Life in Community

work • simplicity • education
caring • fulfillment • celebration

Life in Community

Community Life as You've Never Seen It

August 13, 2020 by

Guest author Danny Burrows spent the best part of a year photographing community life at Bruderhof locations around the world. 

My first introduction to the Bruderhof was in Calais, where they don’t even have a community. At L’Auberge des Migrants, I met their teenagers sorting donations for “the Jungle” refugee camp. I was intrigued by their distinctive dress and American inflection, and compelled to discover more about a community that allowed their young people to serve in such a demanding environment. I would soon learn that the Bruderhof, young and old, serve where needed: from street pastoring to most recently nursing in Coronavirus field hospitals in New York. In short, they exercise the selfless giving described in the Sermon on the Mount, the cornerstone of their practice as Christians.

A mealtime in the communal dining room at Darvell Bruderhof, East SussexA mealtime in the communal dining room; Darvell, East Sussex

On my return from France I contacted the community to ask if I could document their lives. In the spring of 2018 a dry Englishman, who introduced himself jocularly as Brother Bernard, rang with news: The community was going to celebrate its centennial with a book. Would I like to be their photographer? My answer was a swift and simple yes.

Kindergarten children hearing a story at Maple Ridge Bruderhof, New YorkKindergarten children hearing a story; Maple Ridge, New York

Cameras are not commonplace in the Bruderhof, and certainly not wielded by an outsider. According to Bernard, I was the first photographer in many years to be granted access to the community. My practice is to spend time in communities, observing and experiencing firsthand their lives. Over the next year I documented the Bruderhof and what they describe as “another life” in Australia, England, Germany, and the United States. It was an experience that changed my life, not only because of the incredible pictures that I was privileged to take (with the help of the author of Another Life Is Possible, Clare Stober) but also because of the positive aspects of community life that I have taken away with me. Here is a community whose members live free from the cycle of consumerism, with little reliance on the daily “smart” devices that the rest of us have come to depend on. They live in an environment where caring for each other is their principal tenet.

Christmas preparations in a Bruderhof school classroomChristmas preparations in a school classroom; Darvell, East Sussex

On my first night in Darvell, East Sussex, I was invited to a barbeque at the swimming lake, idyllic with diving boards and paddle boats. My hosts were an American chap called Greg and three generations of his family. While grilling homemade burgers we exchanged stories, sang, and played games with Greg’s boys. Greg even produced a bottle of homebrew from a cooler, by which I was a little taken aback. I hadn’t expected to be offered alcohol in a religious community. Greg, however, jokingly pointed out that the Bruderhof were German, which I presumed meant that beer was an intrinsic part of their culture.

Three generations of a Bruderhof family paint Easter eggs on a Sunday afternoonThree generations of a family paint Easter eggs on a Sunday afternoon; Danthonia, Australia

I went to bed wondering if the joie de vivre I had experienced was a show, like a family might perform on the first meeting with an unfamiliar guest. Like the beer, it was not the first or last presumption about the Bruderhof that I would have to swallow.

Bruderhof members work in the community’s fields in the early morningMembers work in the community’s fields in the early morning – each community grows some of its vegetables, fruit, and meat; Danthonia, Australia.

This is not to say that life in the Bruderhof is without its struggles. Like the rest of us, they are only human. I think this is especially true in the years when young adults have to decide on a path to follow; choosing to stay in the Bruderhof means adult baptism and absolute commitment to Christ. But I have come to believe that their troubles are far fewer than those we face in the outside world. Families live, work, and play together; their lives and the complexities of caring for the young and old are simplified by the closeness of community and the leveling effects of their community of goods. I am what some might describe as a “lefty liberal,” so my opinions differ on certain more conservative values that the Bruderhof hold – but then, shared faith and egalitarian goals are certainly great values that we could all aspire to hold.

Sunday worship service at Danthonia Bruderhof community, AustraliaSunday worship service; Danthonia community, Australia.

Although the communities are very different in appearance, from the rural Australian Danthonia to the stately Beech Grove in Kent, the daily routine is comparable around the globe. Families share breakfast around 7:00 a.m.; work and school begin at 8:00. At least one main meal is taken in the company of the entire community, and when the work is done families are free to do as they wish. That said, everyone, no matter their age or skill, has daily chores.

Blessing for a new baby at Danthonia Bruderhof, AustraliaBlessing for a new baby; Danthonia, Australia

Yet downtime is also a vital part of the Bruderhof’s communal life, and a passion for the great outdoors seems to go hand-in-hand with their faith. On any given weekend in communities the world over, the crack of a bat from an impromptu softball game can be heard over the sound of band practice, choral recitals, and the chatter of kids practicing their bush craft. At the Mount Academy in upstate New York, and in the high school at Beech Grove, the trophy cabinets are literally brimming with awards won by the various teams. For a community that treasures their modesty, they sure like to win.

Bruderhof school team plays the local school team Bruderhof school team plays the local school team in Inverell, Australia

In Australia I stayed with the wonderful Chris and Norann and their two boys, who lived in the characterful Shanta Claire, a classic clapboard bungalow on the perimeter of the Danthonia community. They shared the house with an older couple, Jeff and Susan, who had joined the community in the sixties to live a pacifist Christian life. Jeff is a master brewer in his spare time. On one occasion he had me sampling a pint of his latest IPA in the wee hours of the morning. Chris and Norann are both wordsmiths, and while Norann has made Shanta Claire infamous for her impromptu and joyous communal campfires, Chris and their boys are always involved in some sport. They are all so happy at Shanta Claire, but as with every Bruderhof family, they could be called to another community and have to move at the drop of a hat. This seems an alien concept to me, but I realize that wherever they move, they are still within the broader Bruderhof family. And the concept fits with the absolute commitment they make when taking their vows in adult baptism.

Danthonia Bruderhof at nightFamily breakfast at 6:15 a.m.; Danthonia, Australia

The last community I visited for Another Life Is Possible was the small farmhouse on the outskirts of Sannerz, in Germany. This was where, in 1920, Christian theologian Eberhard Arnold with his family and a handful of other young Christians created their first community, inspired by the German youth movement and modeled on the early Hutterite churches and the first church in Jerusalem. Money, property, and possessions would be shared, and service to the wider community enshrined in their way of life. Today, in twenty-three communities around the world, the Bruderhof still live to these founding principles, bound to their neighbours by a spiritual commitment to God, humankind, and mission. I had the good fortune to visit the walled burial ground where, among other graves, the headstones of Eberhard and his wife Emmy stand, watched over by seven towering trees planted by the original community. On my last evening I walked with my host family to a spring in a nearby wood. This was where the first members were baptised. As I took a photograph of Mimi and her daughters playing on the edge of the pond, a leaf dropped into the water and created perfect ripples. I spoke about it later to Hans Brinkmann, a custodian of the German house, and he had a simple answer: “They are gifts.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Preparing the meeting room at Sannerz BruderhofPreparing the meeting room; Sannerz, Germany.

Those experiences in Germany were charged with love and beauty, and also a sadness that my project was coming to an end. After an incredible year documenting the Bruderhof, I could not have wished for a more fitting conclusion. But then, it was not really an end. It was really just the beginning of a turn of life’s wheel.

Danny Burrows is a professional photographer and journalist whose work has appeared in GQTime Out, and the Guardian. Browse a gallery of his Bruderhof photography here.


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