Inside the Christian commune where an airman who self-immolated for Gaza grew up

Aaron Bushnell  (Supplied)
Aaron Bushnell (Supplied)

Five hundred miles north of the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, near the shores of Cape Cod Bay, a tight-knit and sometimes controversial religious community was coming to terms this week with the death of one of its own – in the most highly-publicized and dramatic of circumstances.

Aaron Bushnell, the 25-year-old Air Force service member who self-immolated to protest Israeli action in Gaza on Sunday, spent his youth among the devoted church group known as the Community of Jesus.

The Christian organization in Orleans, Massachusetts on Cape Cod has previously weathered abuse accusations associated with its practices. For decades, families and single members have existed communally on the group’s property and in residences surrounding it, joining their lives in everything from work and prayer to education.

Bushnell was listed as working alongside his mother at the Community of Jesus’ publishing house, Paracelete Press, from 2015-2017 on LinkedIn. His role was described as maintaining and supporting IT infrastructure and e-commerce for the “40+ person publishing company.”

Community of Jesus describes itself as “an ecumenical Christian community in the Benedictine monastic tradition” on its site.

The group’s account on X, formerly known as Twitter, has posted pro-Israel content, including emojis of praying hands and an Israeli flag on the one-month anniversary of militants’ murderous storming of the Nova music festival and other attacks on 7 October. Members have also posted pro-Israel content on their personal social media pages.

“Members of the Community of Jesus, who come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds and occupations, make professions of commitment according to their Rule of Life, including vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life,” the group’s site continues. “Founded upon Scripture and the heritage of monastic tradition, the Community of Jesus gives definition to its purpose as a living witness to the values and principles essential to Christian life and faith. Members of the Community of Jesus are joined in a common commitment of love and service to God, to each other and to the world.”

A woman who answered the phone on Monday for the group refused to put The Independent’s call through, and multiple requests for comments via email from the Community of Jesus and its members have gone unanswered.

The airman’s father, David Bushnell, has run a building company registered at one of the church’s residences, according to public records. His mother, Danielle, has worked at Paracelete Press for 27 years, according to her bio on its site.

“Her other passions include teaching American history and government to homeschoolers, playing the bass clarinet, caring for her dog, Jasper, and her cat, Lilac,” reads the site, which also profiles multiple other staffers listed at residential addresses surrounding the group’s Orleans property. The bio makes no mention of Bushnell or his younger brother, Sean; local public schools confirmed that the airman had been enrolled on and off during his K-12 years.

The community is also heavily involved in supporting the arts, and both Bushnell and his brother were active in group percussion performance and competition. The late airman’s Facebook page features pictures of his team at the Winter Guard international 2018 competition in Ohio.

In 2021, former Community of Jesus members told a CBS investigative team of being “repeatedly traumatized’ during their time with the group; a year before that, a Canadian judge ruled in favor of former students in a class-action suit against a now-defunct school with close ties to the Community of Jesus, ruling that it had created an “abusive, authoritarian and rigid culture.” The Community of Jesus has publicly disputed all accusations.

One former Community of Jesus member, Susan Wilkins, told the Washington Post that she had known Bushnell and his family at the Cape Cod compound but had heard he’d left the group – adding that joining the military was not an uncommon trajectory for previous devotees, describing the move as going from “one high-control group to another high-control group.”

Bushnell joined the Air Force in 2020, according to LinkedIn, in addition to studying computer software engineering at Southern New Hampshire University and University of Maryland Global Campus.

Southern New Hampshire University issued a statement confirming Bushnell enrolled online last year to pursue a computer science degree, adding that it was “deeply saddened by the news of Aaron’s passing and the SNHU community sends its deepest condolences to Aaron’s family and friends,” NBC Boston reported.

He was based with the Air Force in San Antonio, working as a DevOps Engineer, at the time of his death, according to LinkedIn.

“When a tragedy like this occurs, every member of the Air Force feels it,” Col. Celina Noyes, the commander of the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, to which Mr. Bushnell was assigned, said in a statement on Monday night. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senior Airman Bushnell.”

In San Antonio, 32-year-old Lupe Barboza told the Washington Post she met Bushnell in 2022 at an event for a socialist group and would deliver provisions to people experiencing homelessness in the area.

The airman, she told the paper, was “outraged, and he knew that no one who is in charge is listening to the protesters out there every week .... He knows that he has privilege as a White man and a member of the military.”

Other friends from San Antonio told the Post Bushnell had moved to Ohio earlier this year for a course for service members transitioning out of the military.

Levi Pierpont, 23, who met Bushnell during basic training and has since left the Air Force, described the two chatting in Ohio as recently as January, when the airman discussed his disillusionment with the military and “state-sanctioned violence,” Pierpont told the outlet.

Weeks later, Bushnell walked up to the Israeli embassy in Washington DC on 25 February, placed his phone on the ground to livestream, then set himself on fire in front of the gates as he shouted “Free Palestine.”

Earlier in the day, he’d made what would become his final post on Facebook.

“Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’” he wrote. “The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”