A Conversation with members and co-workers of the Fellowship Community (FC)
Renate Hiller – Elder member
Mac Mead – Co-worker and member
Tari Steinreuk – Co-worker and Director
Nancy Leopold – Co-worker and member
Kim Vaughn – Co-worker and Farmer
I wanted to have this conversation for several reasons. I grew up around the Fellowship Community as a teenager and later the founder Paul Scharff was one of my mentors for anthroposophic medicine. Both my parents dedicated themselves as co-workers, teachers and administrators of the FC for over 30 years of their life. My father crossed the threshold there and my mother is a member at 85 years old; still overseeing the weavery and remains active in the cultural life of the community. Over the years, I have witnessed wonderful deeds of humanity and also seen the FC weather difficult challenges. In our current time when “individualism” dominates the social agenda it is a legitimate question to ask: What does the future of community look like? There are so many wonderful stories from the FC which describe the unique capacity of community to impact people’s lives in a beautiful way. In this article we will focus on how the FC impacts Health Creation. I hope some of the examples shared in our conversation will lift your “hearts” and inspire you to re-look at community life in a renewed way for the future, where-ever you are!
–Dr. Steven M. Johnson
Dr. Paul and Ann Scharff founded the Fellowship Community in 1966, to address the question of eldercare in the context of Anthroposophy and community life. The Fellowship strives to support the care of the elderly and the land through biodynamic farming and gardening. As my following conversation demonstrates, most co-workers and members come to the FC with the belief that caring for the human being with dignity is best done through the renewal of social, economic, and cultural life. This is something they find in a unique way at the FC and therefore have chosen to live and work in an intentional community environment.
I wanted to point out that when the Fellowship started in the 1960’s, the dignity of dying was not talked about much. The Fellowship has always respected the wishes of how an elder person and sometimes their family wanted them to die; not in hospital, but surrounded by a community of those who cared for them and understood their unique needs. This has become one of the main reasons many elder people seek out the FC because they know this will always be honored. Many members even have their funeral service at the Fellowship where families and the extended FC family can celebrate a person’s passing together often with children around. Co-worker children are also taught to be a part of care and celebrations around the passing of a person. This is something that as a community the FC can uniquely provide and a core part of how the dignity of each person is honored at the community.
Also, the community ended up being much more than just elder care. Several individuals with intellectual disabilities have lived and worked in the community as well. One of the first examples was the founding of the Otto Specht school (still in existence today) which took on the education of a very mentally challenged epileptic student “Emily.” Her teacher “Linda” who taught her for many years in a program integrated with the FC life then became paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident. She was able to live and be cared for at the FC while still teaching some of her students from the bedside while requiring extensive pulmonary care for instance. This could only happen because of the special community care setting at the FC and some advanced modern technology that allowed her a certain degree of autonomy of movement. Eventually, an individual came to the FC severely struggling with his own life path. He found his therapy and life task in both caring for and marrying “Linda” It felt “karmic” that such a unique miracle of life and health creation could take place in this way. It is only because this unique community situation existed that the support for such an astounding thing could happen.
Karmic situations such as this were also possible because of the intergenerational nature of the FC. This was an ideal of the founder Paul Scharff and his wife Ann Scharff. The community formed around the needs of the people who lived there. Practical and artistic workshops also sprung up where co-workers and members could further enrich their daily life. It was always the ideal of the FC that a person should be able to develop their own unique talents while also sharing in the general life and needs of the community. This is a special and unique challenge today 60 years later and is the priority of the community- to try and keep this ideal alive and learn how to become even more creative in this regard.
The covid-19 pandemic really hit the FC hard with so many state regulations and fears and uncertainties about health. Her experience was that during this time the FC discovered a strong part of its resiliency again as common shared experience. Especially because of the surrounding Pfeiffer farm and gardens the FC is surrounded by. Fresh biodynamic food, home-made yogurt still filled the plates in the dining room and with a short stroll outside the green plants, colorful gardens, animals and well-tended green spaces were all around. People were never really isolated alone in their rooms, even if there were compromises at times.
Also, because it was hard to get outside to do maintenance and repairs during the pandemic, all types of people young and old stepped up and helped with plumbing, carpentry and all types of other repairs which were handled through neighborhood and community cooperation. It felt like a true neighborhood community formed during covid-19 and the community in this way did not succumb to the social polarization experienced in so many other communities. The fact that this type of neighborhood cooperation emerged lowered greatly the social angst and anxiety that could have taken over the milieu of the community. The community created a healthy environment where people could still breath and be social.
Tari Steinreuk Added:
It’s not just about the basic physical needs at the FC. She has observed how the FC provides a counterpoint to the isolation and vulnerability people can feel as they get older. The community provides opportunities for members and co-workers to share their gifts and skills with one another. Because in the FC many things you need are provided for there is more freedom to share and teach skills and gifts as well as learn new skills and gifts. During the pandemic people shared all types of skills repairing and mending things that needed doing. Teaching and sharing your gifts with others is encouraged in this type of community setting and can be very rewarding for older members, co-workers and volunteers alike. To “truly feel needed” for a practical purpose is an experience you can’t replace or create artificially as we grow older. In a community we see opportunities every day to “serve” in a meaningful and tangible way. In our current world, so riddled with examples of “separation” from each other and so many disappearing into the world of media, video games and technology, it is so heartening to see people out and about and actively engaging each other in community. Even if relationships are not always “rosy” it is still real and people learn how to connect and communicate.
It is also important to mention that at the FC there is always a crew of young people from Germany, abroad or sometimes from the states that work in the community and participate in the elder care. Watching the loving relationships and bonds that can form between the young and old is uniquely heartening. It would not be possible in another elder care institution to be living nearby when a person is getting ready to cross the threshold and hold their hand through this process. Also, to share stories and biographies between the young and old creates special relationships. It is hard to describe how special it is to see how the development of the younger people in their late teens or early twenties matures and how happy the elder members are to interact with their younger caregivers on a regular basis. It is a dimension of health creation you cannot put in a bottle or prescription. Everyone benefits!
I was so moved to see how one of the elder members “Hildegard” was cared for by the young co-workers. They would dress her in beautiful clothes which she loved. Her observation is that work becomes social in these instances and this is a special quality of the community. Community life “invites good deeds” and you see how on a daily basis people want to do good and neighborly things for each other. Serving and caring for others also lifts you out of yourself and your own problems and offers you the opportunity to see things from different perspectives which is so essential for a healthy social life.
This social element is expanded through celebrating the festivals of the year together, processing vegetables from the garden as a community around the table, or even “shucking” corn outside sitting on logs. The festivals are very important because it is a time to share deeper thoughts and contemplate spiritual things. Music, poetry, readings in the Goethe room, eurythmy, and special lectures are always part of the holiday celebrations and bring a deeper meaning to everyone’s life as well as a social element.
Tari and Mac:
The community is most special when we can see the higher being in those we are caring for. It is a deed of “love” to care for other people in need. Bringing dignity to the aging process actually increases our capacity for love.
Even the crossing of the threshold can become a festival. With co-workers, families, young children all coming together to share and talk about the life of a member who has passed. In a community like the Fellowship your relationship to birth and death changes. Because most often this is not occurring in a hospital or sterile setting; the “community” becomes palpable as everyone simultaneously agrees without coercion to celebrate the life of a single human being. Even the religious services often take place in the FC.
The Future of Community at the Fellowship Community
Clearly, communities like the FC need to change and adapt to our current times. There are core aspects to our mission of elder care and community based on anthroposophy that cannot change because they are the heart of our benevolent impulse. On the other hand, you can’t just maintain if you want new inspiration and creativity to pulse through the community. Fewer people want to undergo the perceived sacrifice to live in a community, especially because they feel they might lose an important level of their autonomy in a work-based community. The new challenge is to help people to realize that “spiritual” and “creative” freedom and the opportunity to serve our fellow human beings is more possible in many ways in a community. Making sure this reality is palpable is a task of the community today. At the same time people need more space and individual time; the “whole” community has to figure out how to support this for each other while not losing the wonderful “neighborhood” quality of the community and making sure the level of care remains optimal. Overall to be in a community is to learn how to work out of “love”.
“A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when, in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.“
In the past the FC was a place where “everyone did everything” and as the community grew this became a bigger and bigger task. The goal in the future is to realize how a particular gift or service one has to give to the community can be supported; where there is a balance of giving and receiving. As a farmer the responsibilities to the land and the animals are never ending if you want to do it well. I can share the harvest from the farm and gardens with the whole community because others allow me the possibility to do this work which I love. I would say “I am because you are” is the ideal; we all need to adapt to create healthy communities in the future. We need to all want to support our mutual development. In a community the economy of sharing also makes it possible for all professions to find the support they need. This is an aspect of the threefold social order described by Rudolf Steiner that is always being strived for.
The structure of our life sharing community allows us to keep the cost of elder care much lower than it would otherwise be. However, people are living longer and this requires other forms of economic support besides the hard work of our co-workers. In the future we hope we can achieve an endowment that would allow us to cover the increasing costs of longer life, besides the year to year fundraising we still need to generate capital for building projects and expensive repairs; like new tractors, more space for couples, and better facilities for our members. We were very heartened by the support we received when one of our main lodges burned down a few years ago, but we have quite a way to go still.
I also wanted to address the idea of cultural diversity. The Fellowship has really grown in this way. Often walking in the hallways, you will hear four different languages being spoken on any given day. We are really trying to take the view from anthroposophy that community is a path to develop our humanity.
Working with elder care you can truly see the fourfold human being and see the reality of the individual “I” of each person. Sometimes, because of dementia, that is no longer there and you have to become the “I” for that person. Others you can see the extreme dignity of the “I” and their creativity even when their capacity for movement and their body is failing them. Learning to look at the human being in a more spiritual way also helps us work together in a socially and culturally diverse community.
It is interesting right now how many elder people are seeking community. They want to be in a spiritually striving place like the Fellowship because they want to be in a place where they can still work to develop themselves and be active spiritually and physically doing good work when possible. They inspire the co-workers. As long as wise elders like this are seeking the community, we have reason to push forward and continue this special work.
The truth is the Fellowship wants to be a blueprint for the future. Not out of egoism, but because the world needs to learn how to create a new culture which recognizes the higher nature of our humanity. This is why I came here when my husband needed care and now that he has crossed the threshold, I will stay here as part of this community.
Thank you, everyone. I think that is a profound statement to end our sharing today. I’d like to end with a quote from Rudolf Steiner which this conversation so clearly illustrated, about finding community for the future:
“Live through deeds of love and let others live with tolerance for their unique intentions”.
If you’d like to learn more about the Fellowship Community, watch a short video or donate to this work please visit our website or call: (845) 356-8494 Ex. 2