christian who attends a church for a few hours a week. Because we believe that every aspect of life has the potential to be an act of worship – working together, sharing a meal, singing together – actual church services are relatively simple. Led by one of the appointed pastors or another community member, we meet each day to sing, pray, and hear Scripture or other readings. Several communities often gather to celebrate more formal events such as weddings, baptisms, and acceptance of new members. Friends and neighbors from the public frequently attend these celebrations as well.
Our shared beliefs are simple: we read Jesus’ words and try to put them into practice in daily life, guided by the witness of the earliest Christians as well as the sixteenth-century Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation, who likewise sought to return to a discipleship guided by the words of the Bible. We believe that the church (of which the Bruderhof is only a small part) is an eternal work of God and cannot be identified with any state institution or human hierarchy. That said, we recognize Jesus’ power to work in all people, regardless of their creed or walk of life. We are happy to join with other Christians and people of good will to work toward a better world, whether by volunteering in a local soup kitchen or working with organizations such as World Vision and Save the Children on disaster relief efforts.
As I discovered, and as I hope the photos on the following pages show, we love children. We love being out in God’s creation. We love working, singing, and celebrating together. Community offers a life lived to the full, where difficult times are shared and where each individual can find fulfillment.
Millions of Christians have read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on the path to conversion, and I was no different. I encountered it when I was twenty-one and it changed my life more than any other book at the time. Lewis guides the reader step by step through what it means to be a Christian and then considers the practical effects of discipleship:
The New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no “swank” or “side,” no putting on airs.
To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist. On the other hand, it is always insisting on obedience – obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands. Thirdly, it is to be a cheerful society: full of singing and rejoicing, and regarding worry or anxiety as wrong. Courtesy is one of the Christian virtues; and the New Testament hates what it calls “busybodies.”
If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, “advanced,” but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old fashioned – perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing.
Reading those words today and looking around I think, well, that pretty much describes how we are trying to live. As Danny and I went around trying to capture iconic community events in photos, it struck me that much of our life is experienced in the small ways we relate to one another every day – and that’s something photos will never fully capture. For that, you’ll just have to come and see for yourself.
Clare Stober, Fox Hill, 2020