I first met Bernard Hibbs when he and his wife came to UCB to be interviewed for a programme on UCB 1. Sometime later, myself and the Chairman of UCB’s Board, Alan Scotland, went to visit Bernard and the Bruderhof community in East Sussex. We toured the site, ate with the community, attended a meeting and heard about their deep expression of faith. It was a fascinating day.
This week, there will be a documentary on BBC 1 (Inside the Bruderhof) and in anticipation of that, I asked Bernard to write a guest blog, to share more about what the community believes and what everyday life is like. I hope you will enjoy reading more, about this simple but remarkable way of life.
I have always been fascinated by the verses in Acts 2 and Acts 4 that describe the first church. ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common’ and ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.’
Why would these first disciples suddenly depart so abruptly from the norm of looking after yourself and your family first, and voluntarily engage in sacrificial sharing with the needy?
It doesn’t take a lot of time looking through Jesus’ teachings to realise that the answer is actually quite clear. He told his disciples to leave their nets and follow him; he told them to not worry about food or clothes; he said that they would not be able to serve God and mammon; he praised the widow who gave everything; he told a rich ruler to give everything he had to the poor and to follow him; he said that to love our neighbour was an excellent way to love God.
The members of that first church weren’t engaging in an experiment in socialism or trying out some new-fangled method of resource management. They were acting in obedience to Christ.
How did the Bruderhof begin?
Roughly 1900 years later, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold and a handful of others added themselves to the list of people who have similarly tried to obey by giving up everything and radically sharing in Christian community. They called it “the Bruderhof”. They started in a village just east of Frankfurt, Germany, pooling their possessions and committing to each other. Young people, uprooted by the turmoil of post-WW1 Europe, joined the fledgling community in droves. Here was a life of freedom, of discipleship, of love and of peace.
The Bruderhof grew rapidly but was ultimately suppressed by the Nazis. Members fled to England, where they encountered people passionately committed to pacifism. Many of these joined, seeing in the community an answer to the root causes of war. Forced to leave England after the Second World War was declared, the Bruderhof moved to Paraguay and eked out an existence in the jungle. In the 1950’s we established ourselves in North America; we now have communities around the world.
The Bruderhof still exists, a mere 99 years later. It is the focus of a BBC1 documentary which will air on 25 July at 10:35pm. The documentary (which features more footage of me than I might wish!) explores what life is like inside the Bruderhof. The cameras also followed one young person who grew up in our community as she decided where to go from here.
The Bruderhof today…
The Darvell Bruderhof in East Sussex, where I live, is like a small village. 300 people live together, sharing everything – our money, possessions, our struggles and our joys. Not only are our elderly or disabled brothers and sisters looked after, they can still contribute to the community. Children grow up unburdened by the pressures of social media or consumerist society, and learn that caring for others is more important than acquiring things for themselves.
Nobody gets paid anything, so status is pretty much not an issue. People are valued for who they are, not for how much they earn. We have a simple mode of dress so that we can try to uphold Jesus’ teachings about not worrying about what we’re going to wear. It frees us up to think about things that are more important than clothes. Living together provides endless opportunities for good times, whether it’s an early morning of fishing or birding; a weekend afternoon of cycling, hiking, or playing soccer; or an evening campfire with a card game followed by folk songs.
When some people hear about the Bruderhof, they are worried that we are somehow “closed off” from the world. Christians might start to wonder how this fits in with the Great Commission but in reality, we are very conscious that our communal life only makes sense if it can be a witness to the world. We’re not just doing this for ourselves. And thus we have visitors here every day, our kids play on local sports teams: cloistered we are not.
We take the Great Commission seriously – we send out missionaries around the world and run a publishing house called Plough. It is a false dichotomy to say that to be salt and light, you have to ignore the teachings of Christ about the dangers of money. Not only is it possible to do both: you can’t do one without the other.
It’s not a perfect way of life – we are all imperfect people who make mistakes. But when we are prepared to admit that, life actually works pretty well.
The hardest part of living at the Bruderhof is trying to explain it. Generally, we find that people only really understand when they come and see. So watch the documentary, then sign up for a visit at https://www.bruderhof.com/en/inside-the-bruderhof. We would love to host you, and (since part of our vocation is to have joy with each other) I think I can promise good food and fellowship.
Inside the Bruderhof airs on BBC 1 on July 25 at 10.35pm (and will be available on BBC iPlayer)