People come for utopia, but is that what they find?

By Andrew Billen | Published in The Times, Monday July 22nd, 2019.

Its members renounce possessions and have their work decided for them. Andrew Billen meets happy members of the Bruderhof and talks to not-so-happy ex-members.

Imagine no possessions, it isn’t hard to do, not if you take a 75-minute train ride from London Bridge station to the village of Robertsbridge and walk the few minutes to pastoral Darvell. For almost 40 years this former TB clinic has been home for 300 people looking to live in non-materialist peace. The day I visit, they look as if they have succeeded: children glug back the lung-enhancing air as they return from a swim in the lake. Craftsmen in the community’s factory work quietly on wooden nursery furniture. At teatime, old people zoom on mobility scooters towards a barbecue of home-reared pork sausages and Darvell-brewed beer. It’s a place where children show you their vegetable patches, not their computer games.

Born into all this or having donated their wealth to the community as a condition of entry, no one owns anything. Even clothes are issued from a central store. You would think this would make Darvell look dull, but it is the reverse; it looks spectacularly eccentric. While the men wear T-shirts and jeans, the women array themselves as 19th-century agricultural peasants: plain shirts, long skirts and headscarfs – even when even when they are playing kickball. The look is Gilead in East Sussex.

These devout brothers and sisters (many are indeed one another’s relatives) are the Bruderhof, a pacifist Anabaptist community founded m Germany in 1920 in response to the slaughter of the First World War. It has 3000 members spread over 23 communities in five countries. Say what you like about Darvell – and a forthcoming BBC documentary finds so little bad that my bet is that its recruitment will boom – but spend a day in this all-singing, all-smiling, gossip-prohibited Arcadia and it is hard to imagine there is no religion. Everything they do, they do for God.

“People have always searched for utopia, and this is not a utopia by any stretch of the imagination, yet there are people who want to live outside the mainstream and there are times in our history when the mainstream living becomes very unappealing,” says Bernard Hibbs, a bright, laconic, very tall 38-year-old father of three who has been with the Hof since he was nine and acts as outreach director. On Inside the Bruderhof, he admits that leavers once had complaints, but times have changed since the poverty-stricken Forties and Fifties when they received little support. For that, he says the community needs to “apologise” and “find forgiveness”.

As for utopia, the Bruderhof has been known to create anything but. Darvells’ head pastor is the journalist-shy Robert Zumpe. During the barbecue, Hibbs points him out to me as the guy in a green T-shirt with a child, but I lose him and assail somone else entirely. Robert, I later discover, is the grandson of Hans Zumpe, who in 1941 helped to lead the Bruderhof to the jungles of Paraguay after it fled first Nazi Germany then England (German members faced internment). Grandfather Zumpe is a warning from history, a factional leader who split the “Hof” and was expelled after he committed adultery with his secretary.

“As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, the power and the misuse of sex often go hand in hand,” Hibbs says. He is speaking after a communal lunch – chicken and veg, plus singing – to a bunch of impertinent journalists. Bernard’s story is that his parents, recently converted Christians, chanced upon Darvell while on holiday in the mid-Eighties. David Hibbs worked in a company exporting arms. His wife, Fiona, was a nurse. At school in Hampshire, Bernard and his sister, Olivia, were bullied for lacking worldly goods. Three years later – and after a false start – the family moved in.

The Times Monday 22 July 2019 - One

© The Times Monday July 22nd, 2019.

I later run into Fiona, who says the headscarf “took a hit of getting used to,” but she consented “out of [the community’s] love for one another”. Dress rules are less stringent now, she says, although all day I spot only one female Hof, apart from children, minus a headscarf. Jessica, a teenager working in the nursery, says she is still working out what she believes. “It is not like we are forced to wear them and at this point I don’t see why I should.”

Bernard’s argument is that the dress code saves women from the tyranny of fashion. “For me personally,” says his wife Rachel, “it’s really about having a simple, modest costume that’s practical as well.” I say it signals to me unease with her sexuality. “Well, I mean, that may be how you see it. I cover my head not because it’s alluring to men, but because Christ said, ‘Cover your head when you’re in prayer.'”

The Bruderhof forbid divorce, regard homosexual relationships as sinful (apparently because Jesus said nothing in its support) and Bernard’s courtship of the six-years-older Rachel was, obviously, magnificently chaste. On the other hand, the Hof, once married, are often prolific. Fiona and David Hibbs have a relatively modest seven grandchildren.

In the documentary Bernard says that he community resists “individualism”, although he redefines this as “self-centredness” when I press him. The fact is that once committed to the Hof – and the cooling-off period can be long – your life is no longer yours. The important decisions are made for you. Almost everyone will be told several times in their lives to leave their homes and move to another community in America, say, or Germany. (Many Hof speak in strangely unidentifiable accents, a bit American, a bit Australian, a bit German.) Your job is chosen for you and no man is consigned to the laundry or kitchen, although the community does have women lawyers, doctors, dentists and teachers and I meet female designers and sales women working in Community Playthings, the £17 million-turnover furniture business that keeps the community afloat.

It is tempting to conclude that the Bruderhof are so cut off they know no better, but that’s unfair. Darvell children make friends in Robertsbridge, play in village sports teams and, as teenagers, travel alone to visit relatives. Although there are no televisions or computers in their homes, and few smartphones, members discuss current affairs and hear from visiting speakers. Children are educated at Darvell’s school until 14, then board at an academy in Kent, Beech Grove. Ofsted rates both “good” and observes that Darvell’s leaders “work hard to ensure that the schools’ unique setting does not restrict how well pupils are prepared for life in modern Britain”.

Over lunch during my visit we are read a letter from a member working with Save the Children on the US southern border. Around the age of l8, most members venture into the “real world”, often working in London from a Hof house in Peckham. Many, such as Rachel Hibbs, go to university. Some, like her husband, leave entirely for a little while, then return.

In the film an elderly member says that the Bruderhof cannot be a cult because it “boots out” its 18-year-olds to try life outside, and some do leave for ever at this point. In the film, Bernard talks about “20, 30 per cent”, although the figure actually varies and some years retention is nearly 100 per cent. The documentary follows a young woman, Hannah, who having done youth work in London, returns gratefully to the community. About to train as a teacher in America, she has not, I learn, made a final decision about the Bruderhof, “but it is where I want to be right now”.

The film does not, however, address the trauma that some leavers allege that they’ve experienced. Ex-members claim to have been excluded, that contact with family members has been made impossible and that serious grievances about their time in the community were never properly addressed. Some correspond through, which seems to have superseded another forum, KIT (Keep in Touch), whose posts from the Nineties remain online and contain allegations of blocked emails, letters returned unopened and harassment.

Paul Newton of Afterhof writes to me: “The Bruderhof has a long history of using multiple different tactics to suppress stories that do not reflect well on them. We have connections with hundreds of people who have left the Hof and have heard a wide range of stories about people leaving the Bruderhof from pleasant to horrible.”

Shortly afterwards, Esther Kiszler gets in touch. This month she presented a paper on leavers to the International Cultic Studies Association in Manchester. Her online survey, while self-selecting, polled 177 Bruderhof who had left from between 1 1 and 59 years ago. Almost half claimed to have been given no more than a week’s notice before “having to leave”. It took leavers, on average, up to six years to integrate fully into mainstream society. Half reported depression and 32 per cent post-traumatic stress disorder – an almost unbelievably high number, given the rates of PTSD among ex-servicemen is 7 per cent.

Kiszler stayed with her family in Darvell between 1992 and 2002 and speaks of rule-breakers being forced to confess in public, then being “shamed” or even facing “the great exclusion” where they were sent to Coventry and banned from communal activities other than work. Her father was a violent man, but the Hof did not report him to the authorities. Instead he was suddenly expelled in 2002, the same night her elder sister attempted suicide. “A couple of weeks later the rest of us were loaded in a van and driven to my grandparents in Germany.” Like so many of the leavers in the study she suffers from mental health issues and PTSD.

Hibbs response is this: “One of my jobs is to support young people and others who leave our community. On the basis of the conversations I have daily, Kiszler’s online ‘survey’ is un-representative to the point of being preposterous. I’m no expert, so won’t comment on methodology, sample size or root-cause analysis, but it simply doesn’t do justice to the many young people I work with, who, like Hannah in the documentary, are intelligent, confident and are making valuable contributions outside of the Bruderhof. ” It’s great to see former Bruderhof residents supporting each other, including the work Paul Newton and others are doing on websites like We in the Bruderhof will continue to provide advice and financial support to the best of our abilities.”

Ex-members can phone their relatives, he assures me. No mail is censored. Leavers visit and those who stay may attend outside weddings, say, or visit grandchildren. A “different paths” page on the Bruderhof website contains testimony from those who say their upbringing helped them in very different subsequent lives.

© The Times Monday July 22nd, 2019.

“There will be a few people who tell you, ‘I have been stopped from visiting my family in the community.’ Take these stories with a large grain of salt,” Hibbs warns. “Broken family relationships happen among us as they do everywhere, and sometimes parents will tell their child they don’t want to have contact for one reason or the other. For some the easy response is to blame this on our community. In fact, the community is concerned to bring about reconciliation whenever we can.”

He puts me in touch with Jamal Huleatt, born into a New York community in 1997, but who Lived in Darvell from the age of two. After moving to a German community, he decided, 20 years later, that he was not called to the life and left. “It was not an easy choice,” he tells me on Skype. “When I said, ‘Hey, I wanted to leave,’ it took several conversations with several people until they understood why I wanted to leave. That was hard, a hard week for me, but when they understood I was sincere I had a lot of support.” The community set him up in volunteer work in Germany and helped towards an expensive German driving licence. He thinks more financial help would be given if he asked. ” More important for me was the moral support from my parents and other leaders in Germany and also in England whom I still correspond with by email.”

“Everyone’s experience leaving the community is different. I know from some of my friends they have had harder experiences and some of them were to blame for their harder experiences.”

With his girlfriend, he visited his family in Darvell this spring. He is now studying international business administration in Germany. God is the most important part of his life.

My day ends with the brothers and sisters around a campfire. The good Lord is thanked for this beautiful day and everyone joyfully – well, one teenage girl has the grace to look bored – sings The Golden Day is Dying. However, much as I have enjoyed my strolls, respectful encounters, the sausages and the beer, and much as I believe lives can be led in many ways and, perhaps, the simpler the better, a week here would be oppressive to me. The key question may not be why people leave, but why so many stay, not for a week, but a lifetime. It is a question for the rest of us, as much as the Hof, to consider.