Following Jesus

Sorokin Sent Us

Two philosophers find their way to community

June 2, 2021 by

Tom and I were wanderers, children of the sixties, disillusioned with the lines thrown at us by parents and professors. Tom was born and grew up in Washington, DC; I was born in San Francisco. My father was career Navy, and married my Australian mother during World War II. So I grew up all over – Japan, Hawaii, South Carolina, Illinois, California, Virginia. We met in college, where Tom was studying psychology, and I, philosophy.

In talking with students and others about their lives, Tom was grappling with how people can get trapped into negative situations and bad relationships. They would maybe see it happening, and come to some kind of an understanding of why it happened, but then they would go out and fall into the same trap again, as we all can do. He didn’t know anything about repentance and forgiveness. So from a secular standpoint, he was trying to figure out how to help people change more deeply. I was studying people’s actions from a more philosophical standpoint. The question that plagued us both was: what is the true definition of mental health? Is it being able to get a job and make money and buy stuff? From there the question became: who am I, and why am I on this planet, and what is life for? So all those questions were a part of what was going on in us at that time.

shipTom and Suzanne on a ship bound for India

We decided to get married, and in October 1966, we went to India together. Since modern culture seemed to be the source of much of the instability we were questioning, we hoped to learn helpful approaches to mental health from an ancient culture. We traveled by freighter – thirty days across the Atlantic and through the Suez – landing in what was then Bombay, India. After recovering from internal disorders for a few days, we went exploring. In three months, we traveled wherever we could go, and asked questions wherever we went.

withfriendinindiaTom and Suzanne with a friend in India

At the Bombay University psychology department, we talked to a professor and told him what our interests were. He referred us to one of his students who lived and was doing research at a yoga college up in the hills. So we got in a dusty old bus and rode 100 miles west up to the yoga college, and met this young man. He looked like we would imagine a Yogi would look: dreadlocks and very bright eyes, the sacred thread across his bare chest, and a loincloth. His research was very interesting. In those years there was very little treatment for acute asthma attacks. He was studying the application of yoga breath-control to help people control their tension when they are getting an asthma attack, and was having good results. He was doing a master’s thesis on that subject, and wanted us to look over his paper and make comments. So we looked through his paper and noted some of the interesting sources in his bibliography.

We didn’t quite realize at that time that we’d crossed the world to pick up a lead, but we had to retrace our steps to follow it up. When we got back to Washington, D.C. where we lived, we looked up some of the Yogi’s references at the Library of Congress, ten minutes from our home. One of the most interesting was The Ways and Power of Love, by Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin – a compilation drawing on writers, philosophies and communal experiments all over the world. In the preface, Sorokin explained the impetus for this work as follows:

In 1918 I was hunted from pillar to post by the Russian Communist Government. At last I was imprisoned and condemned to death. Daily, I expected to be shot, and witnessed the shooting of my friends and fellow prisoners. During the subsequent four years of my stay in Communist Russia I underwent other painful experiences and observed to the heartbreaking point, endless horrors of human bestiality, death, and destruction. Exactly in these conditions I jotted down in my diary the following observations:
“Whatever may happen in the future, I know that I have learned three things which will remain forever convictions of my heart as well as my mind. Life, even the hardest life, is the most beautiful, wonderful, and miraculous treasure in the world. Fulfillment of duty is another marvelous thing making life happy. This is my second conviction. And my third is that cruelty, hatred, violence, and injustice never can and never will be able to create a mental, moral, or material millennium. The only way toward it is the royal road of all-giving creative love, not only preached, but consistently practiced.”

We could agree passionately with all three convictions. But where to find that royal road of all-giving love in consistent practice? We were to find it in one of the following chapters, entitled Techniques of Contemporary Free Brotherhoods, Part I: The Society of Brothers. It was here that we first read about the community movement that is now called the Bruderhof. We were both immediately struck about the intensity of the commitment, combined with open-hearted family values. It sounded like a family monastery – a true alternative to the middle-class way of life we knew we did not want. 

“They realize that voluntary poverty and simplicity, a harmonious and pure common life, with an open door for all, irrespective of nation, creed, race, age, sex or wealth, is the answer to the confused and frustrated condition of contemporary man, who faces the problem of spiritual and physical survival in a state of utter bewilderment. They know from experience that the need of modern man is as much spiritual as economic, as much emotional as physical, as much personal as social. Life is a whole, and its disintegration in apparently isolated spheres is one of the aspects of the present-day crisis. In the Early Church, where life was truly one, as all its multiple aspects were governed by one creative power, all the members were of one heart, one mind and one soul, and as a natural outcome of this spiritual, emotional and rational oneness, they held all their material possessions in common. …
[The Bruderhof] does not attempt to copy the Early Christian example in an outward and mechanical way. They know, however, that the same spirit, if allowed to govern men’s life today, brings forth a community organism identical in its essential characteristics, if not in outward detail, with the Early Church at Jerusalem. These characteristics are fundamental principles without which no true community can survive or grow. They are unity of faith and action; love, embracing all and breaking down all barriers of property, class, race or creed; peace, as harmony and cooperation to the exclusion of injustice, violence and war; purity in human relationships, as faithfulness and creativeness in contrast to selfish indulgence and fear …”

We also couldn’t help noting the long list of nationalities, the trades and classes, the backgrounds of both wealth and poverty that had merged into one cohesive community of shared belief and goods. It just didn’t seem possible in the world we’d been traveling through.

tableSuzanne at the home of an Indian friend

Then again, who has a keystone like this? “One rule which is considered extremely important is that no one should speak evil about another; he promises to go direct to the person involved if he finds anything wrong, and he promises to accept reproof by another.”

Here, finally was a possible way for people to escape the trap of repeated error, wrong relationships, spiraled hurts that drag lives down with no chance for freedom or new beginnings.

On the strength of this chapter, we wrote to Paraguay, where the community had been at the time of Sorokin’s writing, but heard nothing for a couple of months. Since Sorokin’s book noted that they did welcome visitors, we began making plans to travel south, when out of the blue we got a call from Dick Domer at the New Meadow Run community in Pennsylvania. He invited us to visit, and we went to New Meadow Run for the first time in August, 1967. We were very impressed by the colorful, joyous, and childlike atmosphere there. The simple care and provision for children (tire swings, hiking trails, climbing equipment) spoke of their priorities. Members were each unique individuals, with interesting and varied backgrounds; they were very open and welcoming to us. 

Later we visited for a longer time from October 1967 to March 1968. We left to seek further, taking jobs teaching and counseling, but eventually came back to stay and raise our family in April, 1976.

The Bruderhof has been our home ever since. I wouldn’t call it a peaceful harbor, since here as everywhere, there are hardships to be faced, and mistakes that need setting right. The difference is that here we have the chance to speak honestly and directly to each other, to be forgiven, and start over with a free heart and the friendship that comes with a shared cause. We couldn’t have pictured this journey when we jumped a freighter to India. I marvel at our navigator’s wise compass!

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