A documentary film about a commune in southern Iowa by a UCM film student provided some insight about his family’s little-discussed past.
As a project for his documentary class, Zach Nowlin, a senior digital media production major, visited this secluded, religious community known as The Brotherhood of Christ Church, also commonly referred to as The Land until they changed it to The Community. Nowlin said he personally still refers to it as The Land.
“It’s mainly a religious group,” Nowlin said. “They try to retract themselves from society to get rid of the distractions. So, they can totally live their life according to the way God intended it. So they can live for God all the time.”
The commune is located in Iowa outside the town of Lamoni near the Missouri border.
Nowlin’s grandmother, Kathy Nowlin, was an honorary member. He said she visited the commune regularly and built a house there with his grandfather, Tom; however, they never officially moved there. She still visits The Land on occasion and currently lives in Lamoni. Tom Nowlin died in 2015.
“If my grandma moved out there, it would have probably affected my family quite a bit,” Nowlin said. “There probably would have been a lot of drama with my dad, grandpa and my aunt and uncle. None of them were really into it, so that’s why my grandma really only visited on the weekends.”
Nowlin said his other family members never talked about the commune until recently. He said when the group was first explained to him, his family used “cult undertones.” Nowlin said his grandmother’s involvement in the group inspired him to choose this topic. He said he also found the group interesting.
“Just the fact that she was involved,” Nowlin said, “and the fact that it had been going on for literally my whole life and I had no idea about it until about a year ago.”
He said his grandmother isn’t a secretive person, but she won’t tell you something unless you ask.
Nowlin said he was the first in his family to visit the commune after his grandparents.
He said the group was founded in 1988 by Ronald Livingston. Some of the current members were present during the founding. Others have joined since then or were born there.
People who join are given new names. For instance, Ronald Livingston is called William by members of the commune.
Nowlin said the group was influenced by three religions – Mormonism, Christianity and the Essenes, which is a religion that follows the Dead Sea Scrolls – ancient Jewish manuscripts discovered in the last century.
Nowlin said the group does not use electricity and relies on candles for lights and horses for work and transportation.
“Out there, they live off the land,” Nowlin said. “They grow their own food, make their own clothes, build their own houses.”
Nowlin said the commune is viewed negatively by some people, including locals around Lamoni and relatives of members who have joined.
“I think (the Lamoni community) are very accepting of it now,” Nowlin said, “but there are some who just think, ‘Oh, they’re a cult.’”
Nowlin made four trips to the commune. On the second trip, he brought filming equipment and three friends and fellow UCM students to work as the crew – Cody Clemmons, Colin Obrien and Kiley Rex.
“They’re nice people,” Clemmons said.
Nowlin’s father, Lincoln, also joined him on his third trip. It was his dad’s first visit to the commune.
“I don’t know really how he feels about it,” Nowlin said, “but indifferent is the best way to put it.”
The commune members had been interviewed before, but this was the first time camera equipment was allowed. Before the trip, Nowlin said the commune’s governing body convened a meeting to decide whether to give Nowlin permission to bring in his equipment. They decided in favor of it.
Nowlin described the commune as a beautiful place and the members as very nice.
“After I interviewed the people there, I was like, ‘Yeah, no way this is a cult,’” Nowlin said. “But then I would interview people who moved off The Land because they were unhappy with it. And, I mean, they said there’s definitely an argument for it being a cult.”
Nowlin said that in 2011, some 25 members left the commune. He said the Lamoni community was very supportive by helping former members adjust after leaving. He said members born there had no driver’s licenses, birth certificates, experience with handling money, insurance and other life skills.
Nowlin said he enjoyed the trip but personally wouldn’t spent more than a weekend there. He said he couldn’t handle their lifestyle and he is not very religious.
“They’re very accepting,” Nowlin said. “And they’re self-aware about it. They’re like, ‘Yeah, we know what we’re doing out here is unusual, but you know, we’re not trying to impede on anybody,’ doing their own thing. It’s very much like that. You do you and I’ll do me.”
Nowlin said he plans to finish the documentary by Dec. 6 and is going to call it “The Land.” He said he has enough footage that he’s thought about making it into a feature-length film.
“I’m still playing with the idea of making it a feature, but that’d be awhile down the road,” Nowlin said.