There’s a town on the East coast of South Africa called Jeffreys Bay, about an eight hour drive from Cape Town. This “dorpie” is famous for hosting what used to be the Billabong Pro. But anyhow, it’s on the international surfing map because of the perfect elongated, sleek waves that cut slim lines along the shore, especially in the colder months. Supertubes, they call it, the name speaks for itself. And that’s about as much as I’m going to say about this because I’m not a surfer or a meteorologist.
Well, the point is that JBay is a vibe. The waters are warm in the summer months and a lot more inviting than the frigid currents that hug the beaches of Cape Town. The only thing you need to contend with is relentless wind. On a summer’s morning all will be still, clear and idyllic but if you’ve delayed your trek to the beach by a couple of hours you’ll be confronted with a very different scenario.
Much like the rest of the coastline, the winds pick up any time from 10am and when I say pick up, I really mean it. Umbrellas fly, little kids cry, waves crumble and all hell breaks loose. The rest of the day is good for snoozing, snacking and cruising around town.
Many years ago, long before JBay was on the surfing map, a family was allotted a prime piece of land on the estuary of the Kabeljous River, pretty much in the nature reserve. There are special little gems like this property dotted all over the country. They’re legitimate properties that somehow sprung up outside of the actual housing zones. I know of people who have land in the Kruger National Park and another family that holidays slap bang in the middle of the Cape Point Nature Reserve. It’s all about having the right connections.
So when Davit discovered that one of the families on the farm was set to inherit this riverside property all hell broke loose. Legal battles ensued. Tears were shed. Siblings were estranged. But in the end after much prayer and spiritual warfare (that means shouting at Satan to stop his evil meddling in the lives of God’s saints) the land was ours.
It was christened Camp Noah. I do remember chuckling to myself when I first heard the name and envisioning the Ben-Avis arriving by helicopter or limousine like the president of the United States arriving at Camp David.
But this wasn’t going to be some exclusive retreat for the high flyers of the world. Oh no, no. That’s how we won the argument in court, this was going to be a place for the orphans.
The orphans spent one holiday there. We had the place for over a decade.
When the JBay property came into possession of Alon it was in a dire state. Bad tenants over the years had resulted in the various houses falling into rack and ruin. But, we were not deterred, if there was one thing we had, it was man power and experience with property development and renovations. Not to mention Davit’s flair for design.
Camp Noah became the annual holiday residence for most Alonites and we’d be shuttled there by bus and car on a perfectly synchronised roster over December and January every year. As time passed more and more homes were added to the extensive property and it became a rather spectacular place. Private access to the gently flowing river/estuary meant kids could go out and paddle and fish from morning till night. The beach was about a five minute walk from the property and between the houses and the river was a huge expanse of lawn, perfect for impromptu volleyball, soccer and cricket games. Idyllic, really.
Of course, there were still the usual prayer meetings and the general air of communal living. Meals were a collaborative effort and we spent every waking moment in each other’s business. Lying on your own in the sun for a couple of hours quietly reading a book would appear anarchistic. Playing cards with ten other people was more the done thing.
So, we holidayed in style on misappropriated land strewn with the memories of a family that now had no say over their rightful inheritance…”The meek shall inherit the earth.” Davit would bellow from the pulpit, in hindsight, I think he was right… But that’s a story for another time.
Owen was born less than a year after our trip to Israel. Time of birth: 10:15am on a Thursday morning. I remember the time because I looked at the clock in the delivery room right after he emerged into the world and I know it was a Thursday because my husband was fasting and we…
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There were two things I knew to be dangerous schools of thought. These were “isms” that were frequently referred to from the pulpit and blamed as the root cause of most of the evil in this world and in our hearts.
Now, this is not a dissertation on the origin and meaning of humanism and feminism. I think both of these movements are probably largely misunderstood by the majority of us and that debating their true meanings can become a contentious issue. I couldn’t tell you if I am either a humanist or feminist and I am not going to pretend that I understand the nuances of these powerful movements. If you were to ask me who the founders of either humanism or feminism were I’d turn to Google for the answer. Sure, I have some basic idea about what they stand for and I think I’d rather live in a world where humanism and feminism have a voice but that’s pretty much as far as my expertise on the subject goes.
What I can tell you is that Davit had a very definite point of view and he openly scorned feminism from the pulpit, blaming it on the moral and socio-political decay of our world. Of course he would, Alon was a potently patriarchal society, but not in the benign traditional sense. There was a complete lack of chivalry, which became more pronounced as the years went by. A man would never hold the door open or offer to carry your groceries (unless you were obviously buckling under the load) without other men looking at him as if he were a bit of a wimp. Men and women had clearly defined roles. Women were men’s helpmates, not the other way around. A man was the head of the home and wives were to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5v22…). Give it a read and you will be casting your eyeballs on one of the foundational scriptures by which we lived.
It’s a problematic subject to be sure, especially when you take the bible as the literal truth. Reading a book that was written centuries back and translated more times than any of us care to count, by people who not only lived in different times but in entirely different cultures and then taking it as black and white truth is, in my view, dangerous.
Davit was old school and despite being a hippy type raised predominantly by women folk he had a very clear picture of the way a submissive Christian woman should conduct herself and Sara was more or less the universal bench mark, attending to his every beck and call. She herself had come out of an extremely conservative household headed by a brutal father. I believe her childhood was far more traumatic than what any of us were ever told. Sara was the epitome of a well camouflaged sufferer of OCD. Home making and cleanliness was a passion for her and she could Mari Kondo the shit out of anything. I remember her roasting vegetables one day when I was still single and she had laid out all the various vegetables in neat little rows. The beans in one row, the peppers in another and even the sweet potatoes were lined up like little segregated soldiers. She would admit to being “neurotic” about order and cleanliness and regale us with stories of how she used to force Gad to play inside his big wooden toy box with his Lego because she couldn’t bear the thought of all those little pieces lying scattered on the floor. That word “neurotic” was a term she liked to fling around a lot when describing us women and any apparently quirky habits we displayed. For instance, I was a neurotic wife because I didn’t like being separated from my husband for long periods of time. It seemed that only women were able to be neurotic.
Sara was also lively and talkative, she was the “Joy in the home” which I thought was a verse in the bible but actually I think it’s just some kind of old fashioned saying similar to “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. It was the woman’s responsibility to keep everyone happy and to make sure that a husband came home to a stress free, welcoming environment where he could cast off the burdens of the day. His immense responsibility as a man and spiritual leader far outweighed any burden a woman might carry.
Don’t be mistaken, Sara was anything but demure. She was outspoken and wouldn’t back down for any man, besides her husband and later on her son. However, she did give all of us girls the distinct impression that we deserved a little less than the men folk, so it was a team effort of husband and wife that set the general tone in the battle of the sexes (not that I think there should be one).
Sara always had many words of admiration for the young guys and she scorned any woman that wouldn’t sacrifice her time, energy or food for a man. Sara took pride in speaking openly about the weaknesses of women and how petty and irrational we tended to be, she much preferred the company of men, especially the younger men in Anton’s age group – I am not suggesting that she was a cougar, I am just making an observation, and I think it had more to do with the fact that her beloved son was in the same peer group as most of the young guys.
In Sara I saw an example of constant self-sacrifice and surrender to her husbands hopes, dreams and wishes. She followed where Davit lead, she didn’t ever forge her own way or insist on him considering her wants and needs. Sara orbited Davit much like the earth orbits the sun. Yes, she rotated on her own axis and had her own personal seasons, micro moments of her own interests and enjoyment but she was always at the ready should Davit call. He set her trajectory and there was no room for deviation.
But her loud voice, sharp wit and vibrant nature prevented her from appearing like a docile wife.
Of course, there is the part of that scripture in Ephesians that instructs husbands to “love their wives as Christ loves the church” but the whole piece does still end with a final word of warning that “wives must respect their husbands”.
Davit could be heard insisting (rather repetitively I might add) that women were not second class citizens and that husbands should “carry their wives on a silver platter” which I always thought was a rather creative bit of imagery and pictured Sara lying on a bed of parsley bedecked in Israeli jewelry (Davit loved to buy her gifts from the Holy Land) with a little apple daintily perching in her mouth.
We were, however, second class citizens.
It’s a strange thing, how Sara loved to hang out with the guys and Davit really enjoyed chatting to women, just not all women. Sometimes I’d hear tales of their travels overseas when they were younger and how insanely jealous Sara would get because all the ladies loved Davit as he was so very charming. I’ll be honest, I’d never call Davit a lady killer but maybe in his youth he had a more irresistible swagger, who knows.
Davit wasn’t a burly man’s man. In fact Sara was far more adept at taking care of practical matters such as cars, maintenance and security etc. She always paid the bills, even if she wasn’t the official bread winner. If it wasn’t for Sara I don’t believe Davit would have had much success in all his endeavors at all. So they were “equally yoked” and a powerful team. And I sometimes wonder who really wore the pants in their relationship because if there is one thing I have learned it’s that appearances can be deceiving (which is funny because Sara literally never wore pants, only dresses). Maybe she was playing the fool but actually running the show?
A woman who was not submissive and yielding was labelled a “strong woman”. While this term is usually a compliment in our day and age, at Alon being a “strong woman” was the very pinnacle of godlessness.
And don’t think that you could simply slip under the radar by keeping your mouth shut, because there was another even more sinister category of female godlessness: quiet strength. This was when you submitted and obeyed and didn’t talk back but your eyes told a different story. So basically, in order for you not to be a strong woman you had to transform from the inside out, you had to break to be rebuilt into a vessel fit for service unto man… oops, I mean God.
“Stop being so humanistic.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that line being hurled at myself and others. In context what it implied wasn’t really anything to do with the traditional understanding of humanism but instead an Alon style term to describe tolerance and benevolence. If someone did or said something that wasn’t acceptable then it was expected of you to observe and address this by confronting the person or situation and dealing with it in a very brutal and honest manner. If you were to hesitate or perhaps try to reason that the culprit in question was possibly innocent and meant well then it would mean that you were defending immoral behaviour and putting the interests of man ahead of the interests and commandments of God himself.
I get it. Humanism kind of lends itself towards the idea that people are generally good and can, if given the space and means, become better versions of themselves simply by tapping into their inherent human qualities such as intelligence, social awareness and reasoning. But in a Christian (or other fundamental religions too I suppose, but I can only speak from the experience of being an evangelical Christian) paradigm, only God is good and therefore any goodness in us can only be attained through God. We, as a race, are inherently evil. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3v23.
This breeds a rather harsh outlook on your fellow man. I am not saying that all Christians will be this short sighted and unyielding but I am sure you can imagine how this perspective can foster an atmosphere of criticism and judgement.
Of course, most of us were evil humanists a lot of the time and got into trouble for other people’s supposed wrongdoings when we were merely witness to someone stepping out of line and we didn’t at least acknowledge their sin. Or if any of us had “fear of man” which in essence meant a dislike for confrontation, then we were operating under the spirit of humanism.
Oh, these movements or philosophies were living moving beings, spirits to be exact, that could possess the spiritually undiscerning among us.
So, the tolerant, peace loving, anxious and introverted members of Alon had to do a whole lot of character overhauling. And if you added being female to the mix then good luck to you.
Conversely, if you were an independent, feisty, outspoken ambassador for justice and you had boobs then your days at Alon would simply be numbered.
You may be wondering why anyone would endure this distorted approach to life… this article might help:
The Ben-Avi family were larger than life. The sound of their voices travelled ahead of them wherever they went. Blue eyed and sharp tongued, they all seemed to exist in a world slightly separate from the one the rest of us dwell in. Untouchable. I envied that. I felt as if danger of misstep lurked around every corner for me and yet somehow, they managed to march surefootedly through life never requiring the guidance or correction of anyone but themselves.
Exactly how Davit occupied his days I could never quite fathom, but he took on the appearances of an immensely busy person, always flurrying from one place to the next in a haze of bustling activity leaving a wake of disruption behind him. You didn’t call on Davit to calm the waters, that was Jesus’ job anyway. Davit wasn’t a mediator, diplomat or peacekeeper. He was a firebrand, but where would we be without the instigators and rabble-rousers of this world? These characters have a way of keeping us on our toes and pushing us to new heights, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
“Expansion, expansion!” he would declare from the pulpit with a pseudo-Spanish flair, waving his arms as if in the throes of a flamenco pageant. Gazing at him, dumbfounded, his busy flock would wonder what this great revelation held for them. He would go on to elaborate such things as, “I see us being scattered throughout the earth, as a mouthpiece for Christ.” And then tell us about the exciting developments that he was witnessing on his international travels. “The harvest field is ready! And a property, a penthouse, in Larnaca is selling for such a good price. I feel so strongly that the Lord has ushered us towards this island to use it as a springboard into the middle east. But we are waiting on him for a sure sign and provision. If anyone feels to pledge money, however small the amount, give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Sometimes the expansion would be more tangible, “People, we are going to build an Olympic size pool outside of Mosaic. This community is growing, and we need more space to accommodate everyone who wants to swim.” The flock would then ooh and aah in excited agreement sort of like the minions from Despicable Me. “It would be such a wonderful facility for the high school kids to use and imagine how beautiful when guests come to host their weddings at Mosaic and there is a beautiful pool outside, reflecting the sunset. Give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Eventually, the trust was purchasing flats, houses, properties and cars at such an almighty rate that most of us were often not even aware of many new acquisitions unless our services or finances were necessary for the purchasing or overhauling of these fine assets.
There were some principles at the heartbeat of Alon that were treated like the gospel; first and foremost was: stewardship. This was the bedrock of all we did. Being a good steward meant making the most of everything we possessed, whether that be money, food, talent or time. Nothing was to go to waste.
In order to make each penny go further, it was encouraged to find loopholes in the system such as applying for financial aid for our school fees, evading taxes and asking for discounts and freebies wherever possible. Every trip to town meant fuel consumption so vehicles were expected to be refuelled before returning to the farm and the cost was split amongst the passengers – needless to say, the more the merrier! Things like milk were regarded as a luxury item and there was a list at the breakfast counter that you could tick off every morning indicating whether you had consumed a quarter, half or whole cup of milk. At the end of the month, you could settle your milk bill.
In keeping with the idea of time being a precious commodity. The more you could accomplish in a short amount of time, the greater the slap on the back. We learned to squeeze a lot of activity into one day and function on rationed sleep. Sleep was essentially a waste of time and if you seemed inclined towards taking a nap then your social ranking took a serious blow. “Work hard, play hard!” was a phrase Davit loved to spritz from the pulpit whenever the troops seemed weary.
Preachings & Teachings
The pulpit was an interesting place, you just never knew what might jump out at you from behind that tiny wooden structure. It could be spewing with outrage at the complacency of the crowd or bubbling with glad tidings of good news. Sitting your butt down on a seat was like getting a ringside view of a human lucky packet with the added bonus of possibly being roped into the sermon of the day. Davit loved to point individuals out, be it for a public display of appreciation or an example of poor behaviour. It added a certain tinge of adrenaline to every meeting. But, apart from that, the man could ramble. I don’t know if Davit ever spent any time preparing for a sermon, but it always seemed as if he spoke off the top of his head and jumped around from topic to topic randomly interspersing his view of the world with one-line scriptures from the bible.
“As I was walking up the hill, I overheard the children playing. Just imagine a world without the sound of children’s voices. So quiet. We must be like children. You know, if the rapture took place today, all the children would be taken up to heaven and I think that the thing that would plague the unbelievers left behind on earth would be the terrible quiet because there would be no sound of children playing and laughing and shouting. I heard yesterday on the news that the pope is now blessing gay marriage. I once met the pope in my younger days. But I tell you, we must be as children unto the Lord for the signs of the times are all around us. When we visit Italy after our cruise, those of you who are joining us will get a sense of the terrible spirit of lust and perversion that is hanging over Europe. Justin Bieber was in Europe recently and he was almost arrested for drug use, but he still speaks of Jesus. Isn’t that amazing? This is what happens when you forsake your childlike ways, people, utter destruction of talent. Even my good friends in France complain about the attitude of the children walking the streets, smoking and swearing already at the age of nine.
“Kyla, you would also have been one of those children, walking in your grungy clothes through the streets of Cape Town if your mother hadn’t brought you here, isn’t that amazing?” Blindsided, I dumbly nod in agreement. “And Maeve, she wanted to just come here and clean toilets and peel vegetables, but I said ‘No!’ imagine that waste of God-given talent and now she is going on a cruise to Italy! Yes Maeve, come up here, I will show you your ticket, it’s booked!” The crowd cheers as my mom walks up to the pulpit awash with gratitude.
Rules & Regulations
Davit wielded power over his flock in absurd yet effective methods. Our routines, as set as they were, could change at the drop of a hat when Davit was on the premises. Over the years, he and Sara frequented the far reaches of the planet more and more, travelling to Australia to visit their daughter, Bianca, on the way. With numerous connections in Europe and the middle east the pair could be found being entertained in circles of millionaires at five-star hotels all over the continent. So, when they graced us with their presence, Davit loved to spice things up and remind his jaded sheep that he was the source of cheer and festivity. “Fasting day is called off and we will have an off weekend from Thursday evening to Monday morning!” or “Pizza night tonight instead of shabbat meeting and we will watch a movie afterwards!” The real trick of the thing was that he and he alone had the authority to veto the rules because he was the one who put them in place.
Sometimes rules would pop up at the spur of the moment. One day, Davit happened to be on time for a Sunday morning meeting and noticed that a considerable amount of people dribbled in at the last minute. Outraged, he went on to admonish us about our lackadaisical ways and decreed that we should all strive to be at meetings fifteen minutes before the time to prepare our hearts to receive the word of God and at the latest five minutes before the actual time. This idea slowly trickled into meetings of every kind, including early morning prayer meetings. Needless to say, that was the last time we ever saw Davit on time for a meeting.
Some other rules included, “No toast for children.” (It was a waste of electricity you see – in fact Sara saved the bell for us once when Davit stumbled across and article on power consumption and discovered that hairdryers were greedy little appliances. He almost banned the use of them but fortunately Sara told him it would really tip us all over the edge, and she liked to blow dry her hair too). “No eating in front of the television in your own homes.” Or one of my all-time favourites, “No use of tumble dryers but also, no hanging of wet washing on clothes horses in your homes.” It’s interesting to note that Tzaneen has an average annual summer rainfall of up to 1500mm and sometimes it can rain on end for days or even weeks. “No picking flowers.” – unless it was for the shabbat table.
Many things were casually mentioned from the pulpit and then morphed into unofficial regulations. “It’s such a shame when parents use TV as a babysitter.” And you would get nervous every time someone glimpsed your kid watching a cartoon. “There isn’t really anything beneficial on the news these days, especially for children, so much negativity.” And then no children big or small were ever permitted to watch the news again. “Sometimes the biggest sign of disrespect is when a child doesn’t greet you by your name.” And then every little kid became a greeting robot.
The power of the pulpit
Another nifty trick was to address someone indirectly from the pulpit. “Isn’t it amazing that even today, despite having the funds, Sara and I still don’t own a car of our own and yet some people want to constantly trade in their cars for newer models. Just a status symbol.” And the poor soul who was hoping to upgrade their outdated jalopy for a newer model would keep bumping along the dusty roads decades behind the times.
There were moments when subtlety went clear out the window and we’d all bear witness to Davit’s ranting about someone’s transgressions, “This afternoon I went past Ruan and Kerry’s house to have a cup of tea.” And even out of the corner of your eye you could sense them beginning to squirm in their seats. “Aren’t they such a beautiful, vibrant young couple? Just like this beautiful Saturday afternoon with the sun shining and the birds singing. Well, unfortunately I had to get my tea somewhere else, because they weren’t there. I mean they were there in body – on their bed, but in spirit they were in la la land.” The colour rising to their cheeks their heads drop. “Did you have a nice sleepy Ruan? Maybe you were ministering to your wife and feeding her the word of God by the spirit, hey?” And then, the rest of us would thank our lucky stars that either we hadn’t succumbed to the urge of snoozing or that Davit hadn’t made his rounds past our houses.
Putting someone on the spot to shine a positive light on them happened too, but that sly fox knew how to do it in such a way that it would make someone else feel less than or second guess their own actions. For instance, let’s say two couples had invited Davit and Sara for a meal that week. And you have to understand that when you invited Davit for a meal it was a lavish affair because he spoke so openly about his likes and dislikes, and we were all so acutely aware of his myriad ailments and allergies.
“Nina, my girl, what a beautiful spread you prepared for us. People, people, it’s truly a treat eating at Jules and Nina’s. Such a cute couple! And the food, what was that dish called? Oh, it was superb.” And that would be it, not a mention of the other couple. You can bet your bottom dollar that the unmentioned hostess would never prepare the unmentionable meal again and would walk around for a couple of days wondering if the food she cooked was perhaps an outward display of a sinful heart that she had been previously unaware of. No, my dear, what you have is a simple case of gaslighting.
What began as a semi-circle of seating facing the pulpit eventually fanned out into a tight arc of multiple rows in front of the stage – eventually constructed as a permanent fixture in our place of worship. Every additional row of seats was like the rings on a great tree, marking its steady growth towards the light. We were likened to trees, and its true that we were rooted, only I’m not sure we were branching out so much as we were crowding together to form a tightly knit canopy that cast deeper shade with every passing year.
Meetings were an integral part of our life as a Christian community. Most were held according to a relatively predictable schedule but like all other societies ours too was impervious to the influx of the smart phone. WhatsApp meant that we were on 24hour beck and call. With the convenience of broadcast messages and WhatsApp groups, meeting times and locations could be adjusted at the drop of a hat. To switch your phone off at night was to commit spiritual treason, if there was need for an impromptu prayer meeting in the middle of the night, then hallelujah for the modern miracle of cell phone technology.
Praying for the sick
Davit was preoccupied with health and wellbeing – his health and wellbeing specifically, because the man endured health issues that a lesser being would have perished under. Joyce, his wayward mother was the cause for all of this because she had deigned to feed him milk and sugar instead of allowing him to suckle at her breast. But tit for tat I suppose…
The amount of times I have heard the phone buzz in the night and the tired shuffle of men’s feet passing by, making their faithful trek to Davit’s house or some allocated meeting place in an effort to pray off an allergic reaction of some sort is impossible to count.
Let me tell you, that a bigger baby I have never encountered. Sniffing and snorting and yelling for “Saaaaarrrra!” begging for another cup of her special ginger tea to wash away the allergens. Hours he would spend poring over medical journals and health blogs. Adjusting his diet until all he could consume was the fat of the land, free-range, organic, pricey fare purchased at the finest health shops and delicatessens our country could provide.
The man was a bloody medical marvel as far as I could tell. Allergic to wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, preservatives and anything that didn’t taste good, he still managed to consume an enormous helping of colourful food – at least he never lost his appetite and survived countless scoops of ice cream.
To his credit, Davit loved to share with great enthusiasm, not only the word of God but also health tips from his pulpit. Cayenne pepper was glugged down in the mornings, there was a long spell of oil pulling with half the community going about their morning routines with a mouthful of coconut oil sloshing around in their mouths. Turmeric was suddenly added to the list of vegetables that grew in our huge veggie patch and we were all encouraged to consume mountains of it. Kefir, kombucha and honeycomb was readily available. At one stage we were advised to increase our vitamin D uptake by exposing 80% of our skin to pure sunshine for 20minutes every day. Where he thought we’d find the time to all strip down to our bathing suits and loll around in the sunshine, God alone knows. It was moments like these that I became more firmly convinced that he and his kin lived in a parallel universe.
As with many large organisations, the management becomes more and more out of touch with it’s employees and there came a time when I think many of us suffered under Davit’s inability to keep tabs on all his spur of the moment decisions. And like any good dictator, he had created a barrier between himself and his subjects that consisted of nothing else but fear. The fear would keep anyone from speaking up and reminding him that perhaps some of his mandates were out of date. Did he know how little we had to survive on when he encouraged us to buy expensive vitamins and buy sheepskin slippers? Was he really so oblivious to our financial standing that he assumed we could sashay into Europe on a cruise trip and happily make ends meet?
Oh, how he did love to cruise the high seas. I suppose there were many reasons for taking groups of his congregation onboard MSC’s majestic fleet of ocean liners. For one, you get a good discount when you make group bookings. It’s also easier to justify your lavish lifestyle if you make it available to others. And, for those who couldn’t afford to pay their way it was a handy tool for blackmail.
Subtle blackmailing was one of Davit’s trademarks. It’s a dangerous thing to allow yourself to feel indebted to others. A potent exchange of power.
Sara was more direct. Not one to mince her words, she simply cut you down with her quick and blunt assessments of your actions, attitude and personality traits. Like the moral loudspeaker of the community, Sara didn’t draw you aside and quietly counsel you in the hopes of moulding your character, honesty was her policy. Or so I thought.
That’s the thing about this power couple. They were nothing alike besides the way they rolled their R’s and projected their voices. Besides their sky-blue eyes and permanent tans they looked very different, Davit was tall and lanky, Sara short and stocky. Where Davit was an avid researcher on all things health and apocalypse related, the only reading material Sara ever got stuck into was her daily devotional bible. Davit was obsessed with healthy eating and Sara loved to graze on junk food. He extended his eagerness with a wholesome diet to his immediate family and his grown son would hide his coca cola under the table if his dad walked by, Davit seemed to be the only other living being capable of evoking any glimmer of trepidation in Gad. But Sara was immune to the haze of healthful living that encompassed the rest of her kin and happily drank coke and ate chocolates in full view of her manic husband. She seemed to be the only person he was willing to back off from.
But if Gad feared his father he made up for it in asserting himself in the lives of everyone else in the community and like an avalanche that picks up velocity and power as it thunders down a mountainside, Gad’s clout and sovereignty was growing insidiously until one day it was beyond the jurisdiction of even Davit and Sara.
But until then, this happy trio blazed a trembling trail through our little community perched atop a hill in the shimmering forests of sub-tropical Tzaneen.
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I was done. Too many late night bible studies and early morning prayer meetings. Too many conversations about deepening my spiritual walk. Too many times of opting out of regular teenage socialising so that I could spend time with my “family” at Alon. Too many chats about spiritual submission and the role of a woman…
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Ninth grade brought a refreshing quietness to my overworked nervous system, and I found myself stepping out of shadows that had been hovering over my head for too long – Dustin was living far away in Cape Town, having joined a YWAM group in the seaside village of Muizenberg. So YWAM, short for Youth With…
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The discipline of children was a hot topic in the community. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” I was on the backfoot when it came to exchanging tales of “the worst spanking ever”. My mom would give me a little barehanded paddy whack on my bottom if I got too sassy and my father…
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So the first year of high school was the most tumultuous year of my school career. Battling to fit in with any peer group, battling to fit in at Alon and battling to remain invisible to Dustin within the corridors of our drab school. Maybe it was spiritual fervor from my recent trip to Israel…
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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.
When we moved to Alon there were a few kids around my age. But most of them came and went as the years passed. So, I found myself stranded in a very small core group. My closest peers were Dustin and Lia. You could call us a trio but that wouldn’t be accurate. Trios work…
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