Justice

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Justice

On Economic Inequality: an Interview with Nancy Voll

July 14, 2020 by

This summer I’m interning with the Bruderhof web team at Fox Hill, a Bruderhof in Walden, New York. One of my first assignments was to conduct a series of interviews on justice, economic equality, and environmental stewardship. A few weeks ago I spent an evening with Nancy Voll, a grandmother and teacher with a love for drama, who also lives here at Fox Hill. Over a cup of southern ice tea, I asked her about her views and experience with economic equality. Here’s what she told me.

As a child, I was frequently brought up short by evident economic inequality. I grew up in northern New Jersey. My father was an advertising copywriter who worked on Madison Avenue in New York City, and on rare occasions I would be allowed to take the train in with Dad and see where he worked and what he did all day. That train ride into the city took us past the slums of New Jersey and New York. As a ten-year-old, it troubled me to see how other children were living literally “on the other side of the tracks.”

When I got my driver’s license I would drive from our home, which was near the ocean, over to Princeton to see my grandmother, and that road took me past migrant housing in the fields – “the truck gardens of Jersey.” I was deeply troubled to see how the migrants were forced to live in shacks scattered throughout these vast fields. After Jerry and I were married, we occasionally visited New York City. I can remember one evening we were sitting at a restaurant, and right outside our window was a man going through the restaurant’s garbage-leavings. I couldn’t finish my meal. So throughout my childhood and into my young adult years, economic injustice troubled me.

Yet my awareness of it has always been at the periphery of my consciousness rather than as a personal experience. Growing up solidly middle class, I was never hungry even when my dad was out of work, and I never lacked shelter. All the same, the issue was always there in the back of my mind, troubling me.

couple

Jerry and I married in 1966, and the next year he was ordained a pastor. For four years we lived the American Dream: both of us had work. Jerry was the associate pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I taught high school. I was making five thousand dollars a year (a decent sum in those days) and Jerry was making eighty-five hundred. We were living comfortably in the lap of luxury. And yet, deep down, we were both questioning: Is this really it? Is this all there is to live for? So many things in society around us seemed to us to be broken and in need of repair. We were in our twenties, and of course when you’re in your twenties you are going to solve all the world’s problems. That’s just a given. We thought we were going to fix everything both within the church and within the public school system.

Then on Easter Sunday 1970 we paid a visit to the Bruderhof, and that two-and-a-half-day visit changed everything for us. We saw men and women who had first given their lives to Jesus, but then gone further to make a lifetime commitment to each other in a radical way of life, a church that believed in no private property, a common life that went straight back to Acts 2 and 4 and the Sermon on the Mount. We could not believe what we were seeing: there were no wages. People worked in the factory, in the communal kitchen and laundry, in the school, and they all received an equal wage: nothing. It bowled us over.

We realized that this is what Jerry and I had actually been hungering for during our first four years of marriage: a church where people didn’t go to church, but were the church, that lived the church “twenty-four seven.” After we experienced this church, we realized that not only were we not going to solve the world’s problems, but we didn’t even have the answer to those problems. We were part of the problem. But the way of life we found in the Bruderhof was so different, so down-to-earth, so biblical – everything was held in common.

We became members in August 1973 after living as co-workers for two years. This meant that we, too, now shared everything in common: we had no personal bank account anymore, no personal possessions. Jerry was no longer a pastor in the conventional sense with his own parish congregation, but spent his days working in the wood shop, ministering as a brother to every brother, sister, or young person he worked with. I was no longer a teacher in the conventional classroom, but spent my days working in the kitchen or office, and (after work hours) teaching our youth group as we produced plays or worked on choral pieces together.

When all of our life became a calling, an undivided whole not fragmented into paid work, social life, and church going, we began to understand the meaning of true brotherhood in community that does away with injustice of every kind.

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About the author

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Sheyann McPherson

Sheyann McPherson studies History and English Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, and lives at Pittsburgh House.

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