When you think of an intentional community, you probably think of a “hippy commune” or maybe even a “cult.” When I joined my adventure partner to live at an intentional community in Northern California I had no idea what to expect. I’m not exactly a hippie and I really didn’t want to join a cult. The name of the community, Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule, also gave me some cult-like vibes. Nonetheless, I decided to go in with an open mind. Here’s what I learned after living in an intentional community for three months.
Every intentional community has a story…
Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule is based in Willits, California on Ridgewood Ranch. The Church has officially owned Ridgewood Ranch since the 60’s and it is a beautiful property with over 5,000 acres. The property also has a long and interesting history. The land was once Native American land, with Pomo Indians inhabiting the beautiful valley. The Ranch is also known for being the retirement home and final resting place of the famous race horse Sea Biscuit.
Digging deeper into its history I also found it had some less than savory parts. During the Great Depression a group called Mankind United was founded by Arthur Bell. Bell believed in a worldwide conspiracy where the world was controlled by hidden rulers who were trying to create a worldwide slave state. Bell and Mankind United were trying to create a utopia based on universal employment with a short workweek, an economy of financial credit, and an artificial language. Bell also believed he could teleport and that he could ray gun people’s eyes out so this guy obviously had his shit together.
During World War II Mankind United was reincorporated as the Church of the Golden Rule as a tax dodge. Nonetheless, the group mostly fell apart once Bell left in 1951. However, some members of the newly rechristened Church of the Golden Rule remained and bought Ridgewood Ranch although they discarded the weird cultish philosophies of Bell and focused more on community building.
Every intentional community has a few characters…
Meeting the other characters who lived on the ranch was interesting to say the least. First, there was Ellen. Ellen was the manager of the Golden Rule Garden and considered the matriarch of the community. She was also the one we would mostly be working with as interns. Ellen was a feisty, tough as nails Colorado-bred farmer, who was as salty as vinegar. She ran a lot of the show, and we always tried to stay on her good side. Then there was Ellen’s husband Brian, a man who had a steely-stare and always looked stressed, but was as soft as a teddy bear once you got past the death stare.
Other interesting characters we met include our neighbor Mark. Mark was the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve met, but he did have one quirk – he did not care for blue-spectrum light. He wore yellow-tinted sunglasses indoors to protect himself from the harmful blue light that he believed was the cause of all our health problems. He also swore off blue light inside his own house, opting to use red lightbulbs so that his apartment looked like a red-light district brothel from the outside. Then there was Terri. Terri was kind and compassionate and was a Reiki healer. Terri really seemed to want us to stay at the ranch. She made sure we were in eye-view of the “elder committee” when we were cleaning the community dining room. “Oh good. The elders saw you working. That’s a good thing.” She said.
Elders? That sounded just a wee-bit cult like to me. As interns, we learned that there was an elder committee that would be deciding in a consensus meeting whether we would be allowed to stay as interns for the three months we were asking to stay. Every major decision at the ranch was made by consensus by the elders, who were the long-standing members of the church and community.
While the Church owns the property there were also several different players who operated on the property including a farm school, a mobile home village for seniors, and a non-profit organization called Ecology Action. As new interns it was a confusing labyrinth to navigate at first.
“Community is hard,” Ellen once told us. “You have to put the needs of the community before yourself.”
Over time we found this to be true. While we were getting free room and board as well as free meals, we had to put in work to the community. Every night the community had community dinner where members of the Church would either cook or clean. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays we were assigned to clean up duty after dinner. Some days, we just didn’t want to do it either because we were tired or we wanted to just have dinner at home. But we had to put the needs of the community over our own so we did it begrudgingly.
We also helped with tons of other tasks. We helped prune apple and peach trees in the orchard, helped plant celery, kale, and carrots in the community garden, and we helped clean seeds to be sold for profit.
Over time, the challenges of living in a community, the isolating rural location, and the unraveling of my relationship with my adventure partner became too much to bear and I left the community. I definitely don’t recommend going through a break up when you’re living in an intentional community. The ruin of our relationship became gossip fodder and it became everyone’s business when I had to tell the elders that I was leaving because my relationship had ended.
Living in an intentional community was very difficult, and with a wide array of personalities and needs, there were often clashes and tensions among members. Over time I learned living in an intentional community just wasn’t for me. However, there were others who did adapt well to living in an intentional community. For example, there was Andrew, a 21 year old kid from San Bernardino California. Andrew was a quiet hard worker who wanted a simple life where he could live in a community, farm, and play his harmonica. It worked for him. Others also got along well. Today I still admire the hell out of the community for trying to create an intentional and welcoming space for members and I am so grateful for the time I spent there. Despite its cultish roots, I am also really grateful that I didn’t accidentally join a cult.