The Rhythm of Life in a High-Peformance Cult

Time is of the Essence

So, what does life in a Christian community (high-performance cult) look like, you may ask. Well, I can only speak about the community we were in, but my guess is, they all inevitably follow a similar template.

I would say that Alon looked like a holiday resort but felt like a boarding school. Now I have never attended boarding school myself, but it doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to envisage the kind of routine that is necessary to prevent all hell from breaking loose amongst a large host of school children. Coincidentally we did in fact run a boarding school on the farm. Fortunately, Blue Mountain College (Davit had a flair for naming things) only transpired once I was well out of school. But that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, getting back to the ins and outs of community living; naturally, there was a schedule that we existed by. Ask anyone from a large family and they’ll probably tell you that their parents ran a tight ship. Most likely there was a roster on the refrigerator for chores and meal prep and everybody had to convene at a certain time for dinner and breakfast etc. Imagine a boarding school that didn’t run on a schedule – chaos. Get more than half a dozen people to live together and they will quickly fall into some semblance of routine. It’s just inevitable, we are creatures of patterns and systems.

Punctuality was a big deal at Alon, the only person who was ever late was Davit, but like any CEO, president or person of power, that was understandable – he did after all have a community to run.

Our routine adapted with the proverbial seasons; life at Alon was in a constant state of flux. For instance, when my mother and I arrived, we ate every single meal in the communal dining room but with time we were given different lodgings and thus afforded the luxury of breakfasting in the comfort of our own home.

At first there were a number of people who dwelt in the hostel-style accommodation that was built adjacent to the dining room and sanctuary and there were only a handful of small homes that were awarded to families who appeared to be in it for the long-haul. However, the entire community ate dinners together from Mondays to Fridays until I left school.

Fridays were a big deal; this was the start of the Jewish Sabbath and we celebrated as if we were part of the diaspora itself. There was traditional song and dance, lighting shabbat candles and eating challah bread. People would put on their nicest clothes, and it was the most festive evening of the week. It was also, most importantly, the only time that dessert was served.

Shabbat dancing.

From 3am to 6am every Saturday morning you could find groups of members (excluding the children) praying. Prayer meetings were an integral part of Alon, prayer was the lifeblood of our existence. Apart from the Saturday prayer meetings there were also meetings on Sunday mornings at 6am for the men; Tuesday and Thursday mornings began with prayerful gatherings at 5am and at some point, the men also started praying on Wednesday mornings from 2am to 3am. Friday mornings were set aside for married couples to pray together in their own homes which, in my experience, was by and large just one big snooze fest, can you blame us?

I will say that when we first arrived, Alon was a lot more chilled than when I left. It’s hard to say exactly when the momentum picked up but by the time I bade that farm my last goodbye we were living on a jampacked treadmill.

Perfect Timing

To give you an idea of the level of activity we partook in, I will briefly outline a regular weekly routine as it was in my last year of Alon life:

Monday (known as bible study night):  

  • Work form 7.30am to 5pm. (bearing in mind that people working in town only arrived back on the farm between 5.30pm and 6pm)
  • Communion prayer meeting for mothers with small children from 7.30pm to 8pm. (there would be a communion meeting at the end of every weekday attended by a small group of people assigned to cover each day of the week so that essentially we all partook in communion twice weekly). When I say communion, I am referring to the ritual of eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of how Christ sacrificed his body (the bread) and spilled his blood for the atonement of our sins (the wine).
  • Bible study in various homes from 8.30pm to 10.15pm

Tuesday (known as work night):

  • Prayer meeting from 5.30am to 6.30am (excl. mothers with small children)
  • Work form 7.30am – 5pm
  • Work evening 8pm – 10pm (some women with children excluded)

Wednesday (known as family night):

  • Early morning meeting for men and some women from 2am to 3am
  • Work from 7.30am to 4pm
  • Sport activities from 4.30pm – 6pm
  • Communal viewing of a TV series such as Downton Abbey from 8.30pm (this was not compulsory but if you never attended you would hear about it. Also, if you never socialised by either inviting people for dinner or being invited then you would also hear about it although the evening was initially designated as a time for families to spend time with each other)

Thursday (known as fasting day):

  • Prayer from 5.30am to 6.30 am (excl. mothers with small children)
  • Everybody fasts breakfast and lunch (unless pregnant etc)
  • Prayer meeting at midday from 1.30pm to 2pm
  • Prayer meeting in the evening from 6.30pm to 7.30pm
  • Peer review meetings from 8.30pm to 10pm (these were meetings where different peer groups such as parents with preschool children; parents with high school children or older people would meet in different centres and report back on the challenges they were facing and this would also serve as an opportunity to openly address issues between each other, which in essence became evenings for intimate public shaming. Once a month we would have a games evening just to, you know, break the ice.)
Just another praise and worship meeting in the sanctuary.

Friday (known as Potluck):

  • Work from 7.30am to 5pm
  • Potluck dinners hosted in different homes from 7.30pm to 10pm
  • Prayer for mothers with small children from 10.30pm to 12pm

Saturday (Shabbat):

  • Prayer from 5am to 7.30am
  • Communion (drinking bread and wine and reporting back on prayer meetings) from 7.30am to 8am (mothers with small kids would attend communion and take turns looking after the kids at the creche)
  • Coffee and fellowship from 8am to 9am (not compulsory but once again, you would hear about it if you didn’t ever attend)
  • Brunch in various homes during the course of the morning (it was up to you to arrange to either invite or be invited)
  • Meeting and communal “picnic” supper (excluding children) from 7.30pm to 10.30pm
Saturday morning communion.

Sunday:

  • Men’s prayer meetings from 6am to 7am
  • Morning meeting from 8.30am to whenever, followed by work until 2pm
  • Communal lunch from 2pm to 3pm
  • Movie night from 8.30pm (once again not compulsory, but you know the drill…)
Sunday lunch at the end of a day’s work.

Time is Money

Not to harp on about it (I know I have glanced over the colourful array of financial avenues that were explored by the well-oiled machine that was Alon Christian Community aka Alon Farm already in a previous post) but here’s a re-cap…

A culture of industrious pursuit was keenly fostered at Alon, after all, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop…”. What began as a small avocado farm where a group of Christians spent their days in bible study and menial agricultural tasks mushroomed into a cluster of four small yet busy farms. Extensive vegetable gardens; greenhouses; a nursery; macadamia orchards; coffee orchards and a roastery that went by the name of Crown Coffee; honey production; water bottling plant; mechanical workshop; music recording studio (failed); Indigenous design, a carpentry workshop; art studios; guest house accommodation; wedding/events venue called Mosaic and coincidentally lavishly bejeweled in hundreds of hours’ worth of mosaic art and Blue Mountain College, the on-site boarding school. All this could be found right there at Alon farm.

Some images from our restaurants in Tzaneen and Somerset West:

But the span of endeavours reached further afield, a small office park in the town of Tzaneen that was co-owned by one of our resident doctors, lawyer and accountants was also developed. Here we opened a thriving restaurant which was open all day and on Tuesday and Friday nights. These commercial enterprises provided not only an extra little cash injection but more importantly were a source of employment for many of Alon’s residents.

The living room of the house in Isreal, located on the border of the Negev and Judean deserts.

Davit always had his eye on the property market and in its heyday, Alon Trust was the proud owner of several properties in the Cape Town area and even as far afield as Israel and Switzerland.  Apparently, this level of industry and equity lands a cult the title of being ‘High-performance’, where the driving force is to create financial success and appear to be very happy doing it, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”

Time waits for no Man

While the monotony of the daily grind sometimes felt like it was going to kill me, there was also great comfort in routine. When every minute of your day is occupied and set aside for a particular task, your life retains this constant sense of purpose and time takes on an almost tangible quality. If you find yourself with some extra snatches of it on your hands, you savour it. Free time is a novelty and boredom doesn’t ever darken the door of your mind.

As a school kid I never had to endure the intense rigours of routine, in fact, we had a lot of freedom and time to ourselves back then. But the next generation of kids were born into a very different era of Alon, and their days were tightly scheduled from morning till night.

I would look at those mountains in the distance and it would feel as though the rest of the world and all its adventure lay just beyond them. I knew this wasn’t true because what really lay beyond them was Limpopo Province’s dismal, dusty capital, Polokwane. But if that’s how I felt, I can’t even begin to imagine what was brewing in the hearts of all the youngsters that weren’t even afforded the respite from community living that public schooling had afforded me. The only exposure they had to the outside world were other students that paid to attend our boarding school and the odd holiday at the sea.

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I always knew that I had my father to turn to if I really needed him though I would never have even consciously acknowledged that. Perhaps the twice-yearly pilgrimage to Cape Town to visit my dad in the school holidays while I was growing up was more valuable than what I can even realise now. But by the time I left school, my trips home were fraught with bickering over the fundamentals of Christianity and defending Davit and Sara and their apparent lavish living. I am not sure when my loyalties began to shift from family to Alon but it’s a steady and insidious trickle of reasoning that eventually seems to infiltrate every crevice of your heart and mind.

Finding your Tribe – or high performance cult

A land that flows with Milk and Honey… and avocadoes.

There is a place where you can see the sun rise over coffee orchards and set below hazy mountains. It hugs the contours of hills that are at the ideal altitude for coffee cultivation. The temperature drops degree by degree as you slowly wind along the red dusty roads leading to its gates. Down below in the valley, humidity and heat weighs the air down but at its gentle perch on the hills this place catches the breeze and there is a sweet release from the surrounding oppressive heat.

The valley of the silver mist

Gazing out on a winter morning you may witness the legend of “The valley of the Silver Mist” as pockets of frigid air snake their way in white streaks across the landscape. And in summertime as the sultriness grows to an impossible point of endurance you hear the thunder come rolling in. If you face South West, you can feel the wind picking up and licking your skin. The clouds seem to gather up from nowhere and tumble their way ferociously over the distant peaks as the thunder quickens it’s staccato pace over the valley. Lightning bolts streak and crack and illuminate the mounting clouds like gigantic neon bulbs. Then the rain bursts onto the scene, approaching like a great white wall.

It’s a place we once called Alon Farm. Some have called it paradise, I called it home.

***

Flanked on every side by silvery blue gums, if you looked at it from a distance, Alon farm took on the appearance of an oasis. A vivid green patch of land dotted with palms and enormous old trees. Seen by night, this cluster of homes, communal buildings, halls and workshops could easily be mistaken for a village. And indeed, over time that is almost what it became.

The road that curled it’s way down the farm from top to bottom.

By the end of its dynasty, the high-performance cult of Alon boasted nearly thirty homes; a boarding school; both a carpentry and metal workshop; an events hall overlooking our Olympic-sized swimming pool that could be hired out for functions; not one but two fully equipped industrial kitchens; green houses; vegetable gardens; orchards of fruit and nut trees; a water bottling plant; a coffee roastery; two restaurants; guest houses; fleets of vehicles from buses to tractors; numerous properties both in South Africa and abroad and a network of professionals, artisans and nimble volunteers who made all this possible.

The Alon we moved to

When we arrived in 1996, bringing with us the coldest winter I’ve ever known, Alon Farm was attractive in a modest, meagre kind of way but still a far cry from the successful organisation it would grow into. The buildings on the farm were ill-equipped for frosty weather, with neither a fireplace or heater to break the chill. When we heard that there was snow in the mountain village of Haenertsburg just across the valley, everybody seemed astonished. And it was surprising, even for newcomers like my mother and I who had anticipated the balmy subtropical climate we’d enjoyed on our holiday.

It was so cold and dreary in fact, that I was certain we’d come back to a different place. Where was all the sunshine, friendly faces and mountains of tropical fruit? Instead I was confronted with endless days of mist and damp and greeted every morning by slimy porridge and a sea of weary faces in the communal dining room. It was almost like the weather mirrored my mood, waiting for me to accept my fate and allow the light to shine onto my new reality.

Then slowly my melancholy little tweenage heart began to thaw so that by springtime my brain had burst into hopeful action and I decided to simply bide my time and make the most of it because we wouldn’t be here for long. My mother was more miserable than I’d ever seen her and I assumed this meant we’d be back in Cape Town before the year was over.

But this isn’t how these things work. If only life were so simple. Then we would assess our lives and predicaments with the uncluttered frankness that children possess. Perhaps my mother would have looked herself in the mirror and realised that fulfillment isn’t embodied by self-sacrifice. Maybe she would have been able to see that loneliness couldn’t be filled with people who demand your devotion by breaking you down. Possibly, she would have understood that purpose and belonging should go hand in hand with happiness and self-love.

Instead, she mistook her straining towards freedom for a wrestling with God much like Jacob of old who had wrestled through the night and secured God’s blessing. Alon was Jacob’s ladder and my mother wasn’t going to let this one go.

But why stay if it’s so hard?

I cannot tell you why every other member of Alon Christian Community chose to devote their lives to communal living but I can say that we got there riding on my mother’s need for kinship, and I believe that most of us face this quandary at some point in our lives. We need to find our tribe. And some of us find a high performance cult instead. It happens more easily than you think.

An eccentric divorcee in the evangelical church scene of the 90’s wasn’t an easy position to be in if you were looking for a sense of belonging. The holy spirit was moving and the church bands were rocking but a child from a broken family was still not accepted in Christian schools and a single mother floated on the periphery of many social circles.

Yes, we had lovely people ranging from pastors to friends who filled our lives in numerous ways, but my mother still lacked the security and identity of a tribe.

Backstory

Sparks fly – Unsplash

*Many names have been changed out of curtesy and respect for innocent parties. It is also important to note that the story outlined below is merely a recollection of tales as shared by Davit Ben-Avi over the two decades that I knew him. There is no evidence to suggest that any of these claims regarding his heritage are true. What is true is the manner in which he used these tales to weave a web of both pitiful beginnings and staggering family drama to highlight his miraculous rise as a man of God despite his apparently questionable beginnings .

Two Star-Crossed Lovers

Let me introduce you to Duncan Hollis. Born in the fifties to a party girl and a con artist, it’s believed that Duncan’s mother, June, wasn’t delighted at the prospect of maternity and attempted to abort her pregnancy, but the baby refused to exit her womb and so began a battle of the wills between mother and child that would exist until her dying day.  In an effort to escape the law and some unhappy investors with diminished bank accounts, his father fled the country when Duncan was but a boy – never to return to his wife and children again.

June may not have been a natural born nurturer but her largely Jewish family provided the backdrop of domesticity to her children’s lives that she was unable to give them. Duncan’s grandmother took care of him and his younger sisters. It was her home that would be his reference of childhood and family ideals.

There was occasionally mention of the poverty they sometimes endured, having to resort to old newspaper when there was no money for loo rolls. But on the whole, the family home was an ebb and flow of relatives, friends and secular Jewish culture.

The Hollis’ lived in the seaside town called The Strand on the outskirts of Cape Town, overlooking False Bay. Duncan became a happy hippy surfer of the seventies and could be found padding down the main road, surfboard under the arm, his sun-bleached hair flapping merrily in the wind.

It’s on one such sunny day that Sara first saw her husband to be. The legend goes that the moment she laid eyes on him, this timid, conservative Afrikaans girl from a poor, inland farming community declared: “I am going to marry that man.”

They did get married, but not before their first child was conceived. Bianca was born soon after Duncan and Sara wed. Sara was just shy of twenty-one when she became a mother but having a baby in her arms was when she finally discovered her sweet spot in this life. Little did she know that in years to come she would be referred to fondly as “the mother of the nations” much like Abraham’s Sara from the biblical past.

Two years later Sara gave birth to a ginger haired little boy who would be her pride and joy despite his propensity for defiance and mischief. Dustin was everything his sister wasn’t: loud, energetic and constantly in trouble. But the two siblings balanced each other out and as much as Dustin found a haven in his mother’s arms, Bianca had a special place in her daddy’s heart.

Now with an expanding family to provide for, the Holwills opened a coffee shop that turned out to be a huge success. With Dougie’s knack for business and Sara’s finesse in the kitchen their little eatery was never empty.

Divine Inspiration

Heavensent – Unsplash

But Duncan wanted more. Domestic bliss wasn’t going to cut it for this wildcat. He hadn’t clawed onto the very wall of life from day one just to own a coffee shop. What else was out there? What was this life all about? What was the point to this existence? And then he found Jesus. He was engulfed by spiritual zeal almost from day one. “On fire for Jesus” as some might say. His heroes were the spiritual outliers and revolutionists who had not shied away from breaking the mould and risking their very lives and reputations for the message of the cross.

As much as Sara had found her purpose cradling babies, Duncan found his spark when the power of the holy spirit engulfed him – anything was now possible. The more he learned about the great evangelists and spiritual pioneers the more Duncan felt convinced that the little buzzing coffee shop he and Sara had built up from scratch was not his place in this world. He was searching, speculating and the cogs of his young mind were turning at a newfound pace.

They will run and not grow weary, They will walk and not grow faint.

Isaiah 40v31

Much to Sara’s dismay they sold their business and began their pursuit of evangelical proprietary. The church was God’s business and Duncan was ready to invest. His Jewish roots seemed to deepen as he studied the psalms and the exploits of Jesus. Duncan wanted to dance as David had danced in the streets of Jerusalem and pray as Jesus had prayed along the shores of Galilee. And so, with barely a penny to his name he booked a ticket to the Holy land of Israel and left his small family so that he could seek out the voice of the almighty and run his fingers over the stones his ancestors had laid in the land of the living.

Left behind to fend for their little family, Sara was told to trust in the Lord to provide as their bank account neared nil. She understood that zeroes didn’t bode well, after all she had been a bank teller before Duncan had thrust her into a life of entrepreneurship. But it had been easier to see reason in his bold take on life as the figures in their coffee shop books slowly climbed.  Now, jobless and nearly penniless with her zealous husband far away in a land she only knew about from Sunday school she was at a loss.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Matthew 6 v 25

“Have faith Sara, the Lord will provide. Do not ask your family for help, this is a test of your faith.” His words would ring in her ears every night as she lay in her bed worrying about how she would feed her two sleeping children. And miraculously they pulled through.

On Duncan’s return she could see her husband was different. He had let go of the former things and he was more passionate about Christ than ever before, spending hours studying the word of God from his well-thumbed and battered bible. Trusting the Holy Spirit to teach him and reveal new truths to him, Duncan was on a one-man mission towards enlightenment and Sara had better start running or she may never catch up to him again.

The World Tour

Globetrotters – Unsplash

I don’t know how, but they managed to get enough funds together to allow them to begin travelling the world and meeting fellow believers from around the globe. Their travels took them to Minnesota, New York, Israel, New Zealand and possibly a few other pitstops along the way. At some point Sara’s belly began to swell once again and a little angel called Alona filled her arms one last time.

The family of five found themselves, by divine intervention, in a Christian commune in New Zealand where they spent a long season, reportedly learning the value of submission both unto man and unto The Lord. It was a harsh discipleship. Dougie was made to contribute to the community by doing physical labour and apparently, he was sometimes even called upon to clean the very toilets. It was a sore point for him and a scar that he seemed to carry into his Pastoral career.

One day Duncan had a vision while lying in a field gazing at the clouds scudding along the blue sky. He never said exactly what the vision was, but it’s clear that it involved him and Sara heading a group of people called to do God’s work and it definitely didn’t involve him cleaning one more toilet.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2v44-47

When the young visionary got home to his wife who had been, as ever, dutifully minding the children, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that she too had experienced something vision-like dropping into her heart. They knew now that the cloud was moving on and like Moses leading the Israelites through the Sinai, Duncan led his wife and family out of the confines of the Christian community in New Zealand.

Their meanderings also gifted them with a stay at another Christian commune in Minnesota called Ben Israel. As the name would suggest, this group had an affinity with Israel. Much of the teachings and bible studies were focused on God’s love for his people, the Hebrews, and Duncan Hollis appreciated these sentiments.

Ben Israel was an international community of born-again Christians and drew members from as far afield as Switzerland and Denmark. It is right there in the deep, cold Minnesota winter that Duncan and Sara met some of the people who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would turn out to be part of the founding group of their very own Christian community in the desert town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

A Symphony of Synchronicity

For the Hollis’, the world tour served as a crash course on communal living and a baptism of fire into the world of spiritual leadership. So, upon returning to their homeland they set out to find a place they could settle, much like the Israelites of old. At first, the pillar of cloud seemed indeed to point towards Oudtshoorn and by hook or by crook (for lack of a better phrase) Duncan secured an old house for them to dwell in.

In the Lord’s Army – Unsplash

At the time, the South African military had a conscription policy and by law young men were called up for one year of basic training upon leaving high school or after completing their tertiary education. Coincidentally, Oudtshoorn was home to a large military base and thus, Duncan had the opportunity to evangelise many a young, jaded off-duty soldier.

There were marches through the streets carrying crosses, banners and posters declaring Jesus to be the one and only saviour of the world. Bible studies were held within the walls of the Hollis’ home and more than a few baptisms took place in their bathtub.

Coincidentally, four of the young soldiers who spent their downtime in personal prayer and guidance from Duncan would later become anointed as leaders to help him and Sara fulfil their vision of a community of believers dwelling together in unity.

Feeling a strong calling to be a tool in God’s hand for the salvation of the Jews and considering Duncan’s Jewish roots, Duncan officially changed his name to Davit and the Hollis’ surname was also replaced by Ben-Avi. Duncan was no longer a son of a party girl and a con artist; Davit Ben-Avi was now a son of Abraham and of God (In Hebrew Ben means son and Avi is Abraham).

Oudtshoorn had served them well and provided a wonderful brotherhood of promising leaders, many of whom remained committed members to his small home church even after the completion of their basic military training. They were also joined by adventurous friends that the Ben-Avi’s had met on their international travels.

Davit could sense that Oudtshoorn was becoming too small for any further expansion of his ministry and after scouting out several possible new regions in the country, he finally felt the peace of God in the unexpected territory of Tzaneen, a far-flung agricultural town in one of the Northern-most fertile tracts of land the country had to offer. How this farm overlooking the subtropical valley of Tzaneen and it’s distant Wolkberg mountains was paid for, remains a mystery – at least to me. But the Lord’s ways are mysterious.

And so, in the early nineties, a caravan of young believers from all walks of life and nations could be seen making their way up-country in a trail of vehicles and moving trucks. Alon farm was established like a long-promised Oak of righteousness, a planting of The Lord.

Tragedy

Not a year later but Davit and Sara’s precious little girl, Alona was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in what would have been her first year of primary school. The loss was devastating, their little acorn was wrenched from her mother’s arms and buried beneath the wild fig tree at the bottom of the garden.

Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground – Unsplash

 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12v24. It was the scripture that her parents clung to in order to try and make sense of her death. And it really did seem as though Alona was a little kernel of wheat that ushered in a big harvest of members to Alon Christian community. It also set the precedent for members to accept that blessings come from sacrifice. If Davit and Sara could sacrifice their own daughter for the kingdom of God, then who was anyone to complain about giving up their own ambitions and worldly goods?

Where my Little Story Begins

A couple of years later, a burnt-out artist and her daughter joined the ranks of Alon’s growing numbers. You guessed it, that kid is me! Our story isn’t the most tragic, dramatic or heroic, but it’s the only one I can give a first-hand account of, so here we go.