When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Amish.
I don’t know how I found out about the Amish. I lived in the New Mexican desert. I had never seen an Amish person. But at some point, I learned there were people who farmed with draft animals, grew their own food, made their own clothes, and built each other’s barns in a communal spirit of material simplicity.
I wanted my life to be like that.
Of course, I also wanted to drive race cars, play guitar in a rock band and go on an African safari. This is, after all, a distracting world.
Also, the Amish are an ethnic community, and I wasn’t born Amish. But not everyone is so easily dissuaded.
The members of the Homestead Heritage religious community, based outside of Waco, Texas, farm with draft animals, grow their own food, make their own clothes and build each other’s barns. Their Christian faith and material simplicity — even their physical appearance — are strikingly similar to those of the Amish, the Mennonites and other religious communities associated with the Anabaptist movement.
But most of the founders of Homestead Heritage were not born Amish or Mennonite. They were born Jewish, Baptist or Pentecostal. Originally, they were mostly urban New Yorkers. Some came from Los Angeles, some from Israel, some from living on communes in the 1960s. They were not born into horse farming or even into the Christian faith. They learned those skills, values and beliefs, then built a community around them.
The community began in 1973 as a small inner-city mission in New York City, whose members wanted to be more connected to their neighbors and to nature. They found property — first in Colorado, then finally in Texas. In 1990, they bought 510 acres near Waco and dubbed their new farm Brazos de Dios (Arms of God), which was the original, formal name of the adjacent Brazos River. They built homes and barns. They built a church, planted crops and raised livestock.
Blair Adams, one of the community’s founders, has written a lengthy examination of its traditions and beliefs in his book, What We Believe. It runs about 50 dense, scholarly pages.
But if you visit Brazos de Dios, you aren’t likely to land in a theological discussion unless you’re looking for one. Parishioners seldom bring up the topic of theology — although if you raise it, you’ll find they have a deep awareness of the roots of their faith and its specific history. Their most tangible testimonies — visible everywhere in their community — are natural beauty, exquisite arts and crafts, delicious natural food, and loving kindness.
We work with Homestead Heritage through the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS, where they promote The Ploughshare Institute for Sustainable Culture, their school where you can study traditional crafts such as beekeeping, organic gardening, blacksmithing, woodworking and soap-making. They teach their students how to make cheese, build harnesses, and create their own dishes and furniture. You can learn more about the Ploughshare Institute online.
As Homestead’s members tell it, the teachings of Jesus led them to search for ways of living more meaningfully and compassionately, which in turn took them on a quest for lives that were more self-reliant and less dependent on the exploitative institutions that govern modern society. Along the way, they picked up the skills of self-sufficiency, and now they teach those skills to others.
Members also share the fruits of the Homestead Heritage lifestyle directly with visitors. The center of Brazos de Dios is a collection of shops around a cafe, where they serve food the community raises — grass-fed beef and sausage, homemade pies and ice cream, and fresh bread made from homegrown flour ground in the gristmill just across the square. At the nearby gift barn — a reassembled 200-year-old Colonial barn from New Jersey — they sell exquisite art, furniture, hand-woven clothes, musical instruments, books and dozens of other beautiful items the community’s residents create. It’s a world-class gift shop built on the barn’s original wood threshing floor, smoothed by two centuries of scuffing hooves and wheels.
Many of the community’s structures are reconstructed old buildings that were transferred piece by piece from the original American Colonies. Homestead Heritage parishioner Kevin Durkin fell in love with an abandoned barn up the hill from his childhood home in the Catskill Mountains 50 years ago. So when he needed a barn for his own Brazos de Dios homestead a couple of decades ago, he went looking for a traditional timber-framed structure he could disassemble and move. He had so much fun with the project that he started marketing the service to others, and he’s now moved more than 200 barns all over the country — many of them to find new life as beautiful homes. One was even disassembled and shipped from upstate New York to become a community center in Tokyo.
Brazos de Dios grains are ground in a water-driven gristmill housed in a building that was originally constructed in northern New Jersey around 1760. The fiber arts building was a barn built in Middleburgh, N.Y., around 1830. Institute classes are held in a restored barn that was once attached to a colonial home where George Washington maintained a headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Institute Director Butch Tindell jokes that he may order a wall plaque proclaiming, “George Washington’s Horse Slept Here.”
If you visit, residents will likely be grinding grain, weaving fabrics and hammering out decorative wrought iron in their village workshops. Industrious activity, friendly faces and a pervading sense of happy people doing work they enjoy permeate the community atmosphere. Just a few years ago, the Anabaptist value system that resists technology in favor of self-reliance was commonly regarded as “backward.” People who embraced traditional lifestyles seemed to be resisting progress — the natural progress of human expansion.
But in a world where resources are strained and nature’s splendor is being erased by human expansion, the notion that there may be an alternative way of life that is sustainably beautiful and abundant holds new attraction. Perhaps Homestead Heritage is actually quite the opposite of “backward.”
Last year, humans worldwide built the equivalent of 10 New York Cities. Imagine all of those buildings, streets and sidewalks, those factories, automobiles and sewage treatment plants. Maybe we can keep on like this for a while. But we can’t keep on forever.
Our instincts, like those of every species, drive us to continue expanding. But this planet, our only practical home, offers limited resources.
Our future prosperity will therefore depend on an intentional approach to sustainability. We will limit our expansion. We will limit our consumption. We will learn to live in ways that preserve the habitat for future generations. Following our instincts for expansion won’t create the world we want our great-grandchildren to live in. Only good planning and voluntary constraint will do that.
An intentional community like Homestead Heritage offers an intriguing illustration of what human beings can accomplish in a single generation. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a genuine example of a self-sufficient group of people providing sustenance and love to each other, a community creating a sustainable and satisfying life for its residents. It appears to be far more successful at that mission than the average town in Texas — or anywhere else I’ve been.
It’s superior because it was created intentionally, because its founders shared a vision and a foundational value system to support it. And, of course, because they were willing to make sacrifices and to work hard enough to cultivate the community they had envisioned.
I didn’t grow up to be Amish. But I am lucky to have friends who, when they saw the beauty and wisdom in traditional lifestyles, were able to acquire some of that beauty and wisdom in their own lives.
Those friends aren’t just the people at Brazos de Dios. Almost all of you I meet through MOTHER EARTH NEWS have requisitioned some beauty and wisdom from traditional cultures. And, through various channels, you are projecting that beauty and that wisdom into humanity’s future.
That inspires me absolutely.
Learn More About Self-Sufficient Living and Homestead Heritage
Over the past 17 years, The Ploughshare Institute has taught sustainable-living skills to more than 8,000 students from throughout the United States and several other countries. On its Brazos de Dios farm, the community offers workshops and seminars on self-sufficient farming, gardening and traditional craft skills. Self-guided walking tours are available, as are guided tours. To schedule a tour (or hay ride!), call 254-754-9600. For more information about the community, see Homestead Heritage.
Videos providing lessons on homesteading, gardening, crafts, and kitchen and homemaking arts are available for purchase at the Ploughshare Institute website.
An advocate of simpler, wiser living, MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher and Editorial Director Bryan Welch cultivates vegetables, livestock, beauty and abundance on his ranch in northeastern Kansas. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want