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The Bruderhof in Austria: An Anabaptist Homecoming by Andrew Zimmerman

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The Bruderhof in Austria:
An Anabaptist Homecoming

As an avid (if sluggish) cyclist, the almost-Mediterranean climate of Austria’s northern wine country suits me well. No categorized-climb Alpine passes here: my adopted homeland is all gently rolling hills, sun-splashed vineyards, and the occasional cherry or apricot tree. Each rise tops out to a 360 degree view, its horizon punctuated by church steeples. When feeling particularly lazy, I forsake the vineyards and head out along the Danube, where one can cycle a whole day with only a trace of elevation. Minimal suffering; minimal bragging rights too. The sandy soil, covered with sparse sedges and pierced by rocky outcroppings, reminds me a little of the Galilean hills I visited some fifteen years ago, and as I cycle on a weekend I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus and the wine.

No, not the wedding at Cana. Rather the time when, early in his ministry, he answered the disciples of John, who came with a question about fasting and the propriety thereof, with this: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are ruined, but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt. 9:16–17).

It’s a metaphor easily understood by Jesus’ contemporaries, who knew that actively fermenting wine stretches a leather bag at the seams, rendering it foolhardy to reuse the next season. (Less obvious to us perhaps, with our glass bottles and our carbon footprint-reducing bags-in-boxes.) Nevertheless, it’s an indication—or rather a reinforcement, coming so soon after the vertigo-inducing Sermon on the Mount—that Jesus came to flip this world upside down, to turn over more than the tables in the temple, to bring a new message: a new spirit that required new vessels—our cleansed hearts—to receive it. Trying to force new ideas, new inspirations, new life, Jesus says, into old paradigms and older prejudices brings disaster.

So foolhardy as it might be, this is exactly what my family did three years ago. Sent by the Bruderhof movement, of which we are members, from upstate New York to Austria’s agrarian borderland with Czechia, a land inhabited almost five hundred years ago by, in some estimates, 20,000 Anabaptists living in intentional communities, we attempted to start our own Anabaptist community.  Did we not consider the hubris, the very audacity, of this? And on top of that, we moved into a farmstead owned for hundreds of years by Dominican monks. Why did we think our meager attempts at community of goods would be anything worthy of the name?

One reason, ironically, is that in our new homeland, religious communities of both Catholic or Protestant stripe are nothing too out of the ordinary. Fifty or more former Anabaptist community sites lie within about an hour’s drive, as do at least twenty imposing Catholic monastic edifices. Perhaps due to their overwhelmingly Catholic background, our new neighbors grasped our communal lifestyle much quicker than the New Yorkers I was used to. All I had to say was, “We’re like an order, but built around families; and free church, not Catholic,” and they got it, with no suspicious glances or muttering about weird religious folk. We moved quickly past tedious discussions of the outward structure of life (the how) into more important topics (the why).

Another aspect that made our landing possible was the friendship and support across denominational boundaries, from Catholic bishops and parish priests to pastors and organizers in the vibrant Austrian Free Church, including Pentecostals, Baptists, and Mennonites. The bi-annual Round Table of Reconciliation (in German, Weg der Versöhnung: Runder Tisch), to which we were immediately invited, was crucial in helping stretch this old wineskin to hold our frothing new community. A highlight was an event held last November in Vienna’s largest cathedral, the Stephansdom, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Vienna. A panel of Catholics and Protestants discussed religious freedoms and how to mend the rifts of the past, and a public worship service in the Dom ended with a joint prayer from the archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, and Bruderhof pastor Heinrich Arnold.

Such an event would hardly have been possible twenty years ago, and thus the fortuitousness of our arrival here. It was only in 2013 that the free churches of Austria were legally recognized, enabling them to start denominational schools and receive various forms of funding and tax breaks. Prior to that, persecution (not too strong a word, from my discussions with the elder statesmen of this movement) made leaving the state church to join a free church a difficult choice, jeopardizing as it could career advancement, school choice, and the ability to avail oneself of sacraments such as marriage and burial.

Our arrival in Austria, then, coincides with what might be termed a ‘sweet spot.’ Twenty years ago, we would not have been welcomed, let alone acknowledged as an official church. Twenty years in the future, conservative Austria perhaps will have gone the way of liberal progressiveness so prevailing in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European nations.

Another factor helping us fit in here was economic. Many other Bruderhof settlements have chosen light manufacturing (furniture, wooden toys, signage) as a primary income stream, but our property came bundled with a three-hectare field, and so we took a leap of faith into organic market gardening. Two advantages became immediately apparent: integration into the neighborhood community of farmers as we asked for advice on climate, pests, regulations, or to borrow the occasional piece of equipment; and integration into the local economic fabric through our participation in farmers’ markets and our vegetable box subscription service.

Sure, three years in we’re still the new kids on the block. Our neighbors a half a kilometer down the road have been operating their ‘Winzerhof’ since 1681—that’s thirteen generations, in which (as they proudly inform me) the firstborn son of each generation must be named Franz. And yet after three years of helping out with fire department fundraisers, the annual raising of the maypole, trash pick-up along the main drag, and the November rabbit hunt, the core group of village participants (fire chief, mayor, head of the hunting club) seem to appreciate our contributions to village life. When it comes to making new friends, the Lord helps those who help themselves.

The architecture of the Weinviertel has also helped. Villages here—at least their historic cores—are built with houses side by side on narrow lots, long and skinny. This communal architecture keeps houses warm in winter and cool in summer. Each courtyard or Hof, reachable through a large gate from the street—large enough to admit a carriage four hundred years ago, or an SUV today—contains a world unto itself. But you never know what’s behind each facade, as the street fronts can be deceiving, and front porches are nonexistent. It is only when you walk the back lanes of the village along the fields and vineyards that you see into people’s lives. Some are tidy, with fountains, grape arbors, and roses. Others are muddy, with chickens, pigs, and maybe an antiquated tractor. Such construction is perfect for a community like ours; when we want to welcome neighbors for a summer afternoon’s block party or a Christmas carol singalong we open our big front doors and become part of the main street. When we need to close out the world for a few hours, Benedict Option-style, ‘clang’ go the gates, and we are alone. The flexibility to swap transparency for seclusion at a moment’s notice is underrated.

Our three years here have not been without hiccups. The COVID pandemic had two effects which, while not unique to us, forced us into new ways of intentional community. The first Austrian lockdown, which hit only nine months after we had begun living together, forced us to gather all the more intensely. All the young adults who were attending colleges or universities came back home for several months, and our sons in middle school switched to homeschooling. Living on top of each other in a strict climate of minimal permissible outdoor activity, and with no concert halls, restaurants, or museums open was strenuous to be sure, but we learned to make the most of it. We rediscovered singing—from sacred choral works that Easter to raucous karaoke nights. Movie nights were popular, as were several movie days (can you say ‘Lord of the Rings marathon?’) and not a few board game tournaments. Of course there was plenty of work to do on our fledgling organic market garden, between spreading compost, erecting hoop houses, and launching a new website.

The intensification of community was one lockdown byproduct. The other became apparent only in the periods of relative freedom between the lockdowns and continues now, after (we hope) the days of lockdowns are over. We experienced a flood of guests from all over Europe, all longing, to a greater or lesser extent, for a deeper experience of community, for a church that does more than Sunday worship and Tuesday Bible study, for a people committed to each other. We juggled these visits, sometimes drinking too much coffee and neglecting the garden, and sometimes wearing out our guests with full days of gardening. I’m not sure we ever got it just right, but many of the personal encounters and relationships forged then are still ongoing.

Even so, COVID didn’t drive everyone to seek community. For some, it had the opposite effect. The local Catholic parish priest and several free church pastors have told me that too many of their parishioners have gotten used to staying at home. They say they are just fine without church, without community, leaving their spiritual shepherds with the challenge of drawing them back into the fold. These pastors and priests ponder now, what is that essential something, that value-added service, that the church has to offer? Our small community, by its very nature tight-knit, has luckily escaped the worst of that, so I have no advice for them, merely encouragement. I feel privileged, though, that during, after, and in spite of the pandemic we celebrated new life in many forms: a baby girl born in our community, several teenagers and young adults getting baptized, and even this summer a young couple planning to marry.

But it hasn’t all been Catan tournaments and spiritual renewal. This spring, almost exactly two years after the pandemic began, a new upheaval hit: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The initial wave of refugees had money. Many of them came to Vienna, that international melting pot at the crossroads of central Europe. A few weeks later the poorer ones came. Vienna was quickly overloaded. Although we were able to lodge a few families traveling to Switzerland, we are too far out in the country to provide much practical housing. We try to help in other ways, mainly by sending teams to help Caritas and Train of Hope in the processing and welcoming centers in Vienna. This is a drop in the bucket; and yet to be able to offer help, however meager, is simply to answer Jesus’ challenge in Matthew 25: do it for the least of them, and you do it for me.

In aid of this admittedly lofty aim to serve Christ in all humankind, we, in our church membership vows, profess to give up all property and to live simply, in complete freedom from possessions. But is this actually possible? Of course one effect of the war has been inflation, which has hit us like everyone else, making us ponder what to trim from our budgets. We try with less meat, less beer (the local wines are so far still unaffected by inflation), less skiing on local slopes in the winter and less summiting of Alps in the summer. This in turn reminds us that as Christians we should not need a lot of these extras; in fact we should not desire the things of this world and would do well to trim that fat vigorously. And of course we are not actually suffering nor in any great deprivation, certainly not compared to the refugees still streaming into Vienna.

And not in comparison to people who lived in this area centuries ago. The residents of Moravia, Bohemia, and the wider Danube Valley (we live where these regions vaguely overlap) have dealt with marauding armies at least since the Hussite Wars of the early fifteenth century. The nearby town of Retz was attacked in 1425. Thousands of townspeople were killed or taken prisoner, while in the Dominican abbey, which still stands today, the monks were herded into the church and slaughtered, and their prior was thrown down a well. The Anabaptists of the early sixteenth century fled Tirol and ended up in Moravia, where they were partially protected by the wealthy Liechtenstein family but also intermittently and vigorously persecuted by the Hapsburgs. The stories of their trials, which we read as we visit nearby Mikulov and Brno in Czechia, put our present struggles into perspective. No one rounded up our menfolk and marched them six hundred kilometers to the galley ships at Trieste on the Adriatic, as happened to the community at nearby Steinebrunn in 1539. Our plague caused inconvenience if not outright suffering, but not to the extent that one-third of us died, as in the Black Death. No one has thrown me (albeit just a humble free church pastor) down a well.

Want to see how we’re making out? Pay us a visit; we’re only an hour from Vienna by car or train, and there is plenty of work in our organic garden if that’s your thing. You’re welcome to join us as we celebrate God’s gifts (usually with a glass of wine), and roll with his punches (usually with more wine). The ebb and flow of life and death, new COVID variants and new births, crop failures and bountiful harvests, are simply God’s rhythms. The wineskin, old as it is, stretches, through some miracle, to contain our new efforts. Perhaps the day of reckoning is still to come, but so far, so good. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” I recall from Norman Maclean as I pedal along the Danube, passing castles where everyone from Anabaptist preachers to Crusader kings were held captive, and hills where wine has been made for a millennia: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Andrew Zimmerman lives at the Gutshof, a Bruderhof in Austria, with his wife and three children.