October 11, 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 this series of articles, Ian reflects on his involvement in the start of this little community.

Read Ian’s first post here, where he introduces the construction crew members who feature in this blog.

“Ian, looks like we need some wood scraped,” Stan Routledge (my boss) said. “Start off with all the plates.” So at seven in the morning I was scraping ice off two-by-fours, bent double over a pile of timber, body getting hot and sweaty while feet and fingers slowly froze; the worst job on the site. And playing back the footage of the argument this morning, and trying to think whose fault it was that my phone was stolen, and underlying this, the kick-in-the-gut feeling that comes from having something stolen from you. You feel like a victim. I did not want to feel like a victim. The air was winter-dead, heavy with frozen moisture and the premonition that spring was never going to come. Stan shouted down from the second floor asking if I was going to take all day on this and to bring up all the studs when I finished. It was one of those days where you had to force yourself to get through one motion at a time.

Stan Routledge must have known that I was nerving myself up to ask for a raise. It was in what he didn’t say as he stopped what he was doing to watch me fumbling some operation he could do in his sleep. I was reaching down and trying to tow a nail into the top of the stud below when he suddenly said, “Hey Ian, remember how you told me you were worth a lot more than eleven bucks an hour? You are going to have to swing that hammer a lot better before you are worth even that around here.” There was not a whole lot to say to that. I went down to pass the plates up to Old Stan (the old guy on the crew; not the boss) and started helping him lay out the floor.

construction worker

Old Stan, I was learning, took pride in never losing his cool. This was quite an accomplishment in an environment where things very often went wrong. He enjoyed watching other people get mad; there would be just the start of a smile on his face as he turned away from a situation that was escalating and gave full attention to his work. “That’s what you get around here” was his sardonic analysis for every situation that went south. I knew he was also casually racist, the same as Stan Routledge and the other guys we got to know on the job. Nothing against black people as long as he did not have to see them. The N-word was the preferred curse when a nail bent or a stud was cut too short. For all that, Brandon and I both found Old Stan a great guy to work with; he took time to teach us the basic skills that no amount of enthusiasm or hard work could take the place of, and it was fun to learn, fun to pretend that I was a real carpenter.

“You want to be real careful with that nail gun,” he told me one morning. “That’s a tool you need to respect. Everybody thinks it’s great to go blamming nails in like a machine gun, but I’ve seen accidents with those things you don’t even want to know about.”

Half an hour later Fred shot himself in the hand.

Old Stan looked at him, then at me, “That’s what you get,” while Stan Routledge cursed Fred out good and proper: “You are out of your mind if you think I am going to drive you to the hospital. Get yourself to the hospital or get back to work.”

And there was Fred sitting on a pile of timber, holding his hand wrapped in a rag and blood running down. From two floors up I could see him sitting there, muttering to himself, and I performed a magnificent act of cowardice and didn’t go down to see how he was doing. I was scared of what Stan Routledge would say.

Lunch break was a full half-hour and the best part of the day: with six hours of work behind us there was the satisfaction of only three hours to go, and also our bodies had basically adjusted to the discomfort by this time. We sat around finishing our sandwiches and coffee, talking casually, and I told the story of my stolen phone.

“That’s bad,” said Old Stan. “Having something stolen is the worst feeling in the world, isn’t it? That is so wrong. I have a lot of patience, but stealing is something I will not tolerate. I’ll tell you a story.

“I used to own, still own quite a few bikes,” Old Stan said. “I have one, my wife has one, my kids each have one; dirt bikes, we all go out together as a family. Well one day I got a call from a friend of mine saying ‘You won’t believe this, but I just saw your bikes riding down my street,’ and sure enough those bastards had stolen the lot. Young kids, teenagers. Well, we got the cops involved and tracked them down, and I got my bikes back, but they were wrecked, they were not the bikes they had been and I got rid of them and bought new ones.

“And it just ate me up what happened; what kind of sicko would steal a bike from a little kid? Those young thugs went to court and got convicted but they didn’t care. I even offered to take the one guy who planned it and have him work for me to help pay for the damage he caused, but he wanted nothing to do with it. You feel so helpless to do anything when something like that happens to you. Then one day I got a call from another friend of mine who said ‘Got news for you. I put an ad in the paper for some car parts; take a guess who is coming at 3 o’clock this afternoon to take a look at them?’ It was that same guy who stole my bikes.

“Well, I called my buddies and when that kid showed up to look at those car parts we were waiting for him. He did not even get a chance to get out of his car. I’m telling you, we beat the shit out of him, smashed the windows of his car, and stood around drinking beer, smashing bottles over his head, dumping beer on him, and pissing on him. The only reason we stopped was that the cops showed up; my asshole neighbor heard the commotion and called 911. The cop took a look at who it was; he knew the kid and knew why we had done this, and he said, ‘Do you want to press charges, son?’ The kid was just sitting there in his car, covered in blood and beer and urine, broken glass all around, and he shook his head and said ‘I just want to go home.’ The cops never said anything else about it. They knew that guy got what was coming to him.”

Maybe true courage is simply having the guts to take the disapproval of your friends or your boss.

That story made me feel sick. I’m not just saying this; I really felt like retching. I could tell Brandon felt the same way. Here was this man that I knew and liked, telling this story with a smile almost, as if he expected me to understand and approve. I don’t even know what I said, beyond shaking my head. I didn’t, at that point, have an appropriate response to make. Old Stan had told the story as a question; he wanted to get our reaction, and it bothered me for days that I did not come up with a better response, something that was not self-righteous, but a way to grasp the desperate hand. The thoughts kept coming, superimposed on everything else going on around us and in our church group, even as we made up and apologised and started trying again to live in community and caring for one another. What did we have to offer? Not words – we had to do better than that.

It was months later that Brandon brought up the matter with Old Stan and asked him why he did it. “I had the choice,” Old Stan said. “When my friend called me I knew I could either go and beat this guy and feel bad for the rest of my life, or I could sit at home and feel like an asshole. I didn’t want to feel like an asshole.”

I remember thinking and talking a lot in those days about courage, cowardice, and the things that make us do the things we do. How does one find the courage to take decisive action on those few chances you get in this life to do something really worthwhile and important? It is a glorious dream to imagine yourself going down while holding the bridge, and yet it may just be that the truly courageous thing is the antithesis of glamorous; simply having the guts to take the disapproval of your friends or your boss, and I’ve blown it more often than not.

The Bruderhof has several urban communities. Want to visit one?

Read previous posts in this series here. Comments

About the author


Ian Barth

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

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  • Thanks John, yes, the language on a construction site is monotonously vile. One thing i reflected a lot about during my time in Camden was that the longing for redemption is universal, something that all people experience regardless of their social standing, and there is only one answer.

    Ian Barth
  • I just noticed Susan’s comment. Susan, while I generally agree with your distaste for some of the language in the article, I suspect you have never worked on a construction crew. I am pretty sure Ian toned down the rhetoric quite a bit, as in the real world it would be much worse! And, I tend to think not many children would be reading thoughtful adult articles such as this.

    John Peck
  • I really enjoy Ian’s articles. He is a great writer and very insightful.

    John Peck
  • This is what I consider a family site, as such, I think this story sorta lost its message in the fowl language it contained.....

    Susan Bettys