Koinonia Farm: A Reminiscence

January 25, 2021 by

I had not been back to Koinonia Farm for sixty years, but childhood memories of living there have shaped my life across several states and four different continents. I can still see the rattlesnake Jim Jordan and I encountered as we walked along the path where Florence had her flowerbed, and see the quick chop of her hoe as she dispatched the coiled snake. Likewise, the image of the water moccasins sunning themselves on the banks of the swimming hole has never left me. Many of my “memories” come from stories or pictures my parents relayed – me drinking red clay water scooped from a mud puddle with a Coke bottle; my fall into a six foot hole dug for a gas tank; my younger brother, Richard, getting lost and then found sitting in a faraway chicken barn; the puppy I begged from a neighbor.

After wishing for many years to reconnect with my roots, I finally returned to Koinonia last month with my two brothers and their wives. Our visit took place during one of the farm’s busiest seasons: the pecan harvest. Whenever we could, we helped with the process – removing sticks from the orchard and from the harvested nuts, assisting at the sorting table, and shipping out final products. Even in the harvest hustle there was plenty of time to reflect on how we three brothers had ended up there in the first place.

Koinonia FarmThe Johnson brothers with Lenny Jordan, outside the shack that Clarence Jordan used as a retreat to write his books and letters. Photo by Tim Clement.

In the late 1940s, searching desperately for an alternative to the American Dream, my parents visited and corresponded with many other people who were looking for the same thing. One of these was Clarence Jordan, a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar, who founded the Koinonia Farm in southwest Georgia. Dad and Mom grew to love Clarence like a father, and credited him with opening their eyes to the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ that called all men and women to live as brothers and sisters, sharing their lives and possessions in intentional Christian community. His friendship, love, and example redirected their lives from the trap of upward mobility, “respectable” racism, and a patriotism that they honored with military service in World War II. My father served in the Army Air Forces, and my mother in the WAVES. Even then, my father treasured a letter that Clarence wrote to him in 1945:

Someday, maybe sooner than you think, you’ll be in civilian life. No doubt you’ve given some serious thought as to how you will invest your life so that it will count most for Christ and his kingdom. I know neither your thoughts nor your plans, but I do want you to know that the door is wide open to you here at Koinonia. I believe we’re on the trail of something . . . and it’s not just a rabbit. We can’t offer you comfort or money, but sweat and heartbreak and a cause worth dying for. The hour is at hand when Christians must assert themselves with the courage of martyrs, else Christianity might be relegated to the cloisters of the Middle Ages. God forbid that we should fail in an hour like this.

Shortly after their wedding in 1949, my parents joined Koinonia. Morris Mitchell, founder of the now-dissolved Macedonia Cooperative Community, told them at the time that “Two thousand years of Christian history are littered with the dead bones of Christian intentional communities.” By any human reckoning, Koinonia’s bones should have been added to that pile long ago. Clarence Jordan recognized this, writing to his son Jim in 1966, “This is what always baffles me – Koinonia is forever dying and forever living. We should have conked out long ago, but somehow others come in the nick of time. We can’t succeed and we can’t fail. This half-born condition is agonizing, and I could wish it otherwise, but there it is.”

When so many Christian communities have folded, how is it that Koinonia struggles on, still trying to live out that fellowship of the same name (in Greek, of course!) described in Acts and in the Sermon on the Mount? Perhaps a clue can be found in this letter from Heinrich Arnold to Clarence Jordan in 1965:

I thank you for the time you gave to me and for the sharing from heart to heart. God has led you on a lowly path in the last years and it is to me a challenge how you accept this. We also were led lowly and we feel with you that this can only lead us closer to God. . . . You said that you learned in the last years how important it is that the Lord does something, and before that happens, we can do very little or nothing. . . . I do believe that this belongs to the most important recognitions of the Kingdom of God.

Koinonia’s continued existence points to the fact that against all odds the Lord has continually done “something” to keep the vision of community alive in its members.

Koinonia FarmPecan Trees at Koinonia Farm, Georgia. Photo by Tim Clement.

When I consider Koinonia and its history, I find Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet told in Luke 14:15–23 and Matthew 22:1–14 helpful. The parable tells how those invited to the banquet made excuses and found reasons not to go. Upset by this selfish refusal, the king orders his servants to “Go out” and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, the good and the bad. These are the people that have been and still are attracted to Koinonia over its almost eighty-year history – not necessarily the types of people with whom one would choose to build a successful venture, but people knowing their need for God and for one another, drawn by the irresistible call of Jesus. Predictably with such a cast of characters, not everything runs smoothly or efficiently, but against all odds the love of Jesus has kept Koinonia – and other communities, including my own – alive and seeking.

I thank God that my parents took on the challenge of a dedicated lifetime of service in Christian community, first at Koinonia and later at the Bruderhof. They certainly experienced the sweat and the heartbreak that Clarence Jordan referred to, but all of these struggles were nothing compared to the joy of a life lived in brotherhood.

David Johnson lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York.


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