Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart

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Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart

I found this article on my iphone news aggregator: https://www.wsj.com/articles/communities-built-on-faith-1487349471

It's free on my phone but not free online. So I've pasted it here:


The Saturday Essay

Longing to lead more religious lives—and wary of the wider culture—a growing number of traditional Christians are creating their own small communities

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.

Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass—conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago—and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.

There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.

“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.

The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages—some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.

As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.

In Oklahoma, residents around the monastery call their home Clear Creek. Not all who came have stayed: The landscape is littered with the remnants of a small sawmill, a half-built home insulated with tires and another whose abandoned straw-and-mud walls have been partly devoured by cattle.

Yet the community is slowly growing, and those who have sunk roots here say that living near the monastery, which is now home to 50 monks, compensates for the difficulties living so far from a city. (Tulsa is an hour’s drive away.)

The monastery serves as the center of community life. Locals show up for Mass before 7 a.m. and leave notes and items for each other—say, a carton of milk—on a table in the church, a stone building still under construction. Residents hope to capture the spirit of villages in centuries past, when entire towns shared a single faith, a set of Christian values and a place of worship.

“We’ve opted to come away from urban surroundings—and the lives that we knew—to follow more closely our Lord,” said Maria Gerber, 61, who moved here in 2008. “We know from history, from the Middle Ages, that beauty and spirituality radiates mystically from the abbey. And it’s happening.”

Mr. Wheeler and his wife left their home outside San Diego in 2004 to settle here with their five children. “There was nothing here,” he said, not even street signs on the dirt roads now named after saints.

The Wheelers have largely separated themselves from the world outside of Clear Creek. Like others in the community, they draw inspiration from the Catholic Land Movement of the 1920s, which extolled an agrarian life as closer to God.

The couple keeps goats and chickens. They attend Mass daily and home-school their children. They seldom use their TV, except to check for tornado warnings, but they do use the internet to order supplies, such as cultures for the goat cheese that they sell. Mr. Wheeler, 52, helped with construction at the monastery.
Last year, they allowed their children—three of whom are old enough to vote—to listen to the presidential debates on the radio for the first time, and then to watch the last few on TV.

“The larger populated areas seem to have rejected the Christian culture and the Christian message,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If I don’t have to re-immerse myself in that, I’m not going to.”

In many ways, Clear Creek resembles the U.S. of a past era. Women wear long skirts and cover their heads during Mass—a practice most Catholics have abandoned since the reforms of Vatican II more than a half-century ago. Young men often ask permission from the fathers of women whom they want to court.
Sean Schmidgall moved to Clear Creek in 2014, after he finished college. The community couldn’t be more different from his hometown of Portland, Ore., where he worried about instilling Christian values in his children.

“There was just too much promiscuity; it’s permeated the whole society,” said Mr. Schmidgall, 25. “Maybe you teach them one thing at home, but you walk down the street and there’s signs with some provocative image or a woman.”

He fell in love with Angela Snyman shortly after moving to Clear Creek. For more than a year, they shared dinners at the only restaurant in the nearest town, danced in Tulsa and castrated calves together.
They didn’t kiss until their wedding day. “I told him on one of our first dates that it was a childhood dream of mine to kiss the man I would marry for the first time on our wedding day,” said Ms. Schmidgall, nee Snyman, age 27. Mr. Schmidgall responded, “You got it, girl.”

The couple, who are expecting their first child, live in a cabin that her parents built. They have no TV or internet service and are among several intergenerational families that live near each other and help to care for each other’s children.

The rise of communities like the one in Clear Creek reflects the growing sense among many Christians in the U.S. that Western society is becoming hostile to their beliefs. Alarmed by cultural shifts such as gay marriage, the acceptance of transgender identity and ever more sexual content in mass media, conservative Christians overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump for president. Despite reservations about his personal character, many hoped that he would stem the tide of social change.

Rod Dreher, a Christian writer credited with coining the term “Benedict Option,” has a book on the movement coming out next month. In an interview, he said that conservatives were “deluding themselves if they believed that Mr. Trump could turn back the cultural forces sending some Christians into the woods.”

“We’re living in a post-Christian world,” Mr. Dreher said. “There needs to be some conscious separation from the mainstream to be able to hold on to the Christian faith.”

Throughout American history, members of minority religious groups—Mormons, Orthodox Jews, the Amish—have at times isolated themselves to try to preserve values and traditions.

Many Christians, however, resist the idea of such stark separation, seeing it as an abandonment of their religious mission. “We have a mandate to spread the gospel,” said Adam Janke, vice president of St. Paul Street Evangelization, a Catholic group based in Indiana. “If we isolate ourselves to the extent that we’re no longer fulfilling that missionary mandate, that’s a problem.”

Those who have opted for small Christian communities say that the point is not to retreat into the wilderness but to provide a place to build a stronger faith for themselves and their families.

Marc Dunaway, whose family helped to found the St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska, is now the archpriest there. Some 50 families are based near the church, and he said that one of their goals is to restore some of the social fabric of earlier eras.

“People used to know their neighbors. After World War II, a lot of that normal human community disintegrated,” Father Dunaway said. “Our goal was to return to the kind of community that existed for centuries.”

The families in Clear Creek see themselves as fundamentally different from breakaway religious groups like the Amish. There is no ban on technology or suspicion of outsiders.

Young boys play soccer on teams in a nearby town. Some families have Netflix and smartphones, though cell reception is spotty. One group of men socialize watching Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts on pay-per-view TV.

Andrew Pudewa first heard of Clear Creek after one of his daughters began corresponding with a young female blogger living here. Then based in California, he had considered leaving the U.S. entirely, he said. After a visit to Clear Creek, however, he moved his family, his textbook publishing business and a number of his employees here in 2009.

“We wanted our children to grow up in a community of people that really value family, and value the Catholic faith and tradition,” said Mr. Pudewa. “That’s getting harder and harder to find.”
The family had hoped to live off the land but found it too difficult. “It’s hard to raise food,” he said. “It’s everyone’s dream, and no one is really successful at it.”

They did, however, create a new community hub at their publishing company. More than a dozen locals work there, saving them the commute to Tulsa. The company set up a makeshift community center, where local children—nearly all of whom are home-schooled—attend group classes. Ultimate Frisbee games, dances and the occasional wedding have been held on the company’s grounds.

Life here, Mr. Pudewa said, isn’t “about running away from something. It’s about running to something.” To “inculcate wisdom and virtue in children,” he added, “you surround them with goodness and beauty.”
Isolated religious communities are not necessarily a happy place for all of their members. Samantha Field, 29, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in northwestern Florida, where members were discouraged from having contact with anyone outside the congregation.

Separated from the wider world, she said, the church pastor became “spiritually abusive.” Women were treated like possessions, and gay people were demonized.

“We didn’t call it the Benedict Option—the phrase we used was ‘doctrine of separation,’ ” said Ms. Field, who left that church while in college. “But it was the same thing. This has been done.”

As more families arrive, Clear Creek is changing. Longtime residents reminisce about the days before there was local cell service. At one recent dance, a dress code was imposed that banned miniskirts. “That didn’t go over so well with some,” Mr. Wheeler said.

“Some are trying to keep the culture at a distance, and some are bringing the culture in—that has led to some friction,” he said. “With the whole Benedict Option, where do you set the parameters? Does that include 10 hours of cable TV a day for your kids? And the Playboy Channel?”

Last May, residents hosted a conference on building Christian communities. They are planning another one for this year. Mike Lawless, who moved here in 2005 and now has five grandchildren in the area, has hopes of opening a general store, which would save people trips to Tahlequah, a nearby town.

“And maybe a beer garden, where we could host events for maybe 100 people,” said Mr. Lawless, 56.
Father Abbot Philip Anderson, the head of the monastery, has been instrumental in bringing families to the area. Early on, the monastery sold off more than 100 acres of land to families seeking to build homes nearby. Prospective newcomers often stay at the abbey’s guesthouse.

He has called the growing community a “hundred-year project,” which could one day resemble the villages that grew up around monasteries in medieval Europe. “It’s not the Middle Ages anymore,” Fr. Abbot Anderson said. “But there is some analogy between the end of the Roman Empire and a new civilization starting out around monasteries.”

Clear Creek’s newest residents, Sam and Laura Guzman, moved from Milwaukee last fall. When they arrived in September, Jeremiah Harrison, 33, and several other men helped the family unpack their moving truck.

The warmth of the other residents was exactly what had inspired his move, Mr. Guzman said: “One of the problems with the modern world is you’re so isolated. We wanted for our family a life more simple and community-oriented.”

Mr. Harrison said that he has become less “anti-city” since moving to Clear Creek from Texas a few years ago. For one, thing, he said, he bears no ill will toward gay or transgender people pushing for their rights.

Yet in America, he said, there should be “a space where we can live our values and build those values into our lives and into our families.”