The Heart Will Find a Way: Creating a Network
by Ramon Sender Barayon
Published in 'Communities' Magazine, 1995
THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW HUNDREDS of isolated former Bruderhof
members found each other again--and how reunion with community can help
heal the human spirit.
The KIT ("Keep in Touch") network began when I decided to research the story of my daughter Xaverie, from whom I had been separated for 30 years. I had been prevented from participating in her life by the Bruderhof, the group of Christian intentional communities in which she lived. After Xaverie's death in 1988, I asked the Bruderhof leadership to allow me to interview community members who knew her. I intended to write a memoir and, in the process, assuage a father's thirst for his daughter's presence. In the process I also hoped that I would find some healing for the emotional trauma caused by the long separation. I had done this when I wrote A Death In Zamora, which traced the life of my mother, shot during the Spanish Civil War when I was two.
My daughter Xaverie had grown up in the Bruderhof with her mother, after I was asked to leave and subsequently realized I was emotionally incapable of living in the community, and in the marriage. Over the following years, despite numerous attempts to communicate with Xavi, I was cut off from her completely by the Bruderhof leadership. Occasionally I phoned when visiting the East Coast in the hopes of at least talking to her, but was always told, "We think it's in Xavi's best interests not to speak with you." I remained enough under the Bruderhof leadership's control to accept their reasoning, but their ongoing refusal to allow me a relationship with my own daughter remained a festering wound in my heart.
When she was 17, I insisted upon a visit and finally was allowed one hour with her in a local diner. It remains one of the most magical moments of my life, although I realized it created a dilemma for her: to listen to her heart's desire for her father or remain true to the Bruderhof's (and her mother's) demands. After that visit she wrote to tell me that she could not, as a novice member, remain true to her faith and remain in contact with me. Twelve years after that visit, she wrote once more to tell me that she loved me but due to the differences in our lives she would be unable to communicate with me further.
Despite the finality of her letter, I clung to the dream that some day things would change. When my wife Judith and I traveled east in the summer of 1988, she encouraged me to try to telephone Xavi again. This time I had slightly better luck, because whoever answered the phone did not recognize my voice and assumed I was a customer for their toys.
"No, Xavi is not taking orders right now," he said. "She just gave birth to her second child."
That was how I discovered that she had been married for three years and that I was a grandfather twice over! I asked to speak with my son-in-law, John Rhodes, and when he refused to allow me--or even Judith--to speak with Xavi, I contacted a neighboring minister as a possible go-between. We returned to San Francisco feeling that perhaps some sort of beginning had been made towards resolving the impasse.
On October 3, 1988, I received the news of Xaverie's sudden death from a virulent melanoma cancer five weeks earlier, on August 26, roughly three weeks after our phone call. When I read the letter, my first reaction was one of shocked disbelief, but when I spoke with John Rhodes and later read the transcript of the memorial service, the truth hit me in all its appalling starkness. My daughter had died at the age of 33, leaving behind two small children. Five days later I still was trying to come to grips with the reality, and yet it seemed as if months had passed. Why couldn't the community have let me known sooner? At least they could have telephoned. Why was I not allowed one final visit?
I spoke twice on the phone with John, and out of respect for his obvious grief, I tried not to express my anger at the five-week lapse between her death and my receiving the news. John seemed as warm and open as anyone from the Bruderhof had been with me since I left. However, I sensed that other ears were listening to our conversation, and I detected a slight edge of paranoia somewhere over the phone extensions. Perhaps they thought it amazingly coincidental that I had appeared in their neighborhood eager to see Xavi only a few weeks before she died. Or perhaps they feared that I would accuse them of gross medical negligence.
Six months later, I decided to research my daughter's life story. Perhaps I could capture memories of her in the same way that I had captured those of my mother in Spain, by hunting down all those who had known her.
When the Bruderhof leadership turned down my request to interview Bruderhof members, I began to search for former members. I knew the phone number of one former Woodcrest community member, Vince Lagano. Vince gave me the names of two more ex-members who in turn gave me the names of two more. By the end of the month, I had talked with more than 30 ex-Bruderhof members and had personally visited with four. By the end of the second month, I had spoken to over 60. In spite of the fact that most had followed obediently the Bruderhof's warning not to contact other ex-members (because doing so would prevent any possibility of return to the community) they all were eager for news about the others and asked for their addresses.
The KIT Round-Robin newsletter started as a modest two-page sheet sent to 30 or so ex-members to share each others' news and addresses, and give these long-isolated friends access to each other again. The newsletter became a monthly, and very soon I was mailing ten-thousand-word issues to 200 ex-members. The volume of incoming mail was extraordinary, and the newsletter expanded to 16,000 words per issue, almost all of it "Letters to the Editor." At this point I invited four local Bruderhof graduates to form a volunteer staff and share the workload, Vince Lagano, Charlie Lamar, Dave Ostrom, and Christina Bernard.
I talked with exiles from the "Great Crisis of 1960-1961" (in which hundreds of members were expelled from the Bruderhof communities in Paraguay), who were living in dire poverty, and with survivors of various subsequent mass exclusions from the American Bruderhof communities. I discovered that one ex-member, Lee Kleiss, had started a round-robin letter in the early 1960s. I found the so-called "Hartford Boys," a group of young men driven away by a Servant of the Word (a Bruderhof elder) who had beaten them severely, and the tightly-knit group of ex-Bruderhof members in England, who had stayed more closely in touch. Like the ex-members in Germany, the English ex-members seemed willing to let bygone be bygones and tried to put a good face on past wrongs, in contrast to the feistier Americans. But they all shared an intense desire to know whom I had found and what these people were doing with their lives.
The Bruderhof's policy of warning ex-members away from each other had successfully isolated many of them, but it could not stifle the yearning to renew childhood connections and old bonds of friendship and fellowship. Almost every person I contacted expressed the same hunger for news. However there were a few exceptions. One or two had been alerted to stay away from KIT by the Bruderhof and would not speak to me, and a few others remained too traumatized and fearful to accept even a sample issue. However, over the intervening years, many of the more timid folk have put aside their fears and joined the KIT network.
Financial contributions from the readership have kept abreast of mailing and printing costs, so the staff only had to donate their time and telephones. When someone sent the Bruderhof a photocopy of the KIT newsletter, we began to mail copies directly to each of the Bruderhof communities. By then we had created a widely scattered support group whose feelings about their ex-member status ran the gamut from guilt to outright rage. Some staunchly defended the Bruderhof while others' anger erupted in verbal vitriol. Each had his or her own dramatic story to tell. The most moving were those told by people who had been ejected from the communities as teenagers, cut off from their parents and from any type of financial or emotional support.
Keep in mind that the KIT network is not a membership organization, nor do the former Bruderhof members speak as one. It allows all voices to be heard--the angry ones, those pleading for forgiveness and understanding, those simply wanting to share their life stories. At times the various purposes KIT serves intersect and collide, such as when the "support group aspect"--the need to vent anger--interferes with the need to communicate to the Bruderhof leadership in the hopes of resolving some of the unresolved conflicts and misunderstandings.
Unfortunately there are many of these. It seems as though the Bruderhof leadership always made the separation as difficult as possible. Many ex-members, including myself, recalling the leadership's methods of controlling people in community, assumed the difficult separations were carried out in the hope that the evicted member would be so traumatized he or she would beg to be taken back, willing to confess to even the most blatantly false accusations as proof of his or her obedience and total surrender to the leaders. In our experience, the Bruderhof had proved itself a remarkably cruel and vindictive organization, especially in the case of its own adolescents. What terrible burdens of guilt and shame they placed on these youngsters!
In late 1989, we heard that the Bruderhof was quite concerned about the KIT newsletters. At first I received some frankly hostile letters from members. Then a change occurred, and the letters became more sympathetic. I heard that "a new spirit of reconciliation" was awakening in the Bruderhof. Ex-members wrote about their surprisingly pleasant visits to relatives within the communities. The usual challenges to "repent and return" were absent from members' conversations, although now and then a "longing" might be expressed in a gentler manner. In January, 1990, a Bruderhof couple traveling in California visited with KIT staff.
The meeting seemed to go well. I felt that personally they were willing to acknowledge that I had been treated very badly. As long as the conversation centered on the failings of individuals within the Bruderhof, they listened. They acknowledged that serious mistakes had been made in the past by various Servants and Witness Brothers, but the moment either their beloved former leader Heini Arnold was criticized, or abusive aspects of the Bruderhof system itself were mentioned, they simply did not hear what was said. This lack of agreement on major issues set the tone of all future meetings.
In the late summer of 1990 we held our first KIT conference at a youth hostel in central Massachusetts. Approximately 50 "survivors and graduates" gathered for three days of shared memories and visiting with old friends and lost relatives. What an amazing event!
In 1992, KIT staff incorporated as the nonprofit Peregrine Foundation ("peregrine" meaning "pilgrim" or "wanderer"). Other projects were added, such as Carrier Pigeon Press, which publishes book-length memoirs of ex-Bruderhof members, and the "Women From Utopia" series. We also created a computer bulletin board that allows KITfolk to converse and interact on a daily basis. In 1995, the newsletters and other articles became accessible in electronic form on the Internet and World Wide Web. We have held four more annual conferences in the U.S. and two Euro-KIT gatherings in England.
As of December, 1994, the KIT newsletter has published over a million words, and three books and four "Annuals" (bound and indexed collections of the newsletters) are in print as well as various smaller brochures and pamphlets. The XRoads Fund (named in Xavi's memory) has assisted various young people, and helped one young man move out of a homeless shelter into an ex-member's home. Also we were able to track down this young man's birth father and reunite them--a real and heartwarming detective story! In another case we aided a large family thrown out of the community under the most adverse of circumstances and told to go on welfare. Rarely does a month go by that we do not receive a "thank you" letter for the help and services provided.
Ramon Sender Barayon administered the Peregrine Foundation until his retirement in 1999, since when it has continued under the able guidance of other board members. He also edited and published the KIT newsletter, the MOST newsletter (for former northern California communards), and Carrier Pigeon Press's "Women from Utopia" series. He lived in the Woodcrest Bruderhof, and the Morningstar Ranch and Wheeler's Ranch communities. He can be reached at PO Box 460141, San Francisco, CA 94146-0141.
A sampling of the KIT newsletters as well as informative essays and
articles can be found at The Peregrine
Foundation website http://www.perefound.org