A City and Hunger that Never Sleep
To be in need is one of our most human traits; we come into this world in incredible need, and we leave in incredible need. As infants, we rely completely on our mothers and/or caregivers; we would not survive without them for even an hour. When we are elderly, many of us rely on our family or caregivers to help see us off from this world. From dust we came and from dust we will return. The reminder of this is humbling, not to mention remembering that we are in need every single day between birth and death. We get hungry, thirsty, and tired; we need friends and community to discuss life’s challenges and hold us accountable. The need for others extends to almost every part of life regardless of how close to the beginning or end of life one is. Gritting your teeth can only get you so far when you feel like you’re in need, especially when your stomach is gurgling at midnight in quiet, rural, upstate New York. I intentionally found myself amidst a sea of strangers after traveling for half a day to a completely new airport, new city, and new state… And I was starving. A combination of my anxiety about traveling alone and somewhere new, and needing to navigate New York City public transportation with a large suitcase and backpack, made my stomach feel uneasy enough that I hadn’t eaten much that morning. This anxiety would stay with me for the first week I was living in the Fox Hill Bruderhof community and ultimately result in nights where I would lie awake feeling pangs of hunger in my stomach. I was very much in need, and yet I refused to ask for help. It felt rude to ask for more food, especially at strange hours of the day, and I wanted to make it on my own. I don’t need a snack, I’ll eat in the morning. I’ll be just fine. I had made it through hours without food at home due to a longer than normal work day or lack of planning my grocery shopping for the week. This instance would be no different, right?
You may be wondering, “Who are the Bruderhof?” I wondered this too when I applied for an internship with the Plough journal, a Christian magazine that I edited, translated, and wrote for while spending part of my summer living in New York. The Bruderhof find their Anabaptist origins in the early 1900s in Germany, when their founder Eberhard Arnold was looking for a different way of life. He was dismayed at the church’s response to World War I, so he and his family created an intentional communal living house. Unfortunately, once World War II took hold, the Bruderhof were no longer welcome in Germany. They first fled to England; however, they were not accepted there nor in any other country in the world. Paraguay was the exception to this, so almost all members fled to take refuge in South America. After the war was over, many returned to England, but they did not remain there long as England was suspicious of those with German heritage. At this point in history, the US opened their borders and many of the Bruderhof made their way to America where a majority of their communities reside today. Now, most of the American communities are found in the Northeast, and other communities are found in England, Australia, Germany, and Austria. The Bruderhof live in communities of up to 200 people, often, on large pieces of land that sustain the community with produce, livestock, and livelihoods. They are a people of incredible kindness and generosity who seek the good of the greater communities and towns where they live.
I found vitality and joy from showing up and asking, “How can I help? What can I do to make this place more inviting?”
Despite a week of graciously accepting me into their community, the hurdle of completely trusting the Bruderhof became more insurmountable the more my physical hunger, my need, grew. When I finally made my way to the kitchen, I was sure to be as quiet as possible. No one could know of my need. The plan was to quickly make my way downstairs to the community pantry, maybe find a large carrot or apple, and get out. Although a carrot or apple wouldn’t completely satisfy me, something was better than nothing. I was stopped on my way out. Caught. My cover was blown; there was no escaping. “Can I help you find something?” A hand extended over the wall of mistrust asking me to begin scaling it. “Oh, um, I was just looking for a snack… But I found this carrot, so I think I’ll be good.” The hand was still extended over the wall. Shouldn’t it disappear back to its own side? I refused the helping hand; I would climb the wall by myself, in my own time, my way. “Well, has anyone told you about the grazing cooler?” I paused. The hand seemed more tantalizing now. “The…grazing cooler?” Maybe if I just touched the pinky, that would be enough. “Yeah, it’s where we store our leftovers from today’s or yesterday’s meals. Here, come with me.” The whole wall crumbled before me, and I was brought into a loving embrace with everyone on the other side of the wall; they were waiting for me. No one called me rude, impolite, or ungrateful. I was told that I was a beloved friend, so much so that I would be shown where the industrial-sized fridge with leftovers was located. “Yeah, if you come late at night, you may even run into some other people! Feel free to come by and ‘graze’ whenever you want!” The path forward was one of sharing everything all the time. What’s mine is yours. No fear of asking; no fear of being in need.
The path forward was one of sharing everything all the time. What’s mine is yours. No fear of asking; no fear of being in need.
My hunger, my need, was sated by the hospitality of the Bruderhof community. This Christ-like hospitality flowed from one of their core beliefs which is to share everything with anyone who asks (or doesn’t ask in my case.) These people have taken Acts 2 to heart and are fiercely committed to giving. I was told multiple times over my three weeks with them that Acts 2 is what they continually return to as they consider their giving and hospitality! With this knowledge, I began to recognize I was being shown hospitality in radical ways: I was casually asked what I normally eat for breakfast at home and suddenly there was always an egg or two at the breakfast table for me every morning; I was saved a seat at the 50-person dining room table in the 200-person dining room next to my host family (as well as being asked to sit next to a dozen other families) for every lunch; after helping around the property on hot, sunny afternoons, ice cream and frosted seltzer waters would always appear; the list could go on. And I began to find that my desires were shifting amidst all of this. I looked forward more and more to 6:30 AM breakfasts, I wanted to do dishes and clean up after meals, I saved seats next to me for 2-week old friends: I no longer felt like I was in need. Quickly my wants changed to focus on serving those around me any way that I could and participating in community. I found vitality and joy from showing up and asking, “How can I help? What can I do to make this place more inviting?” I wanted to integrate more into the community, physically and emotionally being present, and practice hospitality in the same way that they were showing me.
The most accurate way to describe my shift in mindset is that I was moving from a scarcity to an abundance mentality, and the Bruderhof perpetually pursue an abundance mentality. The Bruderhof would always say, “There is more! How can we steward all of these things?” At one point in time, the Fox Hill community fasted from lunch one day a week and used the proceeds that would have been spent on food to support suffering communities in the world. They said, “We can go without. We have plenty. Let us give it away.” Tim Mackie and Jon Collins explore this shift in a BibleProject podcast series called “Generosity”. In the first episode, Tim points out that “freedom from anxiety is rooted in a conception of the universe, like a safe place where I’m welcomed by a generous host.” This freedom allows us to generously give away what we have because God Himself is an incredibly generous host. We are not just called to be generous because it’s kind or loving, which it is, but because we are made in God’s image. Being generous with everything, whether that’s physical goods or our time or natural talents, is stepping into who God has called us to be and demonstrating to others who God is. Not only that, but my goods, time, and talents are not my own, they are gifts given to me by God, the sole One to have created and own everything. The idea that everything I have is currently on loan for my short time on Earth should be a cause for celebration; I am not the owner of said things so my role is to take care of the things until the rightful owner comes back for them. Matthew 25 and Luke 19 exemplify God entrusting us with His property through the parable of the talents/minas. Moreover, in Luke’s account, the nobleman commands his servants to put the money to work, to cultivate it, and be responsible with it. Jesus reveals that God is the nobleman and will one day come to collect all that is His once again. Do the servants who put the money to work receive rewards? Yes they do, but that wasn’t their motivation to fulfill the command. The servants weren’t told that they would receive more than they had before when their master returned. Rather, they know who their master is. They trust their master, and since the master tells them to put the money to work, they comply. Similarly, all the minas bestowed to us are to be “put to work,” to be cultivated and stewarded. We already know that we will receive a reward, but we are motivated, we comply with God’s command to be generous, because we trust Him.
We are not just called to be generous because it’s kind or loving, which it is, but because we are made in God’s image. Being generous with everything, whether that’s physical goods or our time or natural talents, is stepping into who God has called us to be and demonstrating to others who God is. Not only that, but my goods, time, and talents are not my own, they are gifts given to me by God, the sole One to have created and own everything.
I may not have known the Bruderhof well, but I did know my Master and He is the same Master that the Bruderhof claim as their own. Our Master has thrown an amazing party with refreshments abounding: there is no need to hoard platters of food because I trust the host. God, our generous host, knows how many people He’s expecting at the party, so we can trust that He has planned accordingly. It also means that if I see someone at the party who is still hungry, and I have food on my plate, I can simply give them my plate, or better yet, show them to the grazing cooler so their stomach may be filled.
Photo Credit: All photos in this story were taken by Ben Kercheval during his stay with the Fox Hill Bruderhof community.