Phil Lancaster and his wife, Pam, had long dreamed of living in a community where they could home-school their six children and be with others who shared their Christian values.
What they needed was a push.
In the end, it was the widespread fear over Y2K that prompted the Lancasters and dozens of other families from across the country to collect their rations and build a place they could call their own, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“We were thinking, ‘If we’re going to build a community, now’s the time to do it, before this disaster hits,’ ” said Lancaster, 51, who came from Missouri in 1998. “In a way, Y2K is responsible for bringing us together.”
Now, more than a year after Y2K proved to be no disaster at all, the community is flourishing with new families moving in regularly. More than 30 have come to the ever-expanding cluster of farmhouses, modest new homes and trailers, most within walking distance of one another.
“We want to live in an old-time neighborhood, one where everyone knew their neighbors and they shared the same values,” said Lancaster, who publishes a Christian men’s magazine from his home. “We want to be on the cutting edge of where our culture needs to head and that’s reforming our communities.”
The community, built on 440 acres of a former dairy farm, is called Rivendell, taken from the name of the refuge and learning center in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
It was the brainchild of Ken Griffith, a single 28-year-old Virginia Tech graduate who grew up near Floyd County. The former computer programmer went to public and Christian schools, but many of his family members home-schooled their children.
“I knew several home-schooling families across the country who lived in isolation,” said Griffith, who sought financing from the landowners and put up some of his own money to make the idea work. “Rivendell is a way to bring these families together and to build a church community.”
A Tightknit Community
About 80% of the people who live in Rivendell go to the nearby Covenant Church, a tiny, old, white building with worn wooden pews and a tin roof. Covenant Church is a member congregation of the Federation of Reformed Churches, a small denomination that shares some Reformed and Presbyterian traditions.
The Rivendell congregation is led by elders and holds weekly communion.
Members of the tightknit community visit each other daily. Potluck dinners are held at the church once a month and the women have tea time and attend Christian homemaking and mothering classes. The men get together to hunt.
The community’s goal is to build a self-sustaining Reformed Christian culture made up of strong families who focus on home-based business and homesteading. Many families also believe in home birthing. Several large families with seven or more children live in the community, where most adults oppose birth control.
Many of the men in Rivendell work from home so they can spend more time with their families. Those who can’t work at home commute about an hour to Roanoke or Christiansburg. Most of the women are homemakers.
“I think it’s important to be at home with your children and allow them to see Daddy working to support the family,” said Brian Carpenter, who runs a Web hosting and designing business from his small trailer.
Carpenter moved to Rivendell from New Jersey in June with his wife and four children amid heavy skepticism from family members and friends.
“When you tell them you’re moving to a Christian community with other like-minded people, the first thing they say is, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” said Carpenter, 33. “The first thing they think of is Waco or Jim Jones. It’s nothing like that.”
Jeff Dalton, chief investigator for the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department, said some locals were a bit wary of the newcomers who billed themselves a religious community.
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” said Dalton, whose beat includes Rivendell.
Residents of Rivendell point out that there’s no mayor or leader of the community, which should dampen fears of a cultist movement. Though Griffith purchased the land, he subdivided it and sold parcels to individual families.
Newcomers, in general, are nothing new to Floyd County.
The area for decades has been a refuge for social dropouts such as the hippies of the 1960s and the New Agers of the ‘90s.
Many groups are drawn to the area because the land is fertile and cheap, taxes and crime rates are low, and the water is abundant and unpolluted. The county also is home to a few small communes where people share work and earnings and grow their own food.
Ken Hubbard, 43, who quit a well-paying job with a California utility company and moved his family to Rivendell in August, likened the community to ethnic enclaves created by immigrants arriving in the United States.
“It’s great to live next to your friends, people who you can count on and will encourage and support you. There’s a bond here,” he said. Previously, “you’d only see your friends on Sundays.”
Pam Lancaster said the community strives to be self-sustaining, but Rivendell residents are not trying to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.
“We never saw it as trying to run away, but to gather with people who have the same views,” she said. “Part of the reason our country is where it is today is because of the breakdown in the home. We want our children to grow up in a steady community with the health and stability our country once had.”
Meanwhile, the Lancasters and others are sorting through the hoard of supplies they stored for Y2K preparedness and determining what can be donated to charity.
Those who bought into the Y2K fears are thankful that it was the final push for starting the community, although the preparations left many of them in debt.
“This is something that has been planned for some time, but Y2K was the impetus,” said Howard King, who left his job in Baltimore to move to Rivendell. “Now that we’ve moved here, we are more convinced that the Christian lifestyle in the modern world requires us to live with each other.”