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.
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.
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.)
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
- 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
- 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…)
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.
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.