Danthonia – a Bruderhof community, Elsmore NSW
We almost didn’t visit Danthonia. Ashamedly, I admit I was initially put-off by images of women in headscarfs and long skirts. I envisaged a closed community, steeped in religious tradition and conservative values. But our brief stay in Danthonia has touched me deeply – more than I could have imagined – and I wonder if I will ever find another community more committed to Jesus and each other.
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It was after dark when we turned off the highway and drove down the long driveway. Our hosts, Bill and Grace Anna, greeted us in the carpark. I immediately noticed the pervading peace – stars above and the sound of crickets. Sigh.
From then on, we experienced incredible welcome and friendship from the members of this 200 person community. Each day, as we walked the paths Danthonia, individuals went out of their way to shake hands and introduce themselves. And we received invitations to join a different family for almost every breakfast, lunch and dinner we were there!
A brief history
The history of the Bruderhof movement as well as individuals’ stories has been so fascinating and inspiring to me.
The movement began in 1920 in Germany when Protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold, his wife and her sister, appalled by mounting social injustice and the horrors of World War I, sought answers in Jesus’ teachings, especially his Sermon on the Mount. Through this search they felt a call to radical discipleship: to give up everything for Christ. A small community of like-minded seekers joined them.*
Since then the movement has grown to over 2700 people world-wide with communities in Germany, the United Kingdom, Paraguay, the United States and Australia. The community in Australia, known as Danthonia, was started 16 years ago.
Many people came to the Bruderhof as war veterans or conscientious objectors, searching for a different, more peaceful and authentic way to live. I highly regard the Bruderhof’s pacifist principles. And now, when I read the gospels, I wonder how Christians can come to any other conclusion.
So many members told me a very similar story: they / their parents / their grandparents were atheists, searching for something real, came across the Bruderhof and immediately knew they were home.
Fun fact: due to their heritage, almost every adult at Danthonia has been born overseas and speaks with an American accent! (Sometimes there’s a bit of English or German mixed in too.)
The day starts at 6am with each family gathered around the table for breakfast. The Bruderhof love to sing and know several hundred spiritual and folk songs off by heart. It was a little strange at first, but also lovely to hear beautiful harmonies emanating from numerous households at the crack of dawn.
Every house contains two or three families, each of whom have a couple of rooms to themselves, plus a kitchen and bathrooms shared amongst all. Singles – young and old – are placed with families.
After breakfast, members go off to their various tasks, whether it be in the sign shop, school (children and teenagers are home-schooled), kitchen, laundry, community garden, or out in the paddocks.
The Bruderhof don’t have church services but regularly meet for bodily and spiritual nourishment. Twice a day we all gathered – once during lunch or dinner, and again to sing, share words of encouragement and pray. Being outdoors is their preferred option and I loved being gathered in a circle, sitting in the shade of large trees, or under the stars around beautiful hand-made lanterns. It was real and meaningful.
Everything in common
As Bill said, how can we love one another if we only see each other for a couple of hours, one day a week and most of that time is spent listening to a sermon?! When we live and work together we get to really see what each other is like and practice true love which forgives, is patient and kind (you know the rest!).
The Bruderhof take Jesus’ command to “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” very seriously. They believe in living in the spirit of the first Christians who “were united and shared everything with one another.” Therefore they renounce private ownership and share everything in common. What really stood out to me, and has stuck with me, is what they have gained through this life of sacrifice…
They have given up private ownership and financial independence, but gained freedom from greed, materialism and debt.
They have given up a life of independence, but gained enormous benefits from living in close-knit, committed-for-life community. They experience deep relationships, share each others burdens, and remain cared for in-community when they get old.
They have largely given up the opportunity to pursue personal dreams and goals, but gained reward in working together for the greater good.
They have given up self-expression in the form of uniform, modest clothing, but gained liberty from fashion slavery, competition, superficiality and objectification. The more time I spent with members, the more their individual personalities shone through and clothing became irrelevant – as with any friends I have.
Read an excellent blog post by one of the members here where she joyfully explains the freedom she finds in dressing as her and her sisters do.
As we chatted with various members of Danthonia they admitted this life isn’t easy. They have different personalities and opinions which often clash, requiring regular forgiveness. But facing and overcoming these challenges only draws them closer.
I think the important thing to know is that each member has freely chosen to live in joyful submission to Jesus and each other – their commitment is not done under duress. Nor is their life a legalistic one, for example, if there is something you’d particularly like to have or do, you simply put in a request.
As they are guided by love, the only real “rule” they have is not to gossip. If you have a problem with someone you go directly to them and only seek the advice of another if necessary. Gossip will quickly tear a community apart, several people told us. It makes sense.
Taking the vow
As you can imagine, joining the Bruderhof is not to be taken lightly. It requires complete surrender to Jesus and certainty that this is the life you have been called to.
Children born into community aren’t automatically members, they have to make the decision for themselves once they have matured and reached 21. They are then free to leave and seek a life of meaning in the wider world, or commit to community for life.
The life-long vow that members make seems somewhat daunting, but I appreciate that without such a commitment people would leave when the going gets tough and the community would fall apart – just like marriage really!
Involvement in the world
There are many opportunities to engage with the wider community, both before and after becoming a member. The community is by no means cut-off nor closed.
Justice and acts of mercy are an important part of their calling. They support various marginalised groups and other organisations working for social change, including many that I have connections with. I found this really encouraging.
Their authentic expression of community, as well as their respect for the land, is having an impact. They’ve established a significant connection with local Aboriginals who have said to them, “you are permanently welcome here.”
They also run a business that specialises in creating hand-carved signs as a means of sustaining themselves financially. “The shop”, located on site, buzzes with activity from design and sales, to carving, painting, finishing and more. I was really impressed with the quality and professionalism. And I love how men and women, young and old, work side by side. It was a real highlight to participate in this work and learn about the lives of my co-workers at the same time.
Treading lightly on the earth
Stemming from their desire to see God’s kingdom come, Danthonia are working to restore and protect the earth through tree planting, cutting-edge sustainable farming, organic gardening, seed saving and other activities. One outcome is a 27% increase in bird species!
I found it interesting that they didn’t really draw attention to their environmental practices. Clearly, the community’s primary focus is to love and serve others, but obviously you can’t genuinely care for people if you aren’t also caring for the planet on which they depend.
Aspects I would struggle with
The Bruderhof seem to hold some fairy traditional views which I don’t necessarily agree with, particularly regarding women in leadership, gender roles and homosexuality. I would probably struggle with these as equality is an important value of mine, but I respect their convictions. What’s more, they greatly value the wisdom of their founder Eberhard who said they must always seek Christ and be willing to change should the Spirit guide them to.
Members of the Bruderhof are the first to acknowledge that their lifestyle is not the only way to follow Jesus. They are well aware of others who are doing great things for the kingdom and are eager to build relationships with them. They can also recognise God working through those who don’t profess any faith – were there is love there is God. I love their humility and grace. I have to say though, it doesn’t surprise me that individuals find Jesus here – their authenticity is very tangible and attractive.
I almost envy those who have been born into this way of life, surely it comes more naturally and easily to them. However, no doubt if the Spirit moves you to join them, you will also be given the strength to overcome the hurdles.
One thing left ringing in my ears is: don’t search for community, just seek Jesus and the kingdom of God and the rest will fall into place.
It was an amazing experience to be with our brothers and sisters at Danthonia. I’m so so glad we went and I hope to see them again one day!
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PS. If you plan to visit Danthonia you will be welcomed with open arms. Our time with them was quite brief (four and a half days) and intense so I recommend staying longer and spacing out your invitations to meet with couples and families. And be prepared to delve into conversations of faith numerous times – their favourite topic it seems!