Heini Arnold and the Early Woodcrest Community

by Ramon Sender Barayon

Presented by Julius H. Rubin at the Elizabethtown Anabaptist Conference, June, 1993.

When I was twenty-two I visited Woodcrest in September, 1957, having heard about the group from a friend who had just returned from the Macedonia Cooperative Community in Georgia. At first glance, Woodcrest seemed idyllic. Children played in the shade of the sugar maples while their parents relaxed nearby. Dress was casual, the men in jeans and sport shirts, the women in print skirts and blouses. I introduced myself to the guest warden (who is among our conference presenters) and was assigned a bunk bed in the Bughouse, the single men's quarters. My roommate was a Hutterite lad who recently had become a Novice member. I was impressed with the obvious stability of relationships at the Bruderhof, especially because my own marriage had fallen apart that year for the second time. I desperately missed my two-year-old daughter, Xavie, whom I had not seen for some months and with whom I had bonded closely as her houseparent during her first year. I wistfully watched youngsters play on the swings near the parking lot, and thought how happy I would be if Xavie could grow up in such a perfect children's environment!
To the casual weekend visitor, the Christian aspects of the Bruderhof belief system were not immediately apparent during those early Woodcrest years. At guest meetings, my religious and/or philosophical questions usually were turned aside with the remark, "Just live and work with us, and everything will become clear." So I cheerfully continued living on the fringes of the community in the manner of all Bruderhof long- term guests. The almost nightly brotherhood meetings were not open, even to serious aspirants. I had to be satisfied with the occasional guest meetings, the invitations to family breakfasts and supper evenings, and the discussions in the Bug House.
When I talked with one of the sisters about my serious interest in joining, she explained that the Bruderhof did not believe in divorce. If I did not want to remain a single and celibate brother for the rest of my life, I had better try to get back together with my wife, whom I shall call Rosemary. I was dubious about this possibility since I had suffered a recent break-up with Rosemary, and she currently was involved with one of my best friends. However, the sister offered to help if she could.
Gradually, through reading "The Plough" quarterly and Eberhard Arnold's writings, I realized that without accepting Jesus as my personal savior there could be no permanent place for me in the community. I had discovered Meister Eckhardt earlier that year which awakened my interest in Christian mysticism. Perhaps because of this, I did not find it difficult to merge with the 'group mind' or to accept the intensely Christian character of the Gemeindestunde worship services. Once I was allowed to attend these Sunday evening meetings, Heini finally came into focus as the charismatic Servant who led the membership in group prayer.
Looking back today on the experience of these first few months at Woodcrest, I see how I gradually accepted the prevailing spirit that whispered, "We are the chosen ones. We are living the true Christian life just like the early church fathers." The underlying message was, "Die to your self-will, your little ego, because only by this death can you be reborn as a true brother."
About this time, my wife Rosemary visited with her current lover. The symbolism of the bright red dress that she wore was not lost on the brotherhood. My daughter blended into the two-year-olds' group, and I watched her with delight as she played on the swings under the trees where I had first watched the Woodcrest children and yearned for her presence.
Rosemary remained defensive and aloof especially when some brothers convinced her boyfriend to leave. But when Heini came up to her after Sunday lunch and inquired how things were going, to my amazement, she burst into tears. He took her up to his office for a chat. I had never before seen anyone or anything bring Rosemary to tears. When I drove her and Xaverie back to the city later that day, it was obvious that Heini had made a profound impression.
By January of the following year, 1958, Rosemary and Xavie had moved permanently to Woodcrest, and a few months later we took our novice vows together. We continued to live separately and sit apart at meals and meetings. Heini warned me not to make any demands on her, as Rosemary needed time to heal from the destructiveness of our previous life together.
"She is a very unusual person," he said to me. "Never expect her to be a woman like other women. You must make allowances for her. She is a person of unique qualities."
I could only murmur in assent. At this point, I wanted to be like any other happy Bruderhof couple, snuggled up with my own sweet and obedient wife and delightful daughter. How Rosemary would fit into that fantasy remained unclear.
One day I visited Xavie and found Rosemary reading a thick manuscript, The Life of Johann Christoph Blumhardt. Intrigued, I glanced over her shoulder but she immediately closed it. "Heini made me promise not to show it to anyone," she said. When I brought up the subject of the manuscript, Heini acted mysteriously about it. After gazing at me for some time, as if gauging my spiritual depth, he nodded his head.
"It's a very important work, and usually we don't share it with anyone until they are in baptism preparation," he said. "In Rosemary's case I made an exception because she is highly intelligent. A very unusual person. Never expect her to be just a typical sister -- no, no! It will demand much of you when your marriage is healed." Suddenly he smiled. "Of course, Ramon, you may read it too. Just please, I ask you, do not show it to others." Blumhardt's account of the ever-present danger of demonic possession staggered me with the message of evil as a personified force on earth.
Some months later a difficult problem arose involving Miriam, a Novice who lived across the hall from Rosemary and had been in our baptism preparation group. I admired her outgoing personality, as one given to light-hearted remarks. She became withdrawn and hostile. Late one night, I received a call to come to Heini's apartment. I arrived to find twenty brothers and sisters gathered around Miriam who was lying on the bed thrashing around strangely. We sang some hymns at Heini's request to drown out the obscenities that she was screaming. Her behavior resembled the possessed young woman in Blumhardt's book.
My first reaction was disbelief. She was just pretending, I thought. She too had read Blumhardt . Obviously, she had intuited Heini's fascination with the demonic and would provide Heini with a chance to battle Satan and prove again that Christ is Victor! The next day she was moved into special quarters in the Baby House and placed under twenty-four hour guard. Every few days I would be included in the group called to gather at her side at odd hours. During intervals of lucidity, Miriam appeared at meals seated beside Heini, with a sweet, faraway expression on her face. Of course she had Heini totally fascinated. He allowed her to talk at Brotherhood Meetings and treated her as one of his daughters.
When not 'under attack,' she was, according to Heini, very perceptive on religious matters. However she was taking up a great deal of his time. One night, there was a flurry of activity and the sound of a car leaving the parking lot. In the morning, I heard that Miriam had thrust both her arms through a window and severely cut her wrists. She was stitched up by a friendly doctor who promised not to report the matter to the authorities. That same day, a work crew replaced all the glass panes in her room with unbreakable Plexiglas.
Some members "fell into difficulties" trying to understand Heini's Blumhardt- inspired point of view. They were temporarily excluded for questioning authority, for the exercise of conscience. The crisis dragged on for months until Heini himself confessed he had identified too deeply with Blumhardt. With many pressing problems clamoring for his attention, he admitted that Miriam might be mentally disturbed. The Brotherhood decided to institutionalize her for treatment.
In the Spring before Miriam's illness, Rosemary and I were included in a baptism preparation group which was a shattering experience for me -- a true ego death. Heini pulled out all the props shoring up my identity, all the excuses I had for my previous actions. After a confession session, alone in my room, I realized that nothing was left inside me except a silent emptiness. Out of that vacuum came an unassailable experience of God's love for me. Later, I was able to express to Rosemary my deep sorrow over the wrongs I had done her. She seemed to accept my words, although without any thaw in the frozen relationship. Although we were not baptized into membership, we were invited to attend brotherhood meetings, seated together for the first time as the other husbands and wives. At our first meeting, a brother who had been committed for shock treatment came in to address the circle. After he mumbled a few incoherent phrases, Heini shouted at him to leave until he could find true repentance. For the first time I was jolted by the severity of our Servant's treatment of a 'down-and-out' brother.
I began to join Rosemary and Xavie at after-siesta snack times in their apartment. I moved from the shop to the Community Playthings office to assist the Office Manager, and interacted with Rosemary on a daily basis in her role as secretary-typist and in a second baptism preparation group which began to meet on the top floor of the schoolhouse. Annemarie, Heini Arnold's wife, confided to me that "You and Rosemary will be moving together very soon," and explained that the housemothers were preparing an apartment for us.
I began to feel some anxiety regarding the preparation group and my relationship with Rosemary. I couldn't figure out what I was expected to die to that I had not died to before. The 'ego death' experience had been extraordinarily painful, and I shied away from having to undergo it again. After all, had not God assured me of His love and acceptance? Hadn't I experienced His forgiveness for all my past sins? Was I supposed to confess them all over again? And what about Rosemary? She still was so distant, so uninterested in me except perhaps as Xavie's father.
Rosemary had caught fire. She spoke at each meeting. She challenged me to participate more, and once brought me to tears by telling me that I loved the marriage more than I loved Christ. Later with Heini she again taunted me for being "soft." At this point something snapped inside me, and I lost trust in the marriage- healing process that Heini was overseeing. Rosemary's sharp edges had come to the fore, reminding me of all the previous reasons why I could not and would not live with her. I was filled with anxiety, desperate to leave but immobilized by my illusory hope of healing a failed marriage and continuing my relationship with my daughter.
After a year of celibacy, I felt an compulsive urge to masturbate, aware that from the context of Bruderhof teachings, I was committing a sexual sin that if confessed would result in severe punishment or exclusion from the community. Over the next week I basically masturbated my way out of Woodcrest.
During my travail, Heini was visiting the Oak Lake Bruderhof, involved in a crisis there which reflected the even larger crisis brewing in the European and Paraguayan communities. I was sent to the new Connecticut 'hof and then was asked to leave and take a kitchen job at a nearby children's camp. One day after lunch, the boss told me that there were some people behind the dining room who wanted to talk to me. I went out, and there sat Heini and at least a half-dozen Witness Brothers. They had decided to check up on me on their way from one Bruderhof to another. By then I knew that I could never return. Hardest of all was the realization that Xavie would be lost to me, but I comforted myself with the thought that at least I had managed to get her out of New York City and into what I thought of then as a sheltered children's community. I decided that if the price of Xavie's happiness was my loss of her daily presence, well, somehow I would find the strength to bear the pain of her absence.
That fall I wavered feeling that I was going against God and losing my daughter forever. So I met two Witness Brothers at the Poughkeepsie YMCA .
"Couldn't something be worked out?" I asked. "I could find a job near Woodcrest and keep seeing Xavie."
"No, no," they said. "You have no relationship with your daughter outside of the Bruderhof."
I returned to San Francisco and continued my musical studies at the conservatory. It took many months to overcome the trauma of leaving. Once I wrote Rosemary in desperation, suggesting that she and Xavie join me. Again I offered to meet her on neutral ground, or with a therapist. But she never answered. Instead I received an official notice that she had been baptized into membership. This put to a definite end to any possibility of a resolution.
Later, I met a woman and we fell in love. The following summer I went to Mexico for a divorce and remarried. Heini and Rosemary visited me in San Francisco, but there was nothing to talk about. Rosemary told me I was giving myself to death, and as I left her for the last time in the hotel lobby, I shouted something which now I do not recall. Heini reported back to the brotherhood, with an air of finality, that I was rebellious.
Over the ensuing years, whenever I was on the East Coast visiting family, I would gird myself for the psychic onslaught and phone Woodcrest. Palms sweating, my heart racing, I would ask to visit Xavie. Always they refused and I acquiesced meekly when I should have insisted or sued for visitation rights. But I could not face the collective disapproval of the brotherhood, and told myself it was better to allow Xavie an undisturbed childhood rather than, to quote one of Heini's favorite phrases, 'bring a disturbance.'
In the Sixties I dropped out, and helped to found an open-door hippie communal ranch that was the exact opposite of the Bruderhof in almost every imaginable way. There I pursued my spiritual quest with occasional LSD sessions. After three or four of these, I wrote or telephoned the Bruderhof in an attempt to communicate with them, another error on my part. But it does not seem surprising to me that, after the way I had been treated, there would not be some sort of traumatic reaction on my part.
In 1973, when my daughter Xavie was eighteen, I managed to pressure the Bruderhof into allowing me to visit her. A series of articles about brain-washing had appeared in the press, and this word proved the magical "open sesame" that allowed me one hour with her in a local diner. This precious hour remains burned into my memory, because I sensed her happiness at our reconnection. But it also was difficult for her, and I could sense how she was caught on the horns of a dilemma: how to remain true to the Bruderhof's shunning of me and to her love for her daddy? This tension put her in a very painful position. A year later I crashed the gate with my sister, an Episcopalian nun. We managed a brief visit with Xavie before we were asked to leave. All my subsequent attempts to keep in touch via letters only resulted in one reply from Xavie, asking me not to write again. She explained she could not remain true to Christ's teaching on divorce and have any thing to do with me. So I drew back and only wrote birthday greetings, trying to find a delicate way to continue the relationship.
It was only by fortuity that a brother told me over the phone in 1988 (mistaking me for a customer) that Xavie was not taking orders because she had just given birth to her second child. That is how I learned that she was married, and that I was a grandfather -- twice. One month later she was diagnosed as suffering from melanoma. She died ten days later. Again, I was only informed a month after her death. At first I could not believe the news, but over the next few months, the reality began to sink in. I had to surrender the last hope that some day we would see each other again. It took a year to grieve, at which point I decided to try to reconstruct and commemorate Xavie's life through interviews with those who had known her. When Woodcrest refused to allow me to speak with anyone there, I began to contact ex-members. I started with one telephone number, but within two months I had found over sixty. Since the Bruderhof always warns departing members not to contact other ex-members, many of those I spoke to were out of touch.
I decided to begin a newsletter to create a network. Within six months I was mailing 250 copies every month that averaged about 10,000 words per issue. Within a year our mailing list had climbed to almost 500 with 20,000 words per issue. I invited four ex-Bruderhofers in the Bay Area to form a staff, incorporated as a non-profit foundation, and began to publish various book-length memoirs as well as sponsor annual conferences in Massachusetts as well as the United Kingdom.
The first issues of the newsletter brought a response from Kathy Mow, the wife of the author of Torches Rekindled. She claimed that I was shunned because I sent Xavie some "nude coloring books and some occult literature." It is true that in 1974 I co-authored a book illustrated with childlike drawings of nudes. In it I quoted a very ancient Sanskrit hymn to the sun that in India is considered the most holy of prayers. I mailed a copy to Xavie, who was eighteen years old at the time. With hindsight, it was a tactical error, but by then the pain of the non-relationship was beginning to turn into a feeling of hopelessness and I felt that I had nothing to lose. In reply to Kathy, I wrote:
"All that the Bruderhof has done for me since
the time I was asked to leave has been consistently
to refuse me any contact with Xavie throughout
her childhood and to treat me like a leper. I feel
no 'burden of personal guilt,' as you call it, because
whatever guilt I may once have felt I later realized
came from the Bruderhof's own self-righteous, mean-
spirited, legalistic and shaming attitude towards me.
God's overwhelming love and forgiveness has been
the ocean in which I have surfed throughout my life."
Today, I am left with memories of what might have been, regrets, and unanswered questions. The "unbrotherly and ungodly" outside world recognizes a child's need for both parents, even if they no longer live together. The break-up of a marriage does not necessarily cut off a father from further contact with his child, especially today when there is greater attention being paid to father-child bonding. Xavie desperately needed her father as a little girl. Why did the Bruderhof place their 'noble' witness to the sanctity of marriage before the emotional needs of a little child? This is the Pharisaic spirit that divides and disrupts families; an abuse of religious power.
The brotherhood purposefully punished me for divorcing Rosemary by placing a wall around Xavie. Yet I know as a certainty that Xavie's greatest desire as a little girl was to see her Daddy, even if only for a few visits every summer. I cannot understand this cruelty.
When we began to publish KIT, the Bruderhof sent representatives to contact us. My wife Judith and I were allowed to visit our grandchildren, Dorie and Gareth, during our travels east in the summer. But with each of the three visits, the tension perceptibly increased. Nothing was spoken, but the adults became more distant. Last summer we were not allowed to visit Woodcrest, but instead the children were brought to my sister's convent. We were told the we would be limited to one visit per year. As of this June, we have been informed that they no longer will allow us ANY visits. I quote the letter from our grandchildren's father:
"Margarita and I do not feel we can responsibly
allow any more visits. You are supporting a cause
which is in opposition to the lifestyle we have
chosen and the values which we wish to impart
to our children. We cannot in good conscience
subject our children to aninfluence which is
diametrically opposed to our faith and beliefs.
We know you will find this difficult, but it is
the inevitable outcome of your own actions. We
also want it to be clear that this decision is our
own, and was not at the request or suggestion
of any other person. As you may recall, it was
also Xavie's wish, when she was alive, to not allow
any visits. signed, John and Margarita Rhodes."
Although John Rhodes insists that this is his personal wish, I believe that in the Bruderhof there is no difference between the individual will and the group will. This seems a recent policy decision by the brotherhood, because we have received reports of many other KIT newsletter readers being asked to choose between their relationship with ex-members via KIT and visiting their family in the community. This despite, I might add, a guarantee we received in writing from their elder Johann Christoph Arnold dated November 5, 1990, that, to quote his own words, "No one is forbidden to read or write to KIT, or to meet with others in whatever way they wish."
I close my remarks with a grandfather's plea to the Bruderhof representatives present. As a Christian community enjoined to serve as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Bruderhof professes an ethic of universal brotherhood, charity and Christian love. But you will be known and judged by your fruits. If in the name of love, you divide families and act in unbrotherly ways, all will see the poisoned fruits of your claim to follow the example of Jesus. I ask that you return to the highest ideals of your tradition, to find a way to make peace with those sincere men and women in the world who seek loving connection with their families who remain in the Bruderhof.
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