Life in Community

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Life in Community

Camden, NJ: Lessons Learned

November 22, 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. Today, Ian wraps up this series of articles reflecting on his involvement in the start of this little community.

Since I started blogging about the start of our community in Camden, I’ve had a number of people get back to me with questions: Did we find a way to become a united community? How did things develop with the neighborhood, on the job site? How does the story end? I’m planning to finish the series with this post, although there is enough material to keep going for a long time, so I’ll try to tie a few of the ragged ends.

The Bruderhof community in Camden did not last long; it closed just shy of a year after it began. There were a lot of reasons for this, but critical among them was the dangerous nature of the neighborhood. We each had a number of reasonably close calls with unstable addicts and angry dealers, including one instance of community members being chased down the street by a man with a baseball bat. Beyond concerns about our own safety, we could not see how to make it safe to have children or older people in that place, and a community without families feels incomplete. The decision to leave was not easy, especially having come to know and love some of the local people, but without doubt we left as changed people, at least in some respects.

Between the times of disunity and struggle there was community that I had not experienced before and haven’t since.

In many ways, Camden was just the beginning. Before we left that neighborhood, there was already a community starting in the city of Kingston, New York, and now there are now more than half a dozen urban Bruderhof communities in different places. It’s fair to say we learned as we went along; are still learning. For myself there are a couple big issues that I have thought about ever since.

One big shock for me was that participating in the start of a small urban community is not all pretty. Having lived the majority of our lives in the Bruderhof community movement, most of us at Camden figured we knew how the community thing worked. We found out we didn’t. In the absence of more experienced community members we discovered a good deal about ourselves, chiefly that we were each full of all kinds of opinions, ambitions, and selfishness that were a continual threat to the existence of community. There were times when it was just bloody awful.

flower climbing a fence

And yet, of course there were beautiful times as well. It was special to gather with the community at the end of a difficult day, to talk about what each of us had experienced, to encourage each other, to read together, to pray. In between the times of disunity and struggle, there was community that I had not experienced before and haven’t since – the sense that we were comrades in arms.

A bigger shock was getting to know people around our Camden community. At the Bruderhof, we’ve sometimes been accused of being a bit insular, and in my view the charge is not without some merit. Before coming to Camden I had friends in the wider community, but they were people pretty similar to myself, and the friendship was not that deep. In Camden I got to know quite a few very different people much better than that. Obviously I got to know Stan and Old Stan, and the other guys on the building site, which seemed at times to be a microcosm of all the ways in which men can get suckered into doing stupid things (drugs, crime, divorce, violence). I also got to know a few of the locals in our neighborhood: Bones, Skinum, Carl, and Reggie who formed the core of the liquor store stoop drinking club; Elias and his wife, Lobelia, who lived next door to us; Florence who lived across the street. Then there were the people who worked the street: Jen with her pimp, Ali; Stephanie and Jennifer; and the homeless addicts Ed, Bob, and Wild Bill.

Why was it a shock? Because they seemed to be so different from me, from us; to have such completely different lives, such a completely different worldview. And then as I got to know them, I found they were just exactly the same as me; had the same longing for love and security, the same dreams of fulfilment, the same desperate need for God. This revelation was not a purely personal experience – it is something we talked about as community members. Why were we allowed to live such happy lives while some of theirs were so tragic?

These people were exactly the same as me; had the same longing for love and security and the same desperate need for God.

I’m going to end at the beginning. I remember moving to Camden on the last day of the old year to join up with the group that was already there, and getting a tour from Edgar of the neighborhood and the house we were planning to move into. It had been used as a crack house and was a sight to behold. There was of course no heating or lights, and the windows were boarded shut, so the tour of the basement and bottom floor was conducted by flashlight. The cold helped to suppress the smell of the little piles of feces in the corners and the bottles of urine scattered around. On the second floor the former occupants had simply shoved an old desk halfway down the back stairwell and used the stairwell as the main toilet. Some of the walls were covered with messages, scribbled words from people who were high and scared and desperate and savage. All told, the tour of the house was not that much of an uplift.

However, that afternoon we cleared away all the refuse in one of the rooms and cleaned it. We managed to get some lamps and candles, and that evening we sat around together in that room talking about the New Year coming in and about all that might and might not happen; the first gathering we had with all the community members. We all knew each other to some extent of course, but this was different, and there was a reassessment that went on: How well did we know each other? Was this something that was viable? But with that, the excitement that comes with taking a first step. We believed it was possible to live in community in this place, believed this was where we were meant to be.

The discussion was in many ways a personal experience; it was an opportunity for each of us to open up our lives, to share with the other community members the things that lay deepest on our hearts. That evening was the first time I told anyone else about Olivia, the English girl I had been writing to ever since we first met six months earlier.

We sat in silence, the last few minutes of the old year, the candles burning down and the shadows flickering on the walls and then the spell was broken by Edgar beating out the twelve o’clock chime on a metal garbage can lid. We laughed and wished each other a happy New Year, and threaded our way back out of the house through the piles of junk and garbage bags, crunching on needles and broken glass, while out on the street somebody fired a gun and we could hear the locals shouting Happy New Year to each other. It seemed a joyful token at the start of the year, of this venture; hey, things can only get better.


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

Read previous posts in this series here.



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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