Ethan Hughes was thirteen when his father was killed by a drunk driver. When he later learned that thirty million people have died in automobile accidents – and after he witnessed a massive oil spill in the Amazon rainforest – he vowed he wouldn’t drive a car. Biking was but the first step on a road to radical simplicity that has since caught the imagination of thousands.
Eight years ago my wife Sarah and I moved to La Plata, Missouri, and began a full-time attempt at peacemaking on an eighty-acre homestead. Our community’s name is Still Waters Sanctuary, taking inspiration from Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”
Since then, over ten thousand seekers from all over the world have visited us to experience a life without tractors, chainsaws, power tools, computers, televisions, smartphones, and most consumer goods and services. We strive to live free of electricity and petroleum products. If that sounds like we’re missing out, we are not. Instead, we’re blessed with goats, cows, chickens, ducks, bees, mushroom logs, and a herb garden. Our life includes weaving, spinning, hide tanning, canning and drying produce, and grinding grain with a pedal-powered mill. We grow food without chemicals and machines, offer our produce and hospitality without charge, and build our homes by hand with natural, local materials. We travel by bicycle, illuminate with beeswax candles, play live music, dine on wild edibles, and haul trees with horses. Life starts at sunrise with an hour of morning prayer before we move out into creation to get to work.
We’re also committed to serving in nursing homes and homeless shelters in our local community. And when our hearts call us to struggle for justice, we also occasionally practice civil disobedience and spend nights in jail. We try to live in the spirit of Wendell Berry’s words: “If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and bravely as we have ever prepared for war.”
Why Live Simply?
As peacemakers, we strive to understand the roots of war: greed, consumerism, fear, slavery, and power over others. These feed off each other. If we are attached to goods, we will have to defend them or have others defend them for us. Fear and greed lead us to start locking our doors, putting up surveillance systems, and hoarding our treasures on earth. If we call the police to deal with theft, we call upon the violent empire we are trying to move away from, since the police and military both use coercion and lethal weapons to maintain order.
To be peacemakers we must systematically remove the seeds of war from every part of our life. In the 1760s, the Quaker leader John Woolman gave up certain belongings of his – a chair, dyed clothing, a silver cup, and sugar – when he realized that their production fueled war and slavery. Woolman challenges us to test “whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions.”
Having excess is a form of war. While some people have ten times more resources than they need, others are wandering cold, homeless, and hungry. Saint Basil declares, “You with a second coat in your closet, it does not belong to you. You have stolen it from the poor one who is shivering in the cold.”
Living simply means resisting the comfort and efficiency that industrial society offers us at the expense of the environment. Almost every act in modern society destroys or fouls God’s creation: flushing the toilet, turning on a light, sipping coffee shipped across the world, buying goods made of plastic, and using fossil fuels and household cleaners. Wendell Berry writes, “Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility. . . . It is flinging God’s gift s into God’s face.”
Whenever we place our faith in mammon, wealth, and things, we enter a state of war with ourselves, with each other, with creation, and with God. The cycle feeds itself, gaining momentum as long as it goes unchecked. We must disrupt it at all costs. Any act of peacemaking is disruptive to a society built around war.
Working with Our Hands
How do we move in this direction? Lanza del Vasto (1901–1981), a student of Gandhi, off ers us a simple formula: “Work with your hands. Don’t force others to work for you. Don’t make others into slaves, even if you call them paid workers. Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth. . . . When you have to sweat to satisfy your needs, you soon know whether it is worth your while. But if it is someone else’s sweat, there is no end to our needs. . . . Do it yourself. Show that it is possible to live this way.”
Del Vasto himself sought to live out this vision. In 1948 he founded the Community of the Ark at La Borie Noble, France. This community, where Sarah and I lived for eighteen months before starting in Missouri, is the inspiration for our imperfect experiment at Still Waters Sanctuary.
At the Community of the Ark, the day was punctuated by prayer and song, and a bell of mindfulness that rang to invite everyone to stop their labor and ground themselves in the presence of God. Decisions were made collectively by consensus. We sat on handmade furniture, spent evenings by candlelight, watched members spin and weave their clothing, helped host thousands of visitors, and ate food grown organically by horse and human power. We helped put up three tons of potatoes, three tons of wheat, and 1500 quarts of tomatoes, and we helped milk seven cows for cheese, butter, and cream. With hand tools we cut and split the firewood that heated our homes and water.
All members of the Ark take a vow of poverty and live below the taxable income level, and so do not have to pay war taxes. Once a year, at the feast of Saint Michael, the Ark also gives away all the money in its coffers. This was the closest thing to the Peaceable Kingdom that we have ever experienced. We witnessed a new society built on faith and sharing, not on riches and possessions. We saw the Sermon on the Mount lived out: “Do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ . . . but strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31–33). At the Ark, our lives did not require wars for oil and materials from across the world, oppressive labor, pollution, and the killing of creation. Work with our hands was a prayer to God, and the seeds of war were removed from our lives.
Challenges in Peacemaking
There are social and political risks in taking God’s will for peace seriously. If we are called to live like Jesus and the early Christians, we must pray for the love that casts out all fear. We are called to name, unmask, and resist the systemic evils that cause war, and to stop cooperating with all unjust social structures. To avoid this call, many Christians have chosen safer and less disruptive practices, such as charity. Charity is a wonderful thing, but we cannot pretend it will eliminate the seeds of war.How do we know that we have been disruptive with our peacemaking? Some of us here have been jailed for blocking roads to nuclear weapons plants and fracking stations. We have had death threats because of our peace witness during wartime. We have been verbally attacked and ridiculed for our simple lifestyle.
Besides these outer challenges, of course, there are inner challenges as well. Despite our efforts to live peacefully, we at Still Waters Sanctuary still experience discord, anger, jealousy, sexism, racism, fear, and greed on a daily basis. Some days it seems I cannot muster the love necessary to be patient with my children. Other days I treat my beloved wife with contempt and belittlement.
For those of us pursuing radical simplicity, it’s all too easy to judge others – a temptation we must face and firmly reject. We also experience daily how we are still connected to the systems of waste, pollution, and destruction, despite our best efforts to build a peaceful world. While at the Ark, too, we experienced similar hypocrisies, paradoxes, and shortcomings. Shall we give up because of our failures? We believe we must all keep climbing the steep mountain toward God’s peaceable kingdom.
Despite our flawed attempt to live out peace and justice, over the past eight years Still Waters Sanctuary has nurtured the birth of autonomous sister communities and experiments in rural California, inner-city Reno, and Kansas City. Other groups are in the process of finding land. We created the Possibility Alliance to link all of these experiments in peacemaking and integral nonviolence.
Still Waters is also the headquarters of the Bicycling Superheroes, a seven hundred–strong organization that responds to calls for help from around the country. Dressed as superheroes, we get on our bikes and ride to where someone needs a hand. So far we’ve been led to inner-city Detroit, to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, and to twenty-six states and seven countries.
Closer to home, the White Rose Catholic Worker Farm, the Peace and Permaculture Education Center, and a land-trust community of three off-grid homesteads have all moved next door to our community. We feel blessed with all of this fruit, but still have no idea where God is leading us next.
We believe we are called to try to live out this seemingly unattainable request from God. We believe we must apply all of our gifts, strengths, resources, and lives to these tasks, and that our striving will bring us closer to God’s great goal. We pray for God’s grace so that there may be peace in our hearts and on earth. As Thomas à Kempis reminds us, “Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of trouble, attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility.”
Ethan Hughes and his wife Sarah founded Still Waters Sanctuary, a community seeking to live out a “gift economy” that doesn’t rely on money. To get in touch, contact Still Waters Sanctuary, 28408 Frontier Lane, La Plata, Missouri 63549.
Unless otherwise credited, photographs are courtesy of Katie Currid.