World

Why I Joined the Bruderhof

Intersected on a Road In Texas

April 21, 2021 by

damaged motorcycle helmet
Photo courtesy of the author.

At NYU Langone, they know me on a first name basis. At my last appointment in the eye center, the receptionist greeted me with a smile. “Welcome Donald . . . Sorry, what was your last name?” Her recognition comforted me. I guess they have every reason to know me here, since I’ve been seeing them regularly now for the past year at this hospital. My memory is imprecise, but I’ll attempt to tell you how it started.

Early December of 2019, in Midland, Texas, only my body temperature and my pulse proved me alive. Aside from that, I more closely resembled a corpse. My brain monitor displayed zero neurological activity and my family, clustered around my bed, clung desperately to every heartbeat: the only indication that I might pull through.

I bought a motorcycle for the sake of economy. Thirst for adventure might have been another motive – I don’t doubt that – but, if it was, I’ve forgotten. A bike was by far the cheapest form of personal transport. For an entire year of insurance, I paid seventy-seven dollars; a saved receipt corroborates that. In fuel economy, I averaged sixty miles per gallon; a record on my phone verifies that. In El Paso, Texas, where rain is almost non-existent, a motorcycle seemed a no-brainer.

As a twenty-one-year-old, I had purposefully left the Bruderhof, where I was born. I felt an urge to spread my wings and navigate the world on my own. Raised in such a radical Christian group, certain values influenced me. I knew I could not leave only to pursue a selfish lifestyle, and I had a vague idea that in five years or so, I might return. Vast personal wealth would never be my ultimate goal. In this attitude, on August 3, 2019, I stowed my suitcase on a Greyhound bus at Port Authority and took off for Texas.

Initially I wanted to volunteer for a full year at Annunciation House, a refugee shelter in El Paso. Months earlier I had spent two weeks there, and I’d fallen in love with the work and made lasting friendships among fellow volunteers. But committing to a full year meant surviving on a tiny stipend. That sounded good on paper, but once arrived, self-sufficiency seemed more important to me. Seeking financial independence from the Bruderhof, I picked the first job I could find to start saving my own money.

My visions for volunteering proved elusive because I lacked the financial security for unpaid work. (I needed more than the offered stipend.) Due to the prevalence of cheap labor and the lowness of minimum wage, El Paso is a bad place to make money. I worked a construction job during the day and a fast-food job at night. I also wanted to pay my way through Spanish school in Mexico, but I needed more money. Finding a better job became my first priority.

I have forgotten the job offer I received from an oil company in Midland, Texas. But documentation on Indeed.com confirms that a drilling company hired me as a trainee in so-called “water transfer.” Midland lies in the Permian Basin of Texas, the largest natural oil deposit in the United States. Jobs in the oil field spell one thing: fast money. Eager to achieve my aspirations, in November 2019 I packed everything I owned into my motorcycle saddle bags and drove to Midland.

This is where my memory fails me. I have no recollection of the austere, featureless landscape defining Midland and Odessa, nor of the Airbnb that made my first, temporary residence. I have completely forgotten my co-workers and what type of work my new job entailed. From this point on, my story switches to a relayed account: my family’s description, verified by police reports.

A friend of mine recently told me that Midland, Texas is “the world capital for motor vehicle accidents.” He said that residents are “overworked, sleep-deprived, and stressed out.” If that’s true, the driver who pulled out thirty feet in front of me was clearly one of them. I had the right-of-way on a four lane road with a speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour. I had on all of my high-visibility apparel, my helmet covered with reflective tape, my lights blazing. He never noticed me, pulling out directly in front of me from behind a stop sign. After a thirty-foot skid mark, I T-boned him at about forty-five miles per hour. I woke up fifty-eight days later.

My phone survived the collision, bouncing to the edge of the road. A passerby noticed it, picked it up, and tried the last person I had called – my brother Kevin. “Do you know this guy?” he asked. “He’s just had a horrible motorcycle accident.” Kevin’s heart stopped. He yelled back into the phone “is he alive?” Only days before, we had spent Thanksgiving together in El Paso. In a split second, he made a decision. He dropped everything, left his house in Riverhead, New York, and drove directly to LaGuardia Airport for the first possible flight to Texas. My parents joined him.

For a full three weeks they clung together around my bedside at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. For eight days I hovered between life and death in a coma. At the Airbnb, my parents unpacked all of my belongings from my tiny, Kemimoto saddle bags “We were just sobbing, unpacking your bags,” my dad told me. He described the way I had packed them—intricately, precisely. To them, a synecdoche for my character. An old friend stopped by the hospital to take a look. He paled and weakened at my bedside. My brother told him to sit down and brought him a glass of water. “You were a corpse!” my friend told me later.

traffic accidentPhoto courtesy of the author.

I remained in the ICU for a full fourteen days. Then they moved me to the main hospital, where I progressed gradually. After an entire month, doctors declared me ready for transfer to Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Hospital in Haverstraw, New York. But I lacked the stability for a flight. My father and my uncle settled on the only possible alternative: an RV.

Apparently, I could speak coherently during the twenty-seven-hour RV ride to New York. I have absolutely no memory of the trip. Specialists say that the human brain’s ability to form new memories takes the longest of anything else to recover after a traumatic brain injury. My first hazy memories surfaced in mid-January 2020, almost the end of my stay at Helen Hayes. I can vaguely visualize my room there and I dimly remember my cognitive therapist drilling me. “Where are you?” he would ask. “Haverstraw, New York,” I would answer. I had absolutely no clue where that was or what I was doing there, but I’d been instructed what to answer, so I obeyed. I constantly asked my parents, “What happened?” and they patiently told me the story again and again. Still, I routinely wondered when I would wake up from this nightmare.

My parents finally brought me home on January 25th. I distantly remember the hospital staff waving me off from Helen Hayes. I vividly remember the preschool group welcoming me to Fox Hill on a little-red-wagon train. I recall looking at my face in the mirror, asking myself, “when will you get your right mind back?” That alone reassured me. My new facial hair helped ground me in the truth as well. A beard takes longer than one night to grow. This was real life, not just a nightmare.

Between wonderful hours at home with my family, I walked the grounds of the Fox Hill community, reacquainting with old friends. My hospital appointments continued. I faced a gauntlet of surgeries to reconstruct the exterior I once had. My appointments ranged from Newburgh to New York City, facial operations to oral surgeries to therapy workouts. They should have overwhelmed me, but the loving church surrounding me kept me afloat. Daily, they ensured that every single aspect of my life – spiritual, practical, and financial – was completely taken care of. I felt utterly embraced.

On January 30, 2020, I turned twenty-three. As life persisted, I considered my future. I had forgotten – I still don’t remember – my long-term ambitions in Texas. But I know I always envisioned joining the Bruderhof one day for life. At my baptism, I recognized Christianity as a truly radical faith, and to me, full community seemed the sincerest way to live it out. Seeing so many dedicated members around me brought back memories from my past.

Once, questioning my future before I ever left for Texas, I asked a classmate why he had decided to join. “God told me to,” he answered. I respected his decision, but I couldn’t avoid cynicism. In my opinion, some people seemed too hasty assigning supernatural intervention to every occurrence in life.

But now, I simply could not ignore the significance of my past five months. So many things seemed miraculous. Looking at a 3D image of my skull, printed from a post-accident CT scan, I had to shake my head in disbelief. Why had I retained vision in my right eye when I should have been completely blind? Why could I still speak and write coherently? Why was I not brain dead? About my left eye alone, I could write an entire essay: The fact that I still have it. My eye doctor’s plan of removing it, prevented only by my parent’s arriving the day after my accident. My older brother, crying on his knees, beseeching God to spare it. The eye doctor’s response after one more look – taken only to appease my parents. “We actually don’t have to remove it,” he told them, “I thought it was ruptured, but it’s not.” The story is so profound it seems fictional. It’s true. My mom recounts it reverently, and I am still overwhelmed. I am loath to think that God willed my accident – I don’t think he did – but I cannot deny that some supernatural force intervened after it happened.

I am afraid to assign supernatural intervention too hastily. There are more stories though, like the man who stopped at my accident, picked up my phone, and called my brother. He somehow seemed miraculously impelled – I can think of no other way to explain it. Sean owns his own business in Odessa. Nine-one-one had already been called – only goodness compelled him to pick up my phone and call my brother. And he had absolutely no reason to drop everything and follow my ambulance to Medical Center Hospital, where he monitored my location until my parents arrived. His actions saved my left eye. Although sightless, it is still my own, and at this point, abandoning hope for it would seem unbelieving.

In Fox Hill I had, as I saw it, two clear options. Either I could leave for Texas again and resume my efforts to volunteer, or I could take the commandments I’d read in the Bible literally, and donate all of my personal attributes and my few remaining possessions to the Bruderhof. Uncharacteristically, my thoughts drifted supernaturally. How, I wondered, could I not interpret my experience as some leading from God? Why had I awakened back home on the Bruderhof, five months after I left for what I thought would be five years? I had no obligation to join, but after everything the church had done for me, it almost seemed a no-brainer. I could think of nothing more wholesome to commit my life to.

The Bruderhof is far from perfect! Not a single member I know will refute that. Nuances that disillusioned me before I left are not invalid. However, a church in which every individual, regardless of health, ability, talents, or age, is so wonderfully valued, seems the truest embodiment of Christianity to me. The Bruderhof seeks to adhere unswervingly to Jesus’ most difficult instruction: “sell what you possess. . . and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). In the future, if true Christian living calls for a departure from tradition, we are not averse to change! Right now though, we are trying as best we can.

I’m in!

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About the author

smiling man

Donald Boller

Donald lives in the Bruderhof house in Harlem, New York.

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