Inside the bizarre world of 300 radical Christians living in East Sussex
Imagine a place where there is no debt, crime or homelessness. No one worries about money, mortgages or unemployment.
The teenagers are not glued to video games and no one is obsessed with social media. No one even owns a computer or smartphone.
This could be describing a remote tribe in a far-flung country or perhaps a utopia from a TV drama, but this is, in fact, reality for a 300-strong group of radical Christians living in East Sussex.
Tucked away near the picturesque village of Robertsbridge, the Bruderhof community has given up material possessions and, shock horror, the internet, among other things, for a shared life following Jesus.
And while viewed by many as “weird”, with accusations of cult-like behaviour levelled at the community, the idyllic Darvell site away from mainstream society looks strangely alluring.
Children skip off to school happily with lots of friends and are encouraged to play in the fields and swim in the lake, while the adults go about their work. No one earns a salary or owns anything – if you need something, it will be provided.
The elderly and sick are cared for and integrated into the workplace if desired, meals are often eaten communally – and there’s a lot of singing.
“People have asked us if the Bruderhof is a cult,” says one member. “I would emphatically say ‘no’. A cult forces its members to stay.”
Bernard Hibbs came to the Bruderhof with his parents when he was nine, a couple of years after a chance visit on holiday made an impression.
“I fell in love with it,” says the 38-year-old. “It’s a great place to be a kid. The first thing my parents did was to get rid of our television and, at that time, people thought we were really weird. But now lots of people think it’s not a bad idea.”
The dad-of-three adds: “It’s not that we reject technology – we use computers and the internet as work tools if we need to. But we have decided kids do better without it. I don’t want them on social media – they should be having fun. We’re not cut off from society. We get involved in the local village activity. We go to the pub and have friends for dinner.
“My kids probably know more about the world than many of their peers.”
Bernard met his American wife Rachel, 46, at the Bruderhof and they have three children, Esther, 14, Michael, 12, and five-year-old Jonathan.
In scenes filmed for a BBC1 documentary, airing tonight, Esther says: “Other teenagers are probably on their phones or watching telly, but we don’t have those things. I don’t miss them because I’ve never had them.”
Bernard adds: “My kids do get presents, but practical things often made on site. If you ask kids what they really want, it’s time with their parents.”
A century-old German community, the Bruderhof has 3,000 members in 23 settlements worldwide. The British Darvell site, founded in 1971, has everything from a factory that makes classroom and play equipment to a medical and dental clinic, as well as their own animals and fruit and vegetables.
“In a normal day, families get up at 6am, eat breakfast together at 6.15am, then it’s school and work from 7.30am to 5pm, with a two-hour communal lunch break,” says Bernard.
At school, kids study all morning, but it’s “like summer camp” in the afternoon.
“It’s a disciplined way of life,” says Bernard. “We always eat together, we think it’s vital.”
As the outreach director, Bernard is one of the few to be given a computer and smartphone. Articulate and affable, he’s keen to sell the Bruderhof as an alternative to the modern-day rat-race. “I have no worries, no fears, no mortgage, I don’t own anything,” he says.
“There are 10 cars for 300 people. If I need a pair of shoes, I’ll ask for it and get it. Same-day shopping,” he quips.
But what about other rules? It’s a community where you are not always allowed to make decisions about your life, where families can be asked to move house if it’s deemed better for the greater good and where a traditional uniform from a bygone era is worn.
“We all want to dress modestly,” says Bernard, referring to the trousers and skirts with shirts, and head coverings for women that look a little handmaid-esque.
Hannah’s family has lived in the Bruderhof for three generations. The 18-year-old is about to leave for a taste of the outside world before considering joining as a fully fledged member.
She says: “The clothes are functional. People think we’re oppressed, but we’re not.”On a trip to London, however, Hannah does admit feeling like someone from “a different timezone, someone from the middle ages” and she wonders what else is out there.
Part of Bernard’s job is to set up internships overseas, while his wife Rachel, a physiotherapist, helps young people get into university.
The community collectively raises tens of thousands of pounds for charity.
“It’s healthy for young people to leave,” he says, although admits he hopes his children eventually stay at the Bruderhof.
One young person who questioned everything is 26-year-old Hardy, who became “a disturbance” in his teens, ultimately leading to his family taking some time away.
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