She was determined to make a difference and transform the world

Erna Albertz

Erna Albertz 1979 –

Headstrong and rebellious, Erna left the Bruderhof community where she was born and raised, planning to take a gap year after high school before returning. Soon, however, she was promising herself she’d never wear a skirt again. Dissidence was a family trait: her mother’s family had resisted Hitler; and her father, an outspoken civil rights activist from New York, had spent a summer helping to register African-American voters in Mississippi.

Attending high school in Connecticut in the mid-1990s, she befriended a Bosnian girl who had come to the United States on a scholarship. Through their conversations, Erna developed an interest in the Balkan War and the suffering of that region’s people in its aftermath. After graduating, Erna taught English to recent immigrants. One of her students was a Bosnian Muslim young man.

In time, his mother took to calling me her snaha – daughter-in-law. His family was set on the American dream, and while I felt close to him, I knew a house, car, vacations, and the like would not spell fulfillment for me. They were only nominally Muslim but I also worried about not sharing the same faith. In the end, though, it was my newfound feminism that prompted me to drop the relationship: “freedom” seemed more important than love.

The Mount Academy’s brass ensemble practices in the chapel. The school is housed in the former Mount Saint Alphonsus seminary, built by the Redemptorist Brothers in 1907 on the banks of the Hudson River. The Romanesque chapel is used for special occasions.

Still passionate about the Balkans, she took a volunteer position in a Bosnian camp for roughly 320 displaced people as a liaison for an international NGO.

It was a challenging assignment. I was twenty-one, the only non-Muslim, and the eyes and ears for the NGO administration as to what was happening on the ground. But it was just what I wanted: a chance to make a difference and make the world a better place.

The longer I stayed there, though, the more I realized my inadequacy in the face of the complexities I was dealing with. I expected to see their shared suffering and common faith bonding these families, but instead found gossip and division. I found myself thinking wistfully of the harmony between the 320 people I had grown up amongst.

Not one to give up easily, Erna proposed a new program to her NGO, and before long she was offered a management position.

This was my dream coming true: financial security and independence while helping those in need. Was it a coincidence that I’d just made a secret decision to return to the Bruderhof? I now faced a choice between a perfectly acceptable form of service – and a truly radical one.

Again ducking commitment, Erna moved to Germany. There, she applied for midwifery school. One day, while interning in a clinic, she witnessed the abortion of a 23-week-old baby with Down syndrome:

One floor below us, in the neonatal intensive care unit, no efforts were spared to save the lives of 24-week-olds. But because this child had a incurable genetic “disease,” it was still defined as a disposable fetus. Who decided these things, and how?

Haunted by the realization that “the ultimate coefficient of a woman’s freedom might be the murder of her unborn baby,” Erna found herself reflecting on her parents and younger sister, Iris, who has Down syndrome.

I now faced a choice between a perfectly acceptable form of service – and a truly radical one.

What struck me was the miracle of how Iris and others like her were integrated into every facet of Bruderhof life. My parents never had to ask themselves whether they could “afford” to accept her, or whether she fit with their lifestyle. In community, the gifts Iris had to offer could be received. She was not only cared for; she was also able to reciprocate. My values of autonomy and success stood in stark contrast to that.

I began to reconsider freedom. I had been reading Kierkegaard, who wrote that you never actually have freedom until you use it to make a decision. If you just float along, you are not utilizing it. The Bruderhof members’ commitment and solidarity was what created the space where freedom could flourish for all.

Dr. Zimmerman teaches a biology class at The Mount Academy.

Paolo Coelho’s book The Alchemist was the final peg in the coffin of my ideals. In it, a shepherd from Andalusia, Spain, has a recurring dream about a treasure buried beneath a pyramid in Egypt. He gives up everything to go on a long and harrowing search for this treasure, but on arriving there realizes, through a clue, that it lies under the roots of the very sycamore tree in Andalusia where he first had his dream. The message couldn’t have been clearer to me: “The treasure lies buried at home.” And “Real freedom is to find your calling and give up everything for it.”

Erna returned to the Bruderhof and became a member in 2004, several days after her twenty-fifth birthday.

Becoming a member of the Bruderhof means committing to Christ first, through baptism. People warned me this could mean the beginning of an inner struggle. But for me it was the other way around. I guess I’d done my struggling first. The day I was baptized (outdoors), a chilly wind was blowing fiercely, as if to chase away my old life and bring me something new. Afterwards I stood up, dripping wet, but filled with joy and peace. In binding myself to Jesus – and to others – I was finally free.

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