In the Jungle, a New Understanding of Bruderhof History

January 8, 2018 by

It’s just a scrap of earth in a patty-laden cow pasture, lost in the middle of some enormous Mennonite ranch. The trip is a long one. From Asunción, you roll past endless flat kilometers of rice swamps and palms. The Ruta and the morning stretch on; the horizon disappears in a distant tropical nowhere.

The car swings off the muddy dirt road and into more red mud. The December morning is still, save our quiet trudging – you note a brightness in it, along with more prominent elements: mosquitos, monstrous cow patties, and the weight of the summer humidity pressing your skin.

The hedge is suddenly there ahead of you, thick Crown of Thorns cactuses concealing a small cemetery. The entrance is a mere pasture gate – low-slung, raw wood, and startling in its unsightly significance.

graves 2_listing and main

Today the Mennonite grazing land stretches to the horizon; eighty years ago when our people arrived this was jungle. Escaped from Nazi Germany and expelled from England, this diverse little band of war refugees came armed with a vision for justice, a life commitment to Jesus as well each other, and little else. They literally cut their homes – and their graves – from the jungle.

Moreover, the latter came first. Chubby little seven-month-old Daniel Keiderling was dead before he even reached the new property. His tiny coffin was carried from the Mennonite village where the women and children were camping, to the dusty work site, soon to be the Isla Margarita community. No homes yet existed – the jungle hadn’t even been cleared – and a grave was needed. The men dug it on the edge of a natural clearing, not having the privilege of choice. Six more toddlers and babies were laid alongside him within the following year, a row of tiny graves in the jungle.

They believed in a city of the kingdom on earth – they had been called to build it up, and they were willing to die doing it.

What were they standing on, these men and women who called themselves brothers and sisters? From multiple nations, cultures, and creeds, with varying backgrounds of wartime suffering, they didn’t even all speak the same language. And poverty? Many had been wealthy and educated, cultured minds fed on art and music and trained in elevated thought. Losing that can be another sort of hunger to endure.

Here in the jungle it was a matter of survival, and the lengthening row of graves proved their helplessness. Imagine around a hundred people living under one open pavilion for months – in the heat, with no privacy and little hygiene, worked to exhaustion, and clueless about this strange tropical wilderness. Logic doesn’t sustain you in such extremes. They believed in a city of the kingdom on earth – they had been called to build it up, and they were willing to die doing it.

Edith Arnold didn’t even have a house to live in yet when mere appendicitis cut her down. Thirty-three-year-old mother of three little boys – educated, German, young, sensitive – what did she recognize in this group that convinced her to sell all? What did she see in this godforsaken jungle that made her love these people around her from whom there was no privacy or personal space, that made her honor her vows, scrub diapers, and expend herself until she had no physical reserve to survive an operation?

Standing where her husband, Hardy, must have stood so many times, I looked out across the land he must have seen, and his pain stood as tall as his courage. The measure of time dims. Empty-handed, you long to relieve the anguish that was borne here.

Fifteen tiny children surrounded Edith before the next adult died: Fritz Kleiner, forty-two-year-old poet, woodworker, brother. He himself had already carried two of his daughters’ coffins to this plot of land. Another young father, soon to fall to tropical disease himself, Philip Britts recorded the funeral of Fritz’s second daughter in searing words:

Burial of Emmi Christa
Not in fear and desperation,
But in stubborn silent protest,
In the earth we laid our baby:
All the calm and tragic mothers,
All the broken-hearted maidens,
All the solemn-visaged brothers;
And we heaped the earth upon her
In a stubborn silent protest.
Presently we turned and left her,
Lonely on the forest margin,
Turned and went once more to combat
With the Prince of Death and Darkness –
Not as they whose cause is hopeless,
But in certain expectation,
Fighting on towards the Kingdom
And the overthrow of Evil.

Today mere cow pasture marks the land they once won. The communities they built up are leveled; only these graves remain. But I saw no defeat. Our home is not on this earth; we are merely passing through for we belong to another kingdom. We are stewards of what has been entrusted to us here, but we will meet again in that other kingdom. This faith shouts unequivocally from all they wrote and said and sang.

I am descended from no one there. I am three generations removed. But I wanted to tell them, who never lived to see it, that the flame they died protecting still lives. It is not a memory, nor a distant future dream. My own existence proves it: the brotherhood survived to call so many more into its ranks. The vision lives on, realized, today.

Those twenty years of our history are marked by difficulty and even failure. But standing in the Primavera burial ground has changed forever my understanding of Bruderhof history. For that whole generation I have only reverence and respect. I may not judge after all that they went through.

Edith has stayed close to my consciousness for days now. Why? Our common ground is sparse; decades, nationalities, and languages separate us. We never met, not by the longest shot. But I hold her memory and feel forborne in the truest sense. She is my sister, and nothing can diminish this powerful fact. One day we will meet. I just know it.

That lost scrap of pasture land out there is a stronghold of the kingdom and of the self-same vision we live to realize now. We aren’t alone here. These forty-four souls are our allies and our guardians. I love them and am so thankful to them and for them.

Check out Plough's new upcoming title Water at the Roots for more poetry from Philip Britts.


About the author


Shannon McPherson

Shannon is a literature student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

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