Following Jesus

discipleship • the inner life • prayer
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Following Jesus

End of the World

August 30, 2017 by

Those acquainted with the Bruderhof may be aware that while most of our communities are fairly large (two hundred to three hundred people) and located in rural areas, we also have a number of much smaller urban communities. The first such community was started in Camden, New Jersey, in December 2003. At the time, Camden was considered “America’s most dangerous city.” It still holds that title today. In the next series of articles, Ian reflects on his involvement in the start of this little community. Read his first post here.


Waterfront South district was a pretty close approximation of the end of the world; it wasn’t city, it wasn’t ghetto, it was just a section of real estate that had been selected to die and was marked for destruction. The city did not want people to live in Waterfront South. The plan was to turn it into an industrial area, and the process was already well underway. There was continual growth of industrial structures, not factories so much as plants, transfer stations, sewage works, garbage incinerators; a mass of stacks belching into the sky. I remember the ever-present smell of burning paint – I never found out where it came from. Many streets were entirely deserted; quite a few had already been bulldozed, the distinct but empty shells of dreams laid to rest in a long, rough communal barrow. In the remaining nominally residential sections there were more vacant lots than houses and most of the remaining houses were abandoned. There was no local shopping center, no banks, no cinema, no store of any kind except for liquor.

The remaining local school was run as a charity by the Sacred Heart Church. I heard the following anecdote from one of the teachers: One day he was trying to get the kids to think about all the people in the world, and about how good they had it compared to children in other places where there were wars and famines.

“Just imagine,” he said. “How would you feel if there were planes flying over and dropping bombs on us here?”

One of the little kids raised his hand. “I think if a plane was flying over with bombs, they would think our neighborhood had been bombed already.”

camden, NJ
Camden, NJ

Waterfront South was where you came when you had used up all your other options. Junkies made little lean-tos and campsites for themselves or just broke into abandoned houses and stayed there until they were kicked out. The five-dollar prostitutes mostly worked the corners on Broadway; as often as not they were picked up by the drivers of the heavy trucks going down to the docks. The pimps were not much better off than the prostitutes. Violence was a daily normality. It wasn’t dangerous because there were huge amounts of money being made. It was dangerous because everybody was reaching the end and was desperately trying to claw their way back.

I have the distinct memory of standing at the window on a Saturday afternoon looking out over the street in the failing light. The day was freezing cold, and I could see the spasmodic jerking of arms and neck and legs of a prostitute high on crack as she attempted to walk down the middle of the street. I’ve heard the expression “crack kills,” but until moving to Camden I had never seen its actual effect on a person: how it can get inside your brain and squeeze it to a raisin and torture it until all that is left is the craving for something you know is killing you and that you hate taking and hate being without, and your life is hanging in shreds and you know it but there is no way to force yourself to let go. I have a friend, a drug counsellor who claims that the withdrawal symptoms from quitting drugs are not so much the effect of the drugs themselves as the effect of someone having to face the wreckage he is left with. And there’s nothing for the pain.

Against this background we were trying to form a community of nine people: three newly married couples and three single men, all under thirty, all white, all hopelessly idealistic and naïve, un-streetwise and scared. Some of us were very scared; I guess those of us who weren’t were just too stupid. Scared that your wife would get raped. Scared that your husband would get shot. Scared of being assaulted and robbed by some crazy nutter high on crack. At that point in my life in Camden, I would have argued that no matter how educated or enlightened or liberal, at some level white people are scared of black people, and whoever denied this was either kidding themselves or had never lived in an all-black neighborhood. It’s not a rational thing because fear is not rational.

We were not able to love our neighbors until we had learned to love one another.

In the first month or so after we moved in, Wilson and Eric, two of the newly married guys, were walking down Broadway behind a man and a woman with a little three-year-old kid walking along behind them. The man had his hand on the woman’s head, his fingers in her hair. Every couple steps he slammed the woman’s head into the chain link fence they were walking next to. She screamed and sobbed and the little kid walked on behind. Wilson and Eric looked at each other. What should they do?  Get involved? Call the cops? Before they could react the couple moved around the corner and out of sight, walking next to a brick wall.

Not all the violence and murders made the papers, but the sensational domestic ones usually did, like the woman stabbed thirty-seven times by her husband (on crack), and how do you respond to that?

And it was not all that surprising that at the end of work one day, Eric came home and found his wife with a flashlight in one hand and a can of pepper spray in the other. It was that kind of fear.

People react differently to any given situation. Some people never seem to react at all. Vernon and Brandon were brothers, eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and did not seem to realize that we were not in Kansas anymore, Toto. It did not relieve the tension in the air when people forgot to lock the front door, or made themselves conspicuous by stopping to stare at situations unfolding on the street. As the days went by we began to realize that there were a lot of things we didn’t know about each other. Each of us had moved into the house on Broadway with a different set of fears and hopes and expectations.

At the same time, we had to figure out what we were there for, what the point of this exercise was. We had to find a unity of purpose, a unity of action. Not easy, especially for Wilson, who as the group leader was trying to coordinate everything. One evening I stepped out the front door and bumped into Wilson and Eric talking.

“This is such a crazy place,” Eric was saying. “I don’t know what the hell we are doing here. You know what these people need? They just need to go out and get a job. And they are never going to, no matter what we do. There was a lady this afternoon outside that house over there, just heaving bricks through the window at the people inside. How are you supposed to talk to people like that?”

Half an hour later I went out the back door and across to the house where I was staying with some friends in another community group. There was Edgar talking to Wilson.

“I think we just need to relax and loosen up a little,” Edgar was saying. “These people are not that different from us. We just need to get to know them and stop being scared of them. In fact, I think many of them are a lot closer to Jesus than we are. They know their lives are wrecked. They know they need help. They have nothing left to hold on to.”

Given the situation, it was hard to disagree with either of them. It was not that there were different factions in our community so much as that there was this underlying tension within each one of us. And we came to realize more and more that for all the arguments we ironed out, we still had an enormous need for unity, for that peace with God and with one another that is not a matter of reasoned and measured discussion, but an act of God.

And then my phone got stolen.

Leaving the phone and my jacket inside the car was my fault, but no one actually remembered who forgot to lock the car door. The loss of the phone was not really the issue; it was the idea that we had been robbed because of carelessness. Somebody was not taking the situation seriously.

Something about a straw and a camel, and I attribute the memory-blur of the exact order of events, and specifics of who said what to traumatic amnesia. The cover was well and truly ripped off; nobody got physical, but it was not pretty. We were eating breakfast together and everything seemed to come down around our ears, and what I remember best is the heaviness in the air as we left to go to work. I have a vivid memory of Eric driving Brandon and me in the minivan, with the sky just starting to turn to dull grey in the dead winter cold. The car did not heat up until we were almost at the job site, and none of us said a word.

Things did get resolved in the end, and I will get to that part eventually. We did learn to love one another and our neighbors in series of fits and starts: two steps forward and one step back. Crucially though, it started with the relationship between us in the community. We were not able to love our neighbors in any meaningful way until we had learned to truly love one another.

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About the author

IanBarthHorizontal

Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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  • Ha! Thanks for your honesty. Of course I wouldn't mind sharing what I'm doing. Would you mind if I emailed that to you?

    Erik
  • Thanks Erik, the rest of the story is coming, although I'm not sure exactly what we learned. I would love to hear what you are up to!

    Ian
  • I am really excited to hear the rest of the story. I am currently in a situation that has some parallels to this and I would love to see how you all dealt with the challenges.

    Erik