The Cult Of Community
The Australian Women's Weekly|October 2019
They raised eyebrows with their old-fashioned dress, strict vows and radical lifestyle. But, as Jenny Brown reports, the Bruderhof sect in rural NSW has not only flourished, it’s won the hearts and minds of the local community.

It was an almighty and trusting leap of faith. At first, Australia seemed the far side of the universe to Norann Voll, newly arrived from New York with her husband and two small children, one of them just 10 weeks old.

Migrating to a windswept hilltop in rural NSW, the young Americans were strangers in a strange land. Kookaburras sounded mocking and bush flies were a torment. Even the grey eucalypts looked unwelcoming, their bark hanging off in knotty, fibrous strips.

Danthonia was not, perhaps, their dream destination. But members of the Bruderhof – a radical Christian sect that aims to live like true disciples – joyfully go wherever the church decides they are most needed. And for the Voll family, 17 years ago, that place was the Bruderhof’s first Australian outpost, which had been established just three years before their arrival in New England’s rolling grasslands outside Inverell.

“We’d come to another wonderful, faith-based community, but there were only 50 people living here at that time,” recalls Norann, 43, bustling around her cosy 1950s fibro home, where a hand-painted motto “Live Laugh Love” is emblazoned above the kitchen door. “In the States we’d had lots of neighbours close by, lots of contact with the wider community, a completely different culture. Then we landed from upstate New York’s hustle and bustle into a paddock!” It was a marvellous, Godgiven adventure. Yet transplanted so suddenly, the young mother struggled to cope in such alien surroundings until traditional bush kindness stepped in. “Right away the amazing, outreaching warmth of Australian women and their radical hospitality just saved me in some ways,” smiles Norann, a trained teacher who has now welcomed three strapping sons with 43-year-old husband Chris. “They just rescued a part of me that was getting ready to shrivel up.

“We went to each other’s barbies and houses and thankfully, we developed this strong network that helped us adjust to our new country. They taught us how to save water, what to cook for an Australian Christmas, how to drink sangria instead of hot mulled wine…

“And then, of course, I was always deepening my faith through the people I met, seeing the trials they were going through and being honoured to work alongside them in their difficulties.

“I guess that’s what began in me a deep understanding of the power of the table and the holy and healing thing that happens around the breaking of bread and the sharing of food. And it’s a ministry I very much try to continue out of this kitchen, because our kids are older and that means I can give back more.”

Giving back is a core ideal of the Bruderhof, who choose to live in “intentional communities” – 23 of them on four continents – where around 2700 members embrace communal living and lifelong service to others.

Founded in Germany in 1920 before fleeing Nazi persecution, they try to practise what Jesus preached. “But we are not saints,” confesses plain-spoken pastor Meghan Zimmerman, 45, who trained as a professional flautist before becoming a proud mother of seven. “It’s like a huge family because in any family there are always people who rub you up wrong.

“Love is not having a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s deeds and actions and kindnesses and encouraging people and seeing the good in them, even when the bad is blatantly in your face.” She chuckles comfortably, petting her cute pugalier, Dixie. “And I’m terrible like that. I’m not the most easy person to get along with.” Anyone who elects to join – children brought up in the Anabaptist sect are free to make their own decision as adults – must take vows of poverty, obedience and faithfulness within marriage. Divorce is not an option and, like many other religions, neither are single sex relationships or sex outside marriage. Nobody has an individual bank account and the only currency is faith. Technology is used as a nine-to-five tool, not for recreation. Everything is owned in common and shared, from food to housing, chores and even clothes, which are issued from a central supply. The short-haired Brothers wear jeans and tees, while Sisters dress modestly in headscarves, joggers, ankle-length skirts and simple, button-through shirts.

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