A Christian Community Makes Waves, Not War
Men in plaid button-down shirts and overalls held up by suspenders and women in bonnets and sixteenth-century-style skirts are industriously busy around the room. One logs on to the Internet to check the day's electronic mail messages and postings to the group's web site. Another handles calls on its 800 number for orders for the movement's line of old-fashioned wooden kids' toys and state-of-the-art disability equipment that contribute to the community's $20 million in annual revenues.
At noon, the workforce thins out as parents leave to pick up their children from community daycare. A crew of parents takes turns watching and instructing the children of Woodcrest, one of eight Bruderhof rural communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and England, where 2,500 Bruderhofers live and work.
After spending an extended lunch with their children in the communal dining hall, the adults return to work. One day a week is designated for the Interhof conference call, for which all 250 adults of the Woodcrest community in the rolling hills of upstate New York gather in a large meeting hall and, via sophisticated conference-calling facilities, are connected to the other Bruderhof communities. Heavy German accents fill the room as the communities pray and work their way down an agenda of community business.
Lately the agenda for this Anabaptist religious group has been brimming with controversial issues, including a passionate campaign for a stay of execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther journalist on death row who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. There also have been painful splits with other Hutterite groups and fending off of ex-Bruderhofers' accusations that the Bruderhof is a cult.
MOVEMENT ROOTS: Founded in Germany in the 1920s, the Bruderhof—like the better-known Amish—are a spinoff of the nonviolent sixteenth-century German Anabaptist movement in which adherents pledged loyalty to God over the state (CT, Mar. 15, 1985, p. 22). Unlike the Amish, they have a long tradition of political involvement. Alarmed in the late 1920s by the rise of the Nazis, the Bruderhofers' resistance ultimately led to their expulsion at gunpoint by the new Nazi state. Their exodus included living in other parts of Europe before settling in Paraguay for 15 years. In 1954, Bruderhofers established their first community in the United States near Rifton, New York. Their communal lifestyle in an individualistic society invites curiosity and suspicion.
"The basis of our communal life is the New Testament," says Bruderhof elder Johann Christoph Arnold. "We simply try to follow as closely as we can Christ's teachings."
Members have no private property but share everything as outlined in Acts, chapters 2 and 4. This theology has led the Bruderhof to set up their own elementary schools, and in an outspoken way to oppose the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia.
Many who encounter the Bruderhofers' commitment to fundamental Christian principles respond with admiration. Catholic thinker Thomas Merton used Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold's book "Why We Live in Community" as the "completely Christian answer" to the question of genuine community living.
Living out Christian ideals, however, has not made for a tranquil journey. Throughout their history, the Bruderhofers' road less-traveled has embroiled them in public and internal controversies.
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: The Bruderhofers' radical pacifism leads them to butt heads naturally with the state over issues such as the death penalty and in the process end up as part of unusual and controversial coalitions. In the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the Bruderhof are working alongside the NAACP and Move, the urban, secular, African American, politically radical group that made headlines a decade ago when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on one of their buildings.