Inside The Bruderhof

BBC News/July 9, 2019

In one picturesque village in Sussex, life is very different. There’s no crime, debt or homelessness. Everyone has a job, but no one earns a salary, and none of the children watch television, use social media, play video games or even have a mobile phone.

With unique access to this historically private community, Inside The Bruderhof enters the village of Darvell, where for almost 50 years, an extraordinary radical Christian community, The Bruderhof, has lived outside of mainstream society. This observational documentary holds a mirror up to modern Britain - with its consumerist concerns, high crime and deprivation rate - and looks at this community’s simple and arguably utopian way of life, whilst exploring the personal cost and sacrifice required to live there.

Living as disciples of Jesus, the community relinquish all possessions, money and status when they take their vow of commitment. Once a member, everything is provided for you, from groceries and consumables to clothing. It’s an almost entirely self-sufficient community - they run their own farm, orchard, kitchen, laundry, schools and even more remarkably, a multi-million-pound business which makes children’s toys and furniture.

With their way of life based on early biblical text, there are strict rules and restrictions around same-sex relationships, divorce, and what members wear. In particular the women avoid fashions of any sort, adopting a uniform look reminiscent of traditional peasant dress, with headscarves, loose shirts, plaid dresses and skirts. Many decisions about the residents’ lives are made for them, including what job they do and where they live. In fact many are frequently moved between the other 23 global Bruderhof settlements as required, meaning that many families are spread across several different countries around the world.

Hannah, Bernard and Hardy are part of the 300-strong village of brothers and sisters living as disciples of Jesus. Bernard, his wife Rachel and their three children live a ‘back to basics’ lifestyle in a shared house with several other families, including Bernard’s parents. Most of their meals are taken with the other residents in a large communal dining room where they eat, sing and worship together.

Outgoing and inquisitive, Hannah is questioning this way of life. At 18 she wants to experience life outside the community she was born into before making a lifelong commitment. Inside The Bruderhof follows her extraordinary journey as she leaves her family and the familiarity of this closeted community behind, and makes her journey to the big city - London. Whilst Hannah experiences the independence of her first paid job, she begins to question both the Bruderhof way of life and her experience in mainstream society.

As a teenager, Hardy became acutely aware of the sacrifices members of the Bruderhof have to make. Together with his five siblings, he rebelled against the ideals of the community, and with their blessing, his family left the Bruderhof and began a new life outside. Hardy has since returned to the community, accepting that a life there is one of sacrifice - not only surrendering all possessions and money, but something greater: giving up personal ambition and freedom to make his own decisions. Whilst Hardy and Bernard are happy to make this commitment for a greater cause, will the fresh opportunities that Hannah is discovering in the city be enough to tempt her away?

Interview with Bernard

When did the Bruderhof begin and what is it for?

The Bruderhof began in 1920 in Germany. Some young people had a vision for a new society where they could put their faith into action. They wanted to follow Jesus completely. It was going well until the Nazis confiscated our property and kicked us out. We fled to England and were accepted here - in fact a lot of English people joined us. The vision those initial young people had is still alive today, we are simply trying to follow the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives.

What is your role within The Bruderhof?

I coordinate our outreach activities, which can range from funding international development work after a natural disaster through to helping set up a children’s playroom at the local hospital. Our children play on the village football team and we get involved in village activities, like village clean-up day. In addition, I support young people who want to leave the Bruderhof, helping them find a house, get into university, get a job, etc. They tend to be pretty smart, though, which makes my job easy!

Do you remember your old life before the Bruderhof? Do you miss it?

My parents joined the community when I was nine, so yes, I remember life before we came. I had a pretty normal childhood before, but coming to the Bruderhof was amazing. It is a great place to be a kid. I remember crying every time we left after a visit here.

Have you ever felt you are making sacrifices to live this lifestyle?

You have to make some sacrifices to live here - that is clear. Everyone joins here knowing that. Look at the parables of the buried treasure or the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). It might sound hard, but once you do it, you realize how happy you can be living a life where you own nothing. If you don’t believe me, give it a try!

How do you handle negativity from those who have left the community?

Of course there are some who have become members of our community and then decided to take a different path. Some of those people are aggrieved for one reason or another: it’s sad, and I’ll be the first to say that we are not perfect and have made mistakes. On the other hand, people join our church with their eyes open and we do our best to make sure everyone understands the commitment involved.

Is the Bruderhof a cult? If not, why not?

People who have never visited us sometimes imagine that we might be a cult. But when they come, they find we are far too normal to qualify - there are no UFOs, no weird rituals, no secret handshakes. People are free to come and go and nobody is compelled to think a certain way; we disagree amongst each other on almost everything, from Brexit to how often we should mow the grass. We are of course occasionally accused of being a cult, but that is to be expected. In our experience, if people visit and see for themselves those concerns are easily answered.

How would you describe The Bruderhof to someone with no knowledge or understanding of the community?

I tell them that I live in a place where everyone shares everything, and where everyone is needed and valued for who they are. There are no rich or poor. We try to put into practice Jesus’s command to love our neighbour.

Have you ever spent time living outside the community? Would you consider this in the future?

I lived and worked outside of the Bruderhof as a teenager. My colleagues at work seemed happy enough earning money Monday to Friday, and then spending it all on the weekend. I gave that life a try and it was ultimately unfulfilling; in the course of looking for real meaning in life I discovered my vocation in the community. As far as I’m concerned, this is it.

How do people outside the community react to you and your family when they meet you?

Most people are really open-minded and eager to learn about how we live. We have lots of friends who visit us, often with their children. Generally the kids don’t want to leave at the end of the day. Many of our friends talk about social media and how it affects their children, and how they worry about it. They see our kids running around outside, swimming, climbing trees and playing with their friends. Most people would like something similar for their children.

How do you handle negativity from those who do not understand your way of life?

I spoke to a man the other day who was convinced we were some sort of closed commune. He couldn’t believe our children knew anything about the world around them. He actually said, “but a young person who leaves has probably hardly seen a black or Asian face”. Thank goodness he was wrong! My kids live with people from Peru, Iraq, Morocco, France, Germany, Australia and who knows where else. They meet all sorts of people here and elsewhere. They grow up with people who are disabled, elderly people and people with all sorts of life experiences.

Sometimes it seems that people want so hard to believe that we are some crazed commune they can’t see the truth. I once showed a guest around our community. He said, "Are you completely closed, or do you ever allow visitors to come in?” I pointed out that he was a visitor: cue embarrassed silence.

Are you and your wife happy in your life?

Absolutely! My wife and I often wonder why we are so fortunate. Of course life has its hiccups, but ultimately we wish that all of our friends could share the fabulous thing we have found here.

Do you ever feel claustrophobic living in The Bruderhof?

Not really. There is plenty of space, and the benefits of living with 300 other people outweigh the downsides. (One downside is the line for the barbeque is always too long. First world problem.)

What made you allow cameras into your community for the first time?

A really persistent filmmaker! We are always eager to share our life with others. Like most people, we get nervous around cameras, but talking to the producers of this documentary gave us the confidence to let them film us. Time will tell if we made a good decision or not.

What would you like to achieve from letting the TV viewing public into your world? What message would you like this film to make about The Bruderhof?

There are people who are dissatisfied with society, and who want to try and build a life that is fairer, where people can help each other, a life that is more peaceful, and where you can dedicate yourself to something worthwhile. Regardless of whether the Bruderhof is for them or not, this documentary should give people hope that it is possible to live differently.

Interview with Hannah

What made you decide to move to London?

I was looking for an experience outside the Bruderhof. Almost all young people who grow up on the Bruderhof get a chance to do this.

How did you find your experience away from the Bruderhof?
It was a good experience, and I am glad that I did it.

What are you doing now?

I am living at a Bruderhof community in New York, and in September will be going to university there to study to become a teacher.

What did you miss?

I missed my parents and my friends. At the Bruderhof, you always have people around to do stuff with - not so in London.

What did you learn?

I learned my way around London! I really enjoyed working with the young people at XLP and making new friends. But I also gained a respect and appreciation for the Bruderhof - there are things you take for granted when you grow up here.

How did you adjust to life managing your own money and job, having had all these things taken care of your whole life within The Bruderhof?

Holding a job and managing money was no problem at all, I had been well prepared and educated by the Bruderhof. I was probably better at managing money than many of my friends. Some people assume that if you live in a community like ours you are somehow completely ignorant of the world around. Crazy idea, really. Growing up on the Bruderhof, I had tons of opportunities to travel, hang out with people from different cultures, meet people with different beliefs and life experiences.

Did you enjoy the independence of buying what you want with your own money?

Yes. But I also learnt that there are more important things in life than spending money.

Were you homesick for the Bruderhof?

Yes, at times. I really enjoyed London though.

Did you spend your time taking part in the activities teenagers outside are involved in - playing video games, watching TV etc? Did you enjoy these things and what are your thoughts on these activities?
I played video games at XLP with the youth they work with, but mainly I spent my time hanging out with people my age. I was never really into watching a screen all day long - personal preference - I find it unproductive and unhealthy. But I found a lot of young people who were really happy to just be together and have a face to face relationship.

Were there temptations in London? Did you consider changing your clothing to conform and look similar to your work colleagues or neighbours?

I wore whatever was practical for what I was doing. I have never felt the need to conform to how other people think I should look. Not in London and not here.

Did you make friends in mainstream society?

Of course. Growing up on the Bruderhof doesn’t make you socially inept. In fact, probably the opposite. You grow up knowing the value of forming good relationships, and learn the skills to do so.

How did your colleagues react to you? Were they welcoming? Inquisitive?

I got along well with my colleagues and yes, they were very interested in my background. I organised a visit to the Bruderhof for lots of the people at XLP and we had a great day together.

Did you find you were identified by what you wear or was the way you look irrelevant once people got to know you?
I think the way people dress should always be irrelevant. The good thing is that there are very few people who obsess about the way I dress.

Were you lonely?

Sometimes. I made good friends which of course helps. The documentary filmed me during my first few days in London, so there were lots of things to figure out still.

With experience of both worlds, do you want to become a member?

Membership in the Bruderhof is not a trivial decision so I will spend the next few years considering. But it is where I want to be right now.

Interview with Hardy

What made you doubt your life at the Bruderhof?

As a teenager, I occasionally felt like I was missing out on the lifestyle that many of my peers who were living outside the community. Like any teen, I tried to push the boundaries because I felt like the Bruderhof was perhaps a little too strict in certain areas.

What did you feel you were missing out on?

I felt like I was missing out on the ability to make decisions for myself. I wanted the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do with my life.

How did you find life outside the community?

For the most part I really enjoyed my time away from the community and have many fond memories of my years away. However, I also realized during this time that true happiness did not always come as a result of pursuing my selfish ambitions, and this gave me a different perspective and a deeper appreciation for the way I was raised.

Did you continue to follow the teachings of Jesus, whilst living a mainstream life?

I can’t claim to have been a particularly conscientious Christian as a teenager, but I certainly made an effort to be a kind and honest member of society.

Do you feel you got your teenage inquisitiveness out of your system by moving out of the community?

Definitely. It was an important time of discernment for me as an individual, and having this time away also enabled me to make a well-informed decision for my future.

What made you come back?

That’s a long story, but basically I got to a point where I had to decide what my life’s priorities were going to be. I felt strongly that I needed to commit every part of my life to Christ, and I didn’t feel like I could fully do this while still pursuing a selfish existence in 'normal' society.

Did the community welcome you back?

Yes, I was welcomed back very warmly.

Where do you feel you belong more now?

I feel that the Bruderhof is where God wants me to be. I am very fulfilled here, and this way of life enables me to practically live out the teachings of Jesus, and that is my number one goal in life.

Do you feel you have given a lot up to stay at the Bruderhof?

Not really. The peace and joy that I have found at the Bruderhof far outweigh any supposed inconveniences or sacrifices that I may have made to stay here.

Do you miss anything from your life outside the Bruderhof?

From a purely selfish perspective, I occasionally miss having a day when I can just do what I want; but this is the way of life that I’ve chosen and I have no regrets.

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