[A]s we pushed off the dock and the other guys got into their boats and pressed off, we back-paddled into the dark of the inlet, waving at the Goffs as they waved back at us. And then to our amazement, we saw all of them, fully dressed with shoes and jackets, take three steps together and jump into the water, coming up and waving and shouting their good-byes. — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
DAY 90. I did a quick Google search before heading to their Winnipeg property. I wanted some sense of what I was getting myself into. Some words sizzled on their Wikipedia page.
Plenty of negative accusations scattered throughout. I was somewhat intimidated; a tad weary and wanting to race back across the border to home.
But I couldn’t just run away from a great story. It’s been the motto of my road trip, and it’s one I hope to carry forward. If something would make for a great story, why would I not engage it?
And so I drove to that Winnipeg mansion with 20 bedrooms and a welcoming sign out front. I parked my car and approached a bearded gentleman and a woman dressed from another era.
Before setting sail from Los Angeles, I hoped to experience new slices of humanity and diverse slivers of Christianity. Different denominations and services and small groups and music styles and cultures.
I was in luck; it was Friday. Tonight started the Sabbath — Shabbat, they call it.
For the next 24 hours, a great story unfolded before my eyes.
I walk through the massive house to the backyard and meet Qazaq, a big jolly man with a smile as wide as his bushy beard. I sit with him and his family in a circle of chairs and movable pews.
“We like circles,” he explains, “because everyone can see each other. As soon as you start lining people behind each other with one at the front, that’s when issues arise.”
All the males don beige headbands, their hair smoothed back into tiny ponytails. Their oversized plaid shirts and cuffed jeans make them look like they’re straight out of the 90’s.
The women also seem to stem from the 90’s — the 1790’s, that is. Their long, flowing dresses and head coverings add to the foreign aura of this place.
I feel like an alien, but at least I have a beard like all the men.
Over the next hour a chorus of guitars, violins, cellos, recorders, and djembes unite the circle in song and dance, the children racing around the dance floor with a contagious vigor.
“Do you want to dance?” one man asks me. “It’s really simple. Just like Follow the Leader.”
“That’s okay,” I say with a smile. “I’m enjoying watching.”
A few words are spoken of the Shabbat, and the evening’s guests are noted. Qazaq introduces me as the wandering writer from California, and everyone seems amazed.
I start talking with an older man named Nadiv, and he invites me to sit with his family for dinner. He explains the meaning behind his son’s name.
“Illuminator,” he explains, patting his ten-year-old’s head with the blonde ponytail. “His name is Zohar and he will light the way.”
He and his family live in this massive house alongside dozens others. The rest live in another mansion across the street or the community farm twenty minutes away. The farm produces goods that are sold at their cafe in town. Everyone works at the cafe or the farm.
The farm is where I’ve been invited to stay tonight. When I get there I see a basket on my top bunk. It is filled with snacks and goodies and a colorful “WELCOME” note front and center.
The next morning begins at 7am. “We normally meet at 6,” explains my lower bunk roommate for the night, “but during Shabbat we meet at 7 because it’s hard to wake up the kids after our late night.”
For that first early hour of Saturday everyone sits in a circle and shares something learned from the week: some practical wisdom or Scriptural understanding. Even the children share, and a chorus of “amens” bounces around the circle.
“We eat cake for breakfast,” Lev tells me afterward with a smile. A plate of oatmeal-berry cake is given to me, and homemade yogurt drizzled overtop completes the delicious ensemble.
That morning I am shown the farm and introduced to cats, chickens, and goats. Some of the older kids start a volleyball game across the pond, and the younger lads craft their own adventures. One boy climbs a treehouse, inviting me to join him.
A goat named Jade roams the field, climbing rocks and trees to eat leaves from the highest branches. Meanwhile, I play “tennis” with a boy whose name I can’t begin to repeat or spell. As I hit the yellow Nerf ball back to the boy, I speak with yet another bearded man named Kolob who enthusiastically asks about my road trip, my life.
Everyone seems so happy and content. I wonder whether this Utopian society has produced legitimate peace or if anything sinister lurks beneath the surface.
I eat the best chicken salad sandwich of my life for lunch, perfectly chunky and salty and creamy. I look down at the time and feel relieved to reenter the familiar “real world” though somewhat saddened to depart this foreign one.
“Can we sing for you as you leave?” Kolob asks me.
I stumble over my words at the surprise of his request and the anticipated ecstasy of the moment to come. I climb into my car and pull beside the gathered throng. A guitar has found its way into the fold, and soon Hebrew lyrics are being sung.
“Farewell, our friend,” they then sing in English. My eyes hide behind sunglasses, and as I pull out the driveway, the kids run after me, smiling and waving as I see the rear view mirror and catch the euphoric goodbyes from adults as well.
The moment feels like a Bob Goff memoir as I kick up dust down a long dirt road that eventually dumps me onto the interstate that snakes back down to America.
I can’t stop thinking about that farm in Winnipeg. A place where work and community and faith and life interweave and, indeed, “there was not a needy person among them.”
Theology aside, I resonate with the spirit behind what these people do and who these people are. Those people, that community, showed me more love than most churches I’ve entered. They’ve inspired me and shown me a glimpse of the impossible.
I might have joined a cult for 24 hours. But I think I’m all right with that.