One could argue that I own all twenty-two cars in the lot outside my house, as well as various vans, trucks, and two buses. So do the 260 other people at Fox Hill, the Bruderhof community where I live. Sharing all things in common is practical in a number of surprising ways, which is good because all members of our church community have taken a personal vow of poverty and don’t own anything individually. For one thing, most of us work and go to school on our communal premises, within easy walking or biking distance. We grow much of our own food, and a lot of the rest is purchased in bulk by a designated shopper. Many folk at Fox Hill may go days or even weeks without needing a car – or money, for that matter – at all.
So what happens when you do go on a trip, say, for a scheduled x-ray at the nearby hospital, or an outing to visit friends? You drop a note at the steward’s office (preferably the day before your journey, emergencies excepted). Dave or Nick, who steward the vehicle fleet and the community funds, will set you up with the keys to a car that suits your needs. Party of six? Here’s a minivan. Elderly? Something roomy with easier entry on the passenger side. Do you need a driver? They will find you one. Cash or credit card for a copay at the hospital, or for coffee or dinner with your friends? Here’s an envelope that more than covers your request, and includes a small reminder to save your receipts and tally up your totals.
In a way it’s similar to having your business pick up your work tab, but we’ve settled on this system for a higher reason than efficiency. We’re accountable with funds and (hopefully) frugal in our spending because taking more than our fair share of the goods of the earth is not consistent with our beliefs. As stated in the Bruderhof’s Foundations of our Faith and Calling, this vow of poverty is part of “gladly renouncing all private property, personal claims, and worldly attachments and honors.”
All able-bodied members work, but any earnings belong to everyone, whether that work is on or off the community. Those who work for an outside employer direct their salaries to the central coffer; members who live in smaller urban communities might work in construction or health care. The rest of us contribute our labor to various community affairs: teaching in the schools, caring for the sick, growing and preparing food, and yes, writing and editing for the publishing house. Much of the community’s revenue comes from the woodworking and medical equipment manufacturing businesses in which many members spend much of their working day.
But no matter which of these professions we participate in, none of us gets paid, and each of us is committed to being accountable. I doubt Nick or Dave has the time to scan every returned receipt, much less give feedback about it, though of course they are obligated to bring up concerns if funds are misspent. To me, accountability is simply a reminder to myself that I’m part of a bigger family; my actions, including spending, affect the whole. (It’s much the same with clothing, hobbies, or home decor; beyond the items we make ourselves, the onus is on each of us to decide between needs and wants – and whether our yen for trends is really worth everyone else paying for it.)
It’s considered common courtesy to make sure your car is returned clean. The shed by the parking lot is home to a pressure washer and industrial vacuum system (as well as car seats of every conceivable size). Also, no car should be sitting there with less than half a tank of gas, and to that end, each car key has its own gas card in an attached sleeve.
My husband, Jason, is not inclined toward lamentations and hand-wringing, but one thing that reliably sets him off is a car with muddy floor mats or a low tank. I once teased him that when he had his own vehicle it was never spotless and rarely tanked up, but he countered immediately with, “That was mine; these are ours. What if the next people to step inside are off to the hospital with a baby on the way?” And he was absolutely right. In these circumstances, love is a fitted-out car.
But it’s also a shared laundry machine or lawn mower, a bike, a blender – anything a household might commonly invest in, only to use it a few times a week. It makes spiritual as well as practical sense to use these items communally.
How does this work with food? A level below our central dining hall, there’s a common pantry where families can pick up freshly baked bread, brown eggs (thanks to Christopher, our chicken farmer), milk, butter, vegetables, the best homemade strawberry and apricot jam (at least that’s what’s in the cooler now), and other household basics from trash bags to tinfoil. Did I mention coffee? Franklin’s ethically sourced “Hof Roast.”
Beyond the one communal meal a day prepared by our dedicated cooks, much of what’s freely available for family meals is homegrown or homemade. Having spent years cobbling together family dinners on a budget, I find this remarkable on a daily basis. But we do have a communal budget, and although our willing store-keepers will order in things beyond the staples, there’s a common goal to “live simply that others may simply live” – my grandpa John’s favorite slogan – mindful that much of the rest of the world is not so blessed, and anything we save might go to help hungrier people.
Taking money out of the picture turns any practical assistance into soul care. Nowhere is that more clearly illustrated than with medical support, as our family has had reason to rediscover: Last summer Jason was fielding at a friendly softball game in his usual high-energy way when he crashed into a tree. It sounds impossible to do, but he was running backwards to catch a high fly ball and didn’t know how close he was to the treeline. He tripped over a root and was thrown against the tree trunk at full force; we all saw his head snap forward, and then he was out cold. Before I could even get to him, three of his friends converged, two of them paramedics. They kept him still while others ran for a backboard and neck brace, and before the ambulance arrived he was stably strapped in. He woke up to see a support team gathered closely round, while my sensible daughter and a friend ran home to gather hospital essentials. Our minister said a prayer as the gurney rolled up, and we could see the rest of the game spectators praying too.
On the way in, Jason’s primary care doctor (and fellow member), Jake, called me to give further instructions which I strove to hear over the ambulance siren. He stayed in touch through ER intake, walking us through tests we should request and advocating with the hospital staff; I was not left alone to try to make calm judgment calls while praying down my panic against paralysis or worse. Jason was horizontal for weeks with intense spinal pain, and Jake showed up every day to figure out the best medication and treatment, consulting with specialists and therapists till he was up and running again (though not in softball).
Meanwhile, even without the help of a tree I was starting to experience some symptoms of my own: severe joint pain, exhaustion, and general clunkiness. Turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis, an affliction I had not considered at all except perhaps in association with aging sailors. Like Jake, my doctor Anneke wouldn’t quit till things were figured out. She continues to check in frequently as life goes forward, albeit at a new speed (or lack thereof). Had we been an isolated household, either of these episodes could have devastated not only our health but also our finances and employment.
I think of the community nurses who do prenatal and baby-care home visits, including showing up on a Saturday evening when that baby has an earache. Of how they cover surgical recovery or end-of-life care for our elderly. Their work is love, as they aren’t earning a cent more than the ninety-year-old they are caring for.
Some days I do miss carrying a credit card on me; I miss the buzz of gratification that comes along with an impulse buy. (I don’t miss the regret that frequently follows right after.) But those days are rare. With each year, it becomes clearer to me why I live this way. It’s not just for security, although yes, there is peace in the knowledge that I am not living one health catastrophe away from ruin, or worrying about student loans or mortgages.
God has provided us an extended family who try to love and care for each other without letting dollar bills get in the way. It’s a big family, and so I am rich.