In the radical religious community, no one owns or earns anything, everyone sings constantly and the booze flows freely. Where are the drawbacks?


Morning has broken, like the first morning, in Darvell, Sussex. The sun is shining, the air is full of birdsong and the scent of flowers. A bell rings and healthy-looking children, some barefoot, scamper happily off to school. The youngest are pushed around in wooden carts. Everyone is smiling and going about their business, taking washing to the central laundry or going to work in the workshops, offices or the kitchen garden. No one owns anything or earns anything. Everything is shared and everyone is very friendly. Good morning, they say, in a range of accents British, American, some more Germanic-sounding ones among the older folk.

And it does appear to be just that: a very good morning. Unless you take issue with the fact that the women here dress a bit like handmaids, with long shapeless skirts and head coverings (the men, mainly in plain jeans and shirts, look more contemporary, albeit untroubled by fashion). Or youre bothered that same-sex relationships are a sin around here. Or perhaps you find it all a bit creepy or (whisper it) culty.

Im spending 24 hours with the Bruderhof, a radical Christian movement founded a century ago in Germany. In brief, it recognises the Bibles authority over everything, placing emphasis on the New Testaments Acts 2 and 4 and the Sermon on the Mount, which direct followers to embrace communal living and lifelong service to others. In its 100-year history, the group has moved around Europe, Paraguay, North America fleeing Nazis and wars. Now there are 3,000 or so living in communities worldwide, including some 300 here in the Weald. They have let the cameras in, for a BBC documentary, to show the world what they do. They might as well let the press in, too; hence my presence.

I am met at the station in a communal Volkswagen Golf by Bernard, 38, who might be called something like outreach director if the Bruderhof did titles. He lives with his wife, Rachel, 46, and their children, Esther, Michael and Jonathan (14, 12 and five) in a wing of the central building, which was once a TB hospital. Im staying with them.

For tea, after thanking the Lord, we have bacon rolls from pigs raised on the premises and salad, and they tell me about themselves. Rachel is from Connecticut, Bernard is British. They grew up and met within the community and were married in a field after a courtship that involved a lot of letter writing, discussion of the gospels and taking advice from pastors.

What truly makes a woman free: is it choosing their clothing, or is it her personality and character? Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drgoi/The Guardian

They have had a couple of arguments in their time together. One was about whether we should go for a walk when Esther was screaming as a baby, says Rachel. That doesnt sound too serious. It was for us. It was devastating that we were arguing for the first time in our lives.

Rachel isnt wearing a headscarf at home, just a long black skirt and a grey top. Does she not mind looking like a 19th-century peasant? My identity isnt defined by what Im wearing, my freedom isnt dictated by choosing the latest fashion of the high street, she says. What truly makes a woman free: is it choosing their clothing, or is it her personality and character? She says she covers her head outside not because its the law laid down by men, but because Christ said she should when in prayer and a lot of the day she is in prayer.

If they have one beef with the documentary, its that people might come away thinking the women just look after children and chop vegetables. We have more women professionals than men, says Bernard. Our entire salesforce [of the business, making wooden furniture, where Ill be put to work in the morning] is run by women. My wifes a physiotherapist; we have doctors and architects.

But do the women look after the kids and chop the vegetables? Mostly, admits Rachel. I dont mind that; I choose that as a Christian. My view is that men and women have different roles, but neither is superior.

Theres no TV in the house, no computers or tablets. What happens after tea? How about a gin and tonic? Oh, go on then! My kind of cul … community. Bernard makes three large ones, and we have a quiz. Subject: life outside.

Seeing the light … inside the central laundry at the Bruderhof. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drgoi/The Guardian

Has 14-year-old Esther heard of Love Island? Is that the one where they all go to the island and then they all have to sleep in a bed together? Correct. She has never seen it, but a friend outside the community told her about it. Taylor Swift? Nope.

Tory leadership, Trump, Brexit: all up to speed. I think its really important to know whats going on in the world, says Rachel. We are a part of it. Brexit is going to affect them the business exports, plus there may well be migration issues. Celebrity culture is one of the things Im perfectly happy my children know nothing about, says Bernard. And Instagram. The majority of parents I speak to are pretty unhappy about the effects of social media.

What about 12-year-old Michael. Would he like a TV? A tiny bit, yeah, he admits. He likes playing football, and sometimes gets to watch clips in the office, but doesnt support a team.

And Jonathan? At five, he can swim 500 metres in the community lake (which contains trout and carp). And hes interested in the Antarctic, loves penguins. He sings a song about emperor penguins and everyone joins in: To keep myself off the ice / I find my fathers feet are nice / I snuggle in his belly fluff / And thats how I stay warm enough. The Bruderhof do a lot of singing.

Another G&T? I think theyre trying to get me drunk, to get me in, then Ill never leave. It isnt a cult, says Bernard. People are free to come and free to go. We have a very orthodox Christianity. [The former archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams has been here; we are members of the Evangelical Alliance, they dont accept cults in their membership. Theres nothing different in the Bible that we read. The only difference is the way we put it into practice, because we have this thing about materialism and possessions, but actually thats not an unorthodox belief. Materialism and money are the root of all the worlds problems, the wars and the climate catastrophe.

I need to go to bed before I sign up. Up a wooden staircase into a comfortable room with a selection of German prayer books and a big bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk. Theyre definitely trying to get me.

Would my boys to do something useful, three times a day? Ha! … Michael feeds the Bruderhof pigs. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drgoi/The Guardian

Im awoken by the braying of a donkey, and the sun. Breakfast is at 6.15 more bacon, scrambled eggs, beans and a song. Then its off with Michael to feed Olivia the pig and her 12 piglets. Michael does it three times a day, willingly. I wonder if it would be possible to get my own boys to do something useful, three times a day, including before school? Ha! Not without material incentives.

Michael likes doing it, he says. Perhaps hes thinking ahead to when the pigs are feeding him. The Bruderhof may be pacifists, but they do enjoy their bacon.

Now its my turn to work, in the workshop of Community Playthings, their company that designs and manufactures wooden classroom and play environments for schools and nurseries. Annual turnover is about 17m. I work with Bernard, assembling trapezoidal tables. Well pay you the same as us: six-figure salary, all zeros, says Bernard. Bit of a joker, is Bernard.

Heres Troy, whos about to head off to Thailand to help Rohingya refugees. And Corwyn, putting together a table before opening his dentists surgery. And Jacob from Iraq, who used to be a Catholic, repented on the frontline in the war with Iran, became a secret pacifist, slyly not shooting anyone, and then fled Iraq just before the first Gulf war and eventually found home with the Bruderhof.

Well pay you the same as us: six-figure salary, all zeros … Sam gets stuck in making tables with Bernard. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drgoi/The Guardian

No women in the workshop this morning? There will be some later, after nine, says Bernard. So they can be at home, clean the house first. Hes not joking, this time.

Im sent over to the polytunnels, to train tomatoes with a softly spoken man named Darius. He speaks like an American, but studied horticulture in Kent. It seems less important for the Bruderhof where they are from and more important that they are somewhere serving Christ. They get moved around depending on communities needs, so if Sannerz in Germany needs a builder or a doctor, and Spring Valley in Pennsylvania has a spare, they will move.

Lunch is communal in the huge hall. But first, a song! Im enjoying the singing, and the food, too grilled chicken with rice. Beside me, five-year-old Jonathan happily eats his broccoli. How do they do that? Maybe he just doesnt know that children dont like greens.

A letter is read out from a volunteer working with migrants on Mexicos northern border. Then a few verses from John 3, which encapsulates what the Bruderhof are about. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

I like to laugh at them when they make mistakes … communal games come with added comedy. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drgoi/The Guardian

Down on the sports field, after the days work is done, there are communal games. Im involved in a big game of kickball basically rounders, only played with a football, which you kick. There are five-year-olds and 75-year-olds on my team, generations brought together by a shared vision. Its a lovely scene a bunch of people untroubled by money and mortgages and material matters, enjoying themselves and looking after each other.

God (sorry), if I could just look past those issues the homosexuality one, and the women looking like the one in Grant Woods American Gothic. Would it get claustrophobic, living and working with the same people, and with all that goodwill and kindness? Id miss a bit of cynicism, gossip, a tiny bit of wickedness.

But then I meet Brbel and Rahel, sisters, aged 83 and 74, who are of German heritage but spent their childhood in Paraguay. It was tough; there was never enough to eat. Now they have it too good, says Brbel. Why arent they playing kickball? Such a silly game, scoffs Rahel. I like to laugh at them when they make mistakes.

A hint of humour and defiance. It is possible. Then someone hands me a hot dog from the barbecue and a big glass of (excellent) homebrewed beer. OK, sold, Im in. Where do I sign?

Inside the Bruderhof is on BBC One on 25 July at 10.35pm

Related posts