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Life Among The Bruderhof

The way an Anabaptist movement embodies the Benedict Option

Have you ever heard of the Bruderhof? It’s an international movement in the Anabaptist tradition. They are Christians who live in intentional communities — 23 of them, on four continents — and share their lives and resources in common. Here’s an FAQ about them. And here is a more in-depth exploration of those things, in what could be titled the Rule of the Bruderhof.  The movement was founded in 1920 in Germany, as a Christian response to the horrors of World War I and social injustice. They eventually had to leave Germany because of Nazi persecution.

Late last week, I visited two of their American settlements, Fox Hill and The Mount, both not far from each other, in New York’s Hudson River Valley (see a list of all the US Bruderhof communities here.) The Bruderhof has been fully engaged with The Benedict Option book (start here to see what they think of it). After spending some time with them, it’s very easy to see why. The Bruderhof has been living their version of the Benedict Option for almost a century. These two communities are full of grace and hospitality. Before I say anything else, let me encourage you to check out this link telling you where all of the Bruderhof communities are worldwide.  There’s nothing like a visit to meet them yourself. This short video gives you an idea of what to expect:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ohC8cEcdOE]

I stayed at Fox Hill, a community of large, multifamily houses and buildings, including a workshop, a primary school, and a chapel/meeting room, spread across rolling farmland. Shortly after arriving from NYC with others for a Ben Op conference there (all off the record, alas), we all gathered with the entire community for a welcome. They sang several hymns. What startled me, and delighted me, was the joyful force with which they sang. I’ve never heard anything like it in a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church. It was genuinely inspiring. As with so much I saw there, it’s not my tradition, and it’s not one I’m particularly drawn to, but it’s impossible not to admire the Bruderhof.

The Bruderhof folks live radically compared to other Christians. They really do hold all things in common, meaning that nobody receives a paycheck. That requires an unusual degree of trust, obviously, but you also get a lot in return. The community cares for you. They don’t let anybody suffer. They don’t warehouse their elderly in nursing homes, for example. To join the Bruderhof, you first have to live in a community for at least a year, in a novitiate — a time of testing to see if you can live by the rhythms and commitments of the community (monastic orders have this too). They want people to be sure that this life is for them. If, after the novitiate, an adult wants to join, he makes vows in front of the entire community. In general, they are vows of poverty, chastity (including fidelity in marriage), and obedience (here are the particular vows). It would not be stretching it to call them lay monastics.

They have families, but children aren’t automatically members of the Bruderhof for life. They can go to college if they like, and many do, and they do not have to embrace Bruderhof life if they don’t feel a calling to it. I talked to one man who said that he had been raised in the Bruderhof, but left it for a while. After some time, feeling far away from his own, he sold all his possessions and bought a train ticket back to a Bruderhof settlement. Now, he’s happily married. “I still have my train ticket,” he told me, saying it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

I don’t think I had any particular expectations about what I would see at Fox Hill and The Mount, but I can tell you this: it’s not like M. Night Shymalan’s The Village. You may laugh at that, but I swear, so many people seem to think that if you live in any kind of Christian community that separates itself to a meaningful degree from the world, you’re bound to turn into a freakfest. The Bruderhof people are so blessedly normal. If anybody finds them freaky, that is a judgment on that person, not on these Anabaptists. If what they have is freaky, then the world needs a lot more freaks.

The most amazing thing to an outsider’s eyes — well, this outsider’s eyes — are the Bruderhof’s kids. None of them walk around with their eyes glued to screens. They don’t have that shifty, unsettled look that so many kids do. They look grounded and happy. They actually play outside, and do chores, and talk to each other. Every single one of these kids I talked to spoke to me politely and with confidence, even though I was a stranger to them. They seem so mature and grounded. That’s the thing that has lingered on my mind since coming home: the witness of the Bruderhof children. Everybody wants to have boys and girls who are like that, but so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices that those parents do to raise them.

Someone in the community there told me that the Fox Hill Bruderhof used to send its teenagers to the local public high school, but they had to pull them out because the moral effects on their kids was destructive. In 2012, the movement bought a massive seminary built in 1907 on the banks of the Hudson by the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests. By the time the Bruderhof entered the picture, the building was in bad shape, and was home to only four elderly Redemptorists. The Anabaptists bought it and renovated it as both a high school for their community (and some kids outside the community), and as living quarters for a large number of families. It’s called The Mount, and I visited it.

Here’s a photo I took of the building:

It’s enormous! It stopped me in my tracks to imagine that there was a time in US Catholic history when a religious order felt confident enough in its future to erect a building longer than a football field, to educate its priests. And now it is home to a colony of Anabaptists, of all people! You just don’t know the way history is going to flow, do you? The Bruderhof folks have been respectful of The Mount’s Catholic heritage, and have left its chapel largely intact. It struck me that it’s a great blessing that this building, which was erected to form missionaries for the Gospel, was not sold to some hotel chain, but is forming new — and very different — missionaries for the Gospel.

I had dinner with a Mount family, and we talked about what the Bruderhof has to offer the rest of the Christian world in the Benedict Option. “If you write about us,” said my host, “please write that we don’t seek imitation, but rather are trying to be an inspiration.” He explained that theirs is just one way to live out the Gospel in a radical way. If they have something to offer others, then they’re happy to share freely. They are seeking to get to know believers from other traditions, to share friendship, and to figure out if it’s possible for us to support each other?

What do I think the Bruderhof have to offer the rest of us?

First, the idea that this kind of life is possible, even today. They do live separate lives, but they aren’t strict separatists. For example, they invite their neighbors outside the community to come over for a common meal on Saturday nights. The members all work in the community, but they do go out into the world. Again, they sent their kids to the public high school, until they concluded that the moral culture had degraded so much that it was too risky to subject their kids to it. They didn’t have an objection in principle to public school, but when it reached the point of interfering with the life they believe God has called them to live, they pulled out, and started figuring out how to do something better. All Christians can admire the sacrifices they were willing to make for their kids.

Second, the example of their children. I had just spent a good part of the week talking to different people out in the world about how damaged kids today are by constant exposure to electronic media, as well as by the deforming aspects of popular culture. These kids are the polar opposite from that!  They are wholesome, because they were raised by a community that was determined to raise them in a wholesome environment. You can tell it. Boy, can you ever. I was up for 6:30 am breakfast on Saturday, after which I had to go to LaGuardia for the flight home. It was 15 degrees outside. The oldest boy in the family finished breakfast and went to join other boys in cleaning the community’s cars — on this cold, cold morning. The other kids prepared for their Saturday chores (e.g., the girls were going to be helping their mother clean the house). I heard not a single complaint, or the least bit of whining. They just … did it, and did it not out of fear or anything like that, but because, well, that’s just what you do at the Bruderhof to make our community work.

Again: if this is freaky, the world needs a lot more freaky.

Third, confident outreach to other Christians. They can do this because they know who they are and what they believe — and they’re not mad about it. Nobody tried to talk me into becoming an Anabaptist. The only conversations I had were along the lines of, “Now, tell me what you Orthodox do when you worship?” and “How can we be your friends and your servants?” Just straightforward, plain dealing, in charity and a spirit of service. We need more of that.

Fourth, the value of simplicity. Anabaptists are very, very simple in their piety and worship. They don’t really have a liturgy. As an Orthodox Christian, I am their polar opposite when it comes to liturgy and ecclesiology, but I’ll say this for them: these are not people who are given over to innovation and trendiness in worship. Even though I was there for only a short time, I could discern how the Bruderhof weaves worship into all of life, and thus makes their entire existence a simple but effective liturgy of life.

Fifth, demolishing the concept of compartmentalization. For the Bruderhof, there is no separation between religion and life. You live your faith wholly, not just on Sundays. It’s supposed to be like that for all of us believers, but we so often fail at it. The Bruderhof has created social structures, customs, and institutions that make this easier to do.

It’s not hard to find material online criticizing the Bruderhof, written by ex-members. I wouldn’t claim that they are perfect, ever, and certainly wouldn’t make that claim after a very short visit. But I came away from my visit there inspired, not only by the Bruderhof itself, but by the possibilities of life and ecumenical cooperation in the Benedict Option. 

One last image: as I was touring the primary school on Friday morning, I poked my head into the room where toddlers are watched. I saw a little boy sprawled out on the lap of a Bruderhof woman, who cradled him in her arms.

“Oh, that beautiful child,” I said. “He’s sleeping.”

“No,” said my guide. “He has cerebral palsy.”

That child abides in the cradle of a community that loves him and his parents. That child abides in grace and light.