"People are afraid of change," said Johann Christoph Arnold, spiritual leader for the 2,500-member society, which has six communities in Pennsylvania, New York, England, and Australia. "Anything that attacks and threatens change, they get scared."
The Bruderhof, founded in post-World War I Germany in 1920 by Arnold's grandparents, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, was theologically influenced by the Anabaptists, Christians who rejected state churches, infant baptism, and the taking of human life. It is a pacifist, Christian community with a dress code that reflects a modest and simple life. Girls and women wear jumpers and blouses with kerchiefs on their heads. Men and boys wear shirts and trousers. There is no makeup, jewelry, or elaborate haircuts.
There is also a common purse and a common pantry. People are expected to work within the community, but Bruderhof members are not paid for their services. Instead, the community meets all their needs. That includes not only food, but clothing, a home, education, and health care. Each community shares a common meal at noon and several evenings during the week. They do not watch television but have adopted modern equipment such as cell phones and faxes for use in their businesses, which include Community Playthings, which makes furniture and toys for schools and day-care centers, Rifton Equipment, which makes mobility aids for the physically handicapped, and Plough, a book publishing company.
But for Bruderhof members, separation from a sinful world is not inconsistent with working for social justice. From the beginning, they have tried to put Christ's Sermon on the Mount into practice. They hid Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s until Hitler kicked them out of the country. Once they resettled in the United States in the 1950s--after first establishing communities in England and Paraguay--they became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. "I marched with Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson from Selma to Montgomery," said Arnold.
In the 1960s and '70s, they protested the Vietnam War. "We went to Washington, speaking to the senators," said Arnold. In latter years, they have sent representatives on humanitarian and religious missions, including such nations as Ireland, Palestine, and Mexico.
That same year, members broke the U.S. barricade as they undertook humanitarian trips to Cuba with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace. Gary Frase, 49, noted that even "Pope John Paul II himself has called this blockade 'monstrously immoral.'"
The Bruderhof have also stirred ire with its anti-death-penalty protests, which have included staging rallies in Pennsylvania at the state prison in Greene County, where many death row inmates are housed. The Bruderhof's actions include support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death in 1982 for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal has become a symbol of the anti-death-penalty movement, attracting the support of celebrities and groups from around the world.
For these stands, the Bruderhof members have been criticized and called unpatriotic. Arnold disputes this. He added, "I don't think it's unpatriotic. I think we owe it to the nation. I think it's unpatriotic to stay home with your head in the sand and say this doesn't exist."
Even those who agree with the Bruderhof have questioned that they allow their children to become involved in the protests. With help from their parents, the Bruderhof youths organized a Children's Crusade in 1997 in Pennsylvania. It was a three-day walk from the Farmington New Meadow Run Bruderhof to the state prison in Greene County, where participants staged a rally.
This year, the youths are offering another Children's Crusade with children from throughout the world gathering in New Meadow Run in a festival atmosphere. But the event ends with another prison rally. Bruderhof members insist that participation by the children is voluntary and that small children are not encouraged to participate. Arnold said, "We care about our children. We don't want anything to happen to them."
And there are those who find the Bruderhof message soothing and encouraging. Arnita Welch of Atlanta, Ga., who is enrolled in the graduate school of social work at Boston College, supports the Bruderhof members in their activities and enjoys visiting the communities often. Welch, who has worked with inner-city children, is attending the Children's Crusade 2000 and likes what she sees. "I love what they stand for. I love the work they do," she said.
In fact, Arnold would encourage more people to accept the Bruderhof message. "I wish Americans would not be afraid," he said. "They should realize that life is short and try to make a difference. Make life a little different, a little better, a little more joyful."
Arnold added, "We will not become better through violence. We only become strong through peace and reconciliation."