I Just Spent 24 Hours in a Town That Pools All Their Possessions
by| Mar 20, 2023
Baby Concord and I drove nearly 1,000 miles before we entered the gates of the Bruderhof community in the village of Darvell, located on the outskirts of the pretty medieval town of Robertsbridge, England.
The long driveway arced gracefully past an apple orchard before passing a pine forest, whose sustainable wood growth would eventually be fed into the community’s house-sized wood boiler to heat the entire village of 200 people.
Upon arriving in the parking lot, the first thing I noticed was their cars. Every single one of the dozen vehicles was backed into its parking space, nose facing out. In other words, these are forward-thinking people.
A happy couple holding hands greeted me within seconds of exiting my Volkswagen.
“That’s not at all creepy,” I said.
Klaas, from Germany, laughed. “The security guard registered your license plate, knew we were hosting you, and called us on your way in.”
“You have cell phones?” I said with surprise.
“We used to have a pager network but that got unruly. We’ve had dumb phones for years now, but during Covid, we switched to smartphones. But no one has wifi or personal computers at home — we leave our work at the office — and everything can be centrally looked up as a community, so we have accountability.”
Klaas’s wife, Greta, from upstate New York, smiled at Concord. “Shall we give you a tour?”
I nodded. “Yes please!”
Loving others with intentionality
The Bruderhof (meaning roughly “the house of brothers”) was founded in the early 1900s but a thirty-something Protestant theologian in Germany. It was founded as a Christian intentional community practicing biblical koinonia — the radical Christian sharing of all possessions in common for the sake of the gospel by loving others. Naturally, the Nazis hated them, arrested a bunch, and drove the rest from the Third Reich.
Today, there are more than 3,000 Bruderhofers across more than two dozen communities around the world, and all 3,000 own zero personal possessions, sharing 100% of their work, income, wealth, and future inheritances with the community and the poor. Everyone works as they are able, and everyone is cared for as their needs arise.
That seems to be the case with the Bruderhof as well. There is literally no need in Darvell village:
- Everyone has a rent-free mortgage-free apartment.
- No one pays for heat (thanks to their sustainable wood operation)
- No one pays for electricity (they’re currently installing their own solar system for further grid independence)
- No one pays for water (they have two aquifers and their own filtration system)
- No one pays for food (they just grab what they need from a common room)
- No one pays for clothes (you just contact the bursar and they order what you need)
- No one pays for childcare or school (they have their own daycare and school — plus an acre of wild-play woods, a 360-foot-long swimming pond stocked with trout, a library, and high-quality wooden toys galore.
- No one pays for healthcare. Most Bruderhofs have an onsite doctor and dentist in their onsite clinic, and can refer to specialists for outside treatment.
- No one pays for eldercare. They lovingly take care of their own until death, even in tough situations like dementia patients. (In extreme cases like mental health involving attempted self-harm or harm to others, they will place a person in an outside care facility, but it’s extremely rare.)
- When someone dies — usually at a very old age — they embalm onsite and then hold a 24/7 vigil to pray and say goodbyes until they bury the body in their onsite cemetery.
From cradle to grave, the brotherhood (of brothers and sisters) love each other well.
The community is about 80% self-sufficient in growing vegetables on their 200 acres of land. The IT guy milks the cows to provide for everyone’s dairy needs. They have cattle for beef, pigs for pork, and goats for fun.
Additionally, they have major collective purchasing power for things like toilet paper because they buy in bulk and pay cash.
Families have breakfast at home (think: home-raised bacon, eggs, beans, and coffee), and then share a big communal lunch every day in their common cafeteria. The community tries to just eat two meals per day so they can be more generous, and so generally just have a light bite in the evening.
Everyone gets their breakfast and evening food from “The Stores,” which is just a big warehouse-style room where you can grab meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, rice, flour, milk, eggs, butter, homemade bread, homemade beer, homemade cider, etc.
You can place an order for special items each Friday, and by the number of wood-fired pizza ovens I saw scattered around the property, my guess is pepperoni and mozzarella are popular requests.
My hosts were self-admittedly on the frugal end of the food spectrum — a pair of weirdos who see food only as fuel and don’t seem to have taste buds! Our evening meal together was monastically simple — a scoop of peas, two fish sticks, and two meatballs apiece, served with much joy. (Greta likes gin and tonic, but she’s currently given it up for Lent.) Later in the evening when guests came over, we tucked into a sticky pile of pillowy cinnamon buns.
Each family is given a free apartment for life.
The units are simple flats with lots of natural lighting through big windows. Klaas and Greta’s place consisted of a ~12×12 living room/dining room, a pair of ~6×6 bathrooms, three ~8×10 bedrooms, and a ~12×12 kitchen shared with another family across the hall.
The buildings are rock solid but are not beautiful. They feel more like dormitories, temporary accommodations with hard-tiled floors. They are not homey in any way. But I suspect that is the point. These are tough German utilitarians by tradition, and they believe this earth is not their eternal home.
Still, there is a warmth to their homes — not only from the sun and their wood boiler operation but from their robust family lives and their steady stream of visitors.
In my opinion, Bruderhofers work too much.
Most people go to bed at 9 pm and wake before 6 am. Work begins at 7:45 am and finishes at five, with a 45-minute lunch and two 15-minute breaks in a flower-festooned break room equipped with tea, coffee, snacks, and a pool table. They work 5.5 days per week, plus some evening work a few days per week, and chores, for a total of well over 50 hours apiece. Luckily, their daily commute is a one-minute walk.
They are self-admittedly a “busy community,” and busyness is something I abhor. A lack of contemplation leads to exploitation. The Bruderhof certainly make time for contemplation and are actively avoiding exploitation, but work does seem to play too central a role in their lives.
All the adults in the 200-strong community work in one of a dozen or so departments:
- There’s the kitchen crew of five or six that cook lunch for 200 every day in a massive commercial kitchen with the most high-tech assembly-line-style dishwasher I’ve ever seen.
- There’s the folk in charge of stocking the (free) store with food, clothes, toothpaste, etc.
- There’s the accountant who keeps the numbers in order.
- There’s the IT guy who milks the cows.
- There’s the wood team that sustainably harvests enough lumber not only for heating, but to make their own furniture, cabinetry, and toys.
- There’s the daycare team, which has the capability to care for children from infancy.
- There’s the school team, which ensures the kids get a rigorous education without neglecting their moral character or need for hours of free play. (They’ve been inspected by Ofsted for decades, and they even have a Hogwarts-style boarding school for their high schoolers.)
- There’s the health team, typically a doctor and a dentist.
- There’s the sewing team, who make curtains, cloth diapers, and dresses.
- There’s the epic laundry team — each family drops off their dirty clothes, which are cleaned and returned two days later.
- There’s the publishing team. Based in the US and the UK, Plough is their quarterly magazine and book publisher.
- The biggest team is Community Playthings, which makes high-quality wooden toys for school classrooms around the world. I toured the factory which is always a hive of activity. This is a major business for the Bruderhof, with annual revenues in the tens of millions, producing millions in annual net profit — all of which is shared equally with the community and beyond.
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” — 1 John 3:16–17
No one gets a paycheck for their work. (One member once joked that everyone gets a “six-figure salary, all zeroes.”)
No one pays for anything in a Bruderhof community, either.
Everything — housing, heat, water, power, healthcare, childcare, education, clothing, hobbies, eldercare, and funeral services — is provided free of charge.
No one claims any possession as their own. Sure, each family tends to have a shelf of personal books, but even these are readily lent out to brothers and sisters who require their use.
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil — everything from war to porn to human trafficking to climate destruction — and the Bruderhof are doing their best to completely purge this harmful love from their lives.
Unlike the world around them, which devours the elderly with private healthcare costs and threatens to take away children from parents who can’t afford school lunch fees, the Bruderhof proudly declares that “the welfare of the oldest, youngest, and weakest is a shared priority.”
Unlike in “utopian” communes which are centered around a larger-than-life guru, I never did figure out who was in charge of the Darvell community.
Biblically, churches are to be governed not by a fancy-pants pastor — the word appears nowhere in the Bible — but by a team of elders (on the spiritual side) and a team of deacons (on the practical side.)
As far as I can tell, the global structure of the Bruderhof is as follows:
- Christ is the head.
- The global member has the ultimate earthly say as they listen to God.
- There is one global elder who is accountable to the global membership.
- There are bishops who oversee geographical regions and are accountable to the elder.
- There are a handful of community leaders in each community who are accountable to their bishop, the elder, and their location community.
For more than 100 years, this structure seems to protect them from major financial and sexual scandals.
Being together is a major value for the Bruderhof.
Single people — whether single by circumstance, celibate by choice, or widowed — are never isolated, but are intentionally placed in a family unit. For example, Klaas and Greta only have one child at present, so their third bedroom is occupied by Salome, a beautiful soul in her sixties.
Everyone I met said Bruderhof communities are wonderful places to raise children. Indeed, all the little boys were covered in mud from their knees to their toes.
Married couples seem especially happy. One thing that struck me, in particular, was all the public displays of affection. It was like hanging out with a bunch of teenagers. Even couples in their sixties held hands as they walked and cuddles close when they sat side by side.
Hospitality is near the heart of this communal life, as evidenced by their warm welcoming of me, a complete stranger. Concord and I were given our own bathroom and bedroom with a pile of snacks and toys for my little man, and were given supper and breakfast, plus four free books and two magazines for the road, all without charge. (One elderly man I met said I could come back next time “anywhere from two days to two years, so long as you bring Michelle!”)
This community really is a family of brothers and sisters. Klaas and Greta didn’t blink an eye when a couple from across the hall invited themselves over for elderflower cordial and cinnamon buns and a lovely evening of laughter and conversation.
A love for God and people is the core tenet of the Bruderhof communities.
Each adult finds time for personal prayer and reading each day.
Many couples do book studies together.
Others are part of a small group that meets weekly to talk and pray.
Every day, the whole community gathers for singing or reading or prayer or fellowship. The chapel I attended was in honor of someone who died suddenly the day before I arrived. Everyone sat in a huge circle centered on some flowers and candles. The four-part harmonies during the songs were stunning.
Obviously, our hyper-individualist “culture” is actually an anti-culture. When autonomy is the highest goal, what happens when two autonomies clash? The strongest survives. Ironically, in America’s quest for “freedom” (read: autonomy), people get enslaved and exploited.
But does Bruderhofs take things too far the other way by going so hardcore communal?
All the women wear dresses, though head covers became optional during Covid. (Despite the dresses, the community is surprisingly egalitarian. Women share just as freely as men in their common meetings, and there are more women professionals than men in the white-collar sectors of their various enterprises. Plus, they get to work one hour less than the men each day.)
Because all funds are pooled collectively, almost no one gets to travel. I chatted with several people who mentioned their dreams of traveling to this or that country, but said foregoing such sweet pleasure was a sacrifice they were willing to make for the common good.
I admire their communal desires but feel they press too hard. For example, many people work jobs they don’t love or aren’t necessarily skilled at. (Just like most adults on planet Earth!) Most Bruderhofers are assigned work. There isn’t much space for individual calling or vocation. When I was twenty-one, I felt a very clear call to “write in such a way that draws people closer to God, and give away the profits.” Clearly, the second half would fit within the Bruderhof context, but the former half would likely have to die on the altar of working in the toy factory. To me, this seems a waste of many God-given talents, skills, and callings.
Beyond work, families are often sent to other Bruderhof communities in need of their support. Is this biblical? Clearly not. Many people voluntarily choose to help struggling communities or go start new ones, and while I’m sure there isn’t much pressure, coercion, or force involved in getting people to relocate to, say, Paraguay, is there perhaps a better way?
Moreover, sharing a common purse is not a clear command in the Bible. But isn’t it curious that the early church heard the stories of Jesus from the apostles, and their natural response was to sell their stuff and give it to the poor? Nothing in Scripture says our church gets to tell us what to do for work or what to do with the money we earn or whoever to live, but clearly, our job is to follow God’s leading, honor God with our work, and give the proceeds are to help others. The reason communism will never work is that it’s a secular attempt to force Christian values on a humanist world. It simply won’t work. And while the Bruderhof voluntarily submit to their common way of life (no one under 21 is allowed to apply to be a member) it seems to me there could be a little more space for personal stewardship.
The Bruderhof stress obedience to the community and its leadership, whereas the Bible places more emphasis on mutual submission. The Bruderhof are absolutely right to stress that everything we do should be for the benefit of the community and not just ourselves, but how we bless others could be given more room for exploration.
I will fondly remember my time at Darvell, and I would love to visit again — with Michelle — for much longer.
My visit has already sparked several interesting conversations. People are sick and tired of hardcore rules-free-market capitalism and monopoly corporatism. Most of us know deep down that the market economy — the commodification of all things — is pure poison. We know that stock investing is wage suppression and worker exploitation. We know that for-profit land-lording is simply the monopolization of land in order to extract wealth from people in desperate need of shelter. We know our global economy with its sham inflationary currencies is corrupt to the core.
But are we willing to sacrifice any of our hyper-individualist autonomy for a far better shared freedom?
Are we willing to think of others more than ourselves?
Are we willing to make sacrifices for our brothers and sisters and the poor?
Are we able to even imagine that a better way is possible?
Heck, churchgoers aren’t even interested!
We’ve been so colonized by our corporatist capitalist anti-culture that we think “stewardship” simply means snowballing our debt and investing in mutual funds so we can tithe to our corporate church.
I’m hoping to find more people who care about the common life I read about in the Bible.
The Bruderhof expression is probably not for me, but I am convinced koinonia is in our future.
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