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  • "The deep divide between the lives of young and old that is so pervasive in our society is unfortunate and a sign of a disoriented culture with inverted priorities." Tweet This
  • "On the Bruderhof, grieving families and widows and widowers can be comforted and cared for in ways unimaginable for many who lost loved ones...during shelter in place." Tweet This
  • "One of the best things we can do to benefit the elderly is to raise children of good character who respect their elders and who...can learn to welcome and show care for them."  Tweet This

In April 2019, my wife Rebecca and I took our newborn daughter Lillian with us to visit the Bruderhof community in Rifton, New York. We wanted to learn more about their radically Christian way of life and to understand better why it is they believe so strongly that marriage and family are essential to personal and social health. The Bruderhof is a 100-year-old intentional Christian movement that lives in community, shares income, skills and other resources to take care of each other in the spirit of the early Christians. The group was founded in Germany in 1920 in the aftermath of World War I. Currently there are approximately 2,900 members living in 23 communities, or campuses, worldwide.

During our visit, we were treated with the utmost kindness and were amazed by the gentleness and simplicity of the people. But we were also blown away by their sophisticated approach to industry—they had several highly successful community-owned manufacturing companies—which gave the people a common work and provided community members with the means to live. They even employed the elderly, who seemed so full of joy to be useful. 

In late March, it made the news that Community Playthings, a Bruderhof company that makes wooden toys, stepped up to produce personal protection equipment (PPE) for the mid-Hudson Valley Region and your local hospitals. The teams manufactured face shields, privacy screens, disposable thermometer covers and, grimly enough, coffins. Some of their older people and others sewed masks for neighbors.  

As the crisis in our nursing homes raged during the COVID-19 pandemic, my mind turned to the Burderhof, wondering how their elderly were faring and what we could learn from them about how to better incorporate the elderly into broader society. So I reached out to Johann Huleatt, Bruderhof’s Outreach Director who hosted my family during our visit, to discuss these issues. Below is my interview with Huleatt, which has been edited for clarity.

Michael ToscanoThe goods of the Bruderhof community are held entirely in common; your lives are lived in common. You work together, educate together, eat together, and your families and members live in big multi-family buildings with common kitchens and bathrooms. During the pandemic, this might present some problems for the elderly and those with underlying conditions. How have you as a community protected your elderly and ill and how has the pandemic affected life there?

Johann Huleatt: Social distancing, for us as for everyone, has compounded the sense of uncertainty and confusion in this time of the pandemic. To be physically distant from each other challenges the shared sense of community and relationships that are vital to our lives together. After all, the Bruderhof is an expression of Christian discipleship practiced in part by living in community. 

Prior to the pandemic, we shared most everything, including daily worship services and a noonday or evening meal in a communal dining hall; we’d been living that way for the last century. Of course, all that changed. To protect the health of the elderly and maintain safety, worship services migrated to phones or online, and shared meals had to be restricted to immediate family or small groups. 

As Dr. Anneke Maendel, a Bruderhof member and a physician with Esopus Medical in Ulster County, told Jane Anderson from the Times Herald Record on May 18: “We’ve been working on restructuring our community to ensure social distancing so everyone remains safe. And we’ve been proactive in educating our people on that.”

Families now eat in their own homes, instead of in dining halls. But that kind of isolating does not mean total isolation. Hot meals are delivered to the elderly and disabled, and their other needs are met. Dr. Maendel describes it well: 

We’ve tried to allow elderly people to remain in their homes. We pick up their laundry and return it, bring groceries to them...Even though we are social distancing, we’re connected and involved. We try to continue to share in each other’s lives on an ongoing, daily basis. There is a large use of phone and technology. We conduct conference calls most days, to catch up, to worship; sometimes, it’s an open forum for people to share their joys and their challenges.

For better or worse, the digital revolution has been accelerated within the Bruderhof and worldwide by COVID-19. But also, I think more people now have a deeper appreciation for stable extended families, an understanding of the pros and cons of distance learning, the convenience and limitations of telemedicine, the importance of effective local government, and welcoming manufacturing and pharmaceutical production back to United States from China.  

ToscanoOne thing that amazed me when I visited your Woodcrest Community in New York is that everyone had a job to do. At Bruderhof companies, older people would work at tasks appropriate to their age, keeping them useful and in the mix with people of all ages. In broader American society, we often see a deep divide in the kinds of lives that young and old lead. But that's not so with the Bruderhof. Why?

Huleatt: The deep divide between the lives of young and old that is so pervasive in our society is unfortunate and a sign of a disoriented culture with inverted priorities. The elderly can offer a wealth of knowledge based upon experience that is usually offered generously when asked. To disregard such a resource is to ignore wisdom. As the biblical figure of Job asks “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12). On the Bruderhof, we seek out our older members’ advice in many aspects of life, from practical tips on parenting to spiritual mentoring for young people.

Life in Christian community enables older people to live with an extended family as most older people once did. And we go out of our way to give them space to contribute, both at home and, if they choose, in the workplace. As my friend and mentor, the late Bruderhof pastor Johann Christoph Arnold, wrote in his book Rich in Years:

Most people think about the meaning of ageing or seek for purpose at the end of their life. Many ask themselves, 'How can I make my last years more enjoyable, more exciting?’ Wouldn’t a better question be, 'How can God use my last days to his purpose?' 

ToscanoThe older people of the Bruderhof are totally engaged with the life of the whole community. During quarantine, how were they kept engaged and how was their membership expressed? 

Huleatt: During the first months of COVID-19 social distancing, many of the elderly at the Bruderhof were reversed quarantined to protect their health. Some of the elderly that could sew found meaning by sewing masks. Others found gardening and corresponding with letters, email, phone, and Zoom to be a pleasant diversion. In general, technology helped to overcome the deleterious effect of social isolation and reverse quarantine. As the pandemic subsided in different locations, the reverse quarantine measures were lifted, and once again our elderly are an integrated, vibrant, yet socially distant part of our communities and day-to-day work and worship. 

But even those who are bedridden have opportunities to contribute. In a visit to a home for senior citizens several years ago, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged them to pray: “Pray for the church and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world.” Those words seem so appropriate for 2020.  

"Older people belong in intact families with two parents and extended networks of other kin or congregants. Resilient small platoons are able to take on the care of those older people—as they cared for their children, they are cared for in their turn." Johann Huleatt

ToscanoAs you know, tragedy has struck nursing homes across the country. COVID has rampaged and killed many thousands. Not only that, the only idea we have to keep our older people in nursing homes safe is more quarantine. This poses the risk of many older people dying in isolation. Is there something that America can learn from the way the Bruderhof treat their elderly about keeping them healthy and giving them community?

Huleatt: When our older people were reverse quarantining, we took care of them by bringing them meals, doing their laundry, and, of course, giving them any medical care they needed. Because of our shared life and our commitment to each other, a few young people could leave their usual jobs and join the elders in quarantine to look after them. Fortunately, this preemptive measure protected our older people for the first month and a half of the shelter in place order. After about six weeks however, grandparents, children and grandchildren all began to question the need for such separation when no COVID-19 had been detected or introduced. Medical staff worked with families to enable some grandparents to reunite with their extended families while maintaining reasonable health precautions.

In neighboring senior citizens homes, a closed perimeter to prevent infection could not be maintained; workers and others came and went, and COVID-19 could not be kept at bay. The effect was deadly. To support the local senior citizen residences in the surrounding area, we sent young nurses, certified nursing assistants, and emergency medical technicians. We also sent similar teams to help staff the emergency field hospital set up in Central Park in New York City. A number of young people volunteered at regional food banks and local food pantries as well. Because our people were taken care of and protected, we had the bandwidth to be able share the skills and human resources needed to combat the virus, and we were thankful to be able to do so. During the height of the pandemic, John Donne’s poem For Whom the Bell Tolls was more than apropos.

On the Bruderhof, grieving families and widows and widowers can be comforted and cared for in ways unimaginable for many who lost loved ones in New York City and elsewhere during shelter in place. 

What can America learn from the Bruderhof about how to treat their elders? One thing we can say is that older people belong in intact families with two parents and extended networks of other kin or congregants. Resilient small platoons are able to take on the care of those older people—as they cared for their children, they are cared for in their turn. 

Toscano: What have you gained personally from your relationship with the elderly?

This is something I think our society needs to contemplate more intensively. When I think of older people, a number of men and women come to mind to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. With this comes an obligation to carry on in the direction, spirit, and enthusiasm that they instilled in me. First and foremost, naturally, are my parents, though of course it’s impossible to quickly distill the many things I learned from them without sounding trite. Probably the most important lesson my parents taught me is the grace and restorative gift of unconditional love. Particularly as a young person I recall moments when a word of encouragement from my parents meant everything. 

I can attest that finding my pathway of faith, committing to a life of discipleship, being blessed with my amazing wife Nancy and our five children would not have happened without the prayers and guidance of elderly teachers, mentors, pastors, and friends.

On a broader scale, the elderly can help a society to discern a balance between the tension of liberty and tradition. This virtue is prudence, which Edmund Burke identified as “the god of this lower world.”  An imprudent understanding of liberty that aims to spur on cultural or political change by dismissing traditions, customs, and morality results in a form of unbridled brutality. We can learn how ugly this can become from historical examples such as the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge regime, or the Rwandan genocide. On a smaller but still tragic scale, we see it today with egregious crimes fueled by irrational hate—the most recent instance of this was the killing of Davell Gardiner Jr., a one-year-old shot by masked criminals in Brooklyn. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster, a German writer and educator, says, 

A child is educated not by having lengthy talks about 'big' things, but by patiently teaching him to carry out the smallest and most ordinary tasks properly. Character is formed through training in the smallest, mundane things—in the living room, and not in the stream of the world. 

One of the best things we can do to benefit the elderly is to raise children of good character who respect their elders and who, already while young, can learn to welcome and show care for them. 

*Photo: Courtesy of the Bruderhof