Chris and Olga Ahrens

When we married," Ollie says, "we agreed from the start that we wouldn’t build our life on owning things." It’s good that this was decided right away, for the Ahrenses, starting with little, have at least twice had to begin all over again. Once when an experiment in intentional community didn’t work out for them, and once when their home in Washington, D.C., burned to the ground.

Brought up in New York City, they first met just after World War II, when the Presbyterian church’s youth work and their mutual love of skiing brought them together. They had experienced the war quite differently. The church youth group Chris belonged to at the time had shared mildly pacifist opinions before the war began, but he was the only one who adopted the conscientious objector position. His Civilian Public Service years were spent between a forestry camp in upstate New York and combating parasitical disease ("mostly digging privies," Ollie added, sotto voce) in Florida and Puerto Rico.

Ollie, on the other hand, had felt impelled to "do her bit" in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). But some documentaries she had to watch as part of her training convinced her that war was the worst possible way to settle international disputes. She sympathized with Chris’s CO position.

Marrying in 1947, they spent their honeymoon as directors of an AFSC youth work camp in Tetelcingo, Mexico. Chris had been exposed to Friends ideas earlier through workcamp experience in Michigan, but this was Ollie’s introduction to Quakerism.

They settled in Puerto Rico for three years, where Chris was employed as a hospital administrator and built the first practical nurses’ training school on the island. Next, he served as engineering manager at Lake Mohonk in the Catskill Mountains. Their mountaintop home was rather isolated from established church connections, and the Ahrenses helped start a Friends meeting at nearby New Paltz.

Rifton, the first Bruderhof community in the United States, was only seven miles from Lake Mohonk. Ollie and Chris had always been intrigued by the idea of intentional community as a way of life. The sincerity and dedi-cation of this group appealed to them; a month’s trial led to the commitment of all their possessions and all their loyalty. But after three years, "Chris asked too many questions," Ollie said. "Ollie would have been the next questioner," added Chris. The Bruderhof wasn’t for them, after all. They left the community and began life anew, with two young sons to provide for—and no resources. Some construction projects in New York City filled the gap.

Eventually, work for the CARE organization took the family to Colombia for three years. Chris directed and gave technical support to 300 members of the early Peace Corps, scattered in about 100 centers. Ollie taught in Bogotá’s schools. With another like-minded couple, the Warringtons, they started a small Friends meeting in Bogotá, sponsored by Friends World Committee for Consultation. Chris laughed, "We must be unique! We started two monthly meetings before becoming members of the Religious Society of Friends ourselves, and two more, later!" In middle life, they finally joined Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C., and held that membership until they came to western North Carolina and transferred to Asheville Meeting.

Official members or not, they have been very active in Friends meetings wherever they lived—sometimes as clerk, other times in key committees.

Friends World College was being developed in Huntington, Long Island, in the early 1960s. Ollie first volunteered as the director’s secretary, and then served for several years on the college’s board of trustees, during George Watson’s tenure as director. Chris taught Appropriate Technology at the college. During this time, they attended Westbury Meeting and later Lloyd Harbor and Adelphi Meetings.

For New York Yearly Meeting, they helped develop the Powell House conference center and represented the yearly meeting at Friends General Conference’s Central Committee. Ollie was FGC’s Recording Clerk for a time.

In the ’70s, the Office of Economic Opportunity wanted Chris for self-help housing projects, as a consultant and builder with special technical abilities. Constant moving became the pattern of the family’s life. Chris’s engineering expertise was variously employed by the OEO, the Cooperative League, and other social agencies—from one-year role-model residencies among Kentucky coal miners, to flood reconstruction on the New York/Pennsylvania border after Hurricane Agnes. At a somewhat stable location in Charleston, West Virginia, they again helped start a Friends meeting.

Internationally, Chris was asked to promote housing development and alternative energy training at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Sri Lanka. These assignments required constant traveling for Chris, while Ollie participated in whatever community was their current home, and looked after their sons’ schooling. Ollie had been a math major at Hunter College, and later had obtained a degree in counseling. There was always full-, part-time, or volunteer work in teaching and counseling, and she relished working with young people. Despite their frequent moves, both took advantage of available educational opportunities. Programs such as Goddard College’s nonresident graduate study made it possible for them to earn master’s degrees.

Eventually the Ahrenses moved to western North Carolina, where Ollie taught math and social work at Warren Wilson College. The college wanted help to set up a student travel program in Third World Countries. In addition, Chris directed activities connected with alternative technology and ecological conservation at the college.

Now they live at the retirement community of Highland Farms in Black Mountain, N.C., and are among the group of "seasoned" Quakers who in 1996 started yet another monthly meeting—Swannanoa Valley.

They’ve always had a garden to tend, and experiments in appropriate technology and simple living to hold their interest. Usually, there’s been water for sailing and canoeing.

Currently, Chris is very active in Friends Committee on Unity with Nature. He has recently helped Swannanoa Valley Meeting find a permanent home. On behalf of this meeting, Ollie tutors young men at the nearby juvenile detention center and at Black Mountain Correctional Center for Women, helping prisoners to overcome their "math-anxiety" and to qualify for GEDs.

Their greatest worry is how a desirable kind of life can be sustained, at least for the next two generations. Not surprisingly, both of them, now nearing 90 years of age, continue to be involved in their meeting and peace-related, humanitarian, and ecological causes.

Kathryn Parke

Kathryn Parke is a member of Swannanoa Valley Meeting in North Carolina.