Gary Gilbreath is a soft spoken seemingly gentle man who serves as an elder in the Vine Christ Community Church [now known as the "Twelve Tribes"]. He doesn't rile easily, not even in the face of a barrage of charges against his church. The closest he comes to displaying any anger is when he hears someone accuse leaders of the church of making money off its members.
"The most absurd thing of all" he said, "is people saying that we have a lot of money." We haw no money Most of the people who come to us have no money They have debts or things like school notes and we help pay off those debts with what profits we are able to make."
Gilbreath said that the church is deeply in debt, owing notes on several pieces of property here and in the surrounding area. "At one time we were making pretty good money from the Yellow Deli operations," he said, "But then meat prices went up and it was harder to make a profit."
The church has, for all practical purposes, abandoned the business world in this section. Both of the Yellow Deli restaurants here have been sold, as have those in Dayton, Dalton, Trenton and Mentone. At the time the delis were sold, Gilbreath give as a reason the fact that a number of the members have been transferred to Island Pond, Vermont, where another branch of the church has been established.
Gilbreath said it has never been the intention of church leaders to accumulate wealth, maintaining that members are content to have "food and clothing. If the rest of the world lived like that," he added "people wouldn't be starving in other parts of the world."
Gilbreath responded to some of the charges which have been raised in this series only after being asked to do so by the Chattanooga Times. He said he always welcomed the opportunity to speak for his church but that he is not seeking publicity When he speaks of those members who have abandoned the church and then leveled bitter accusations at its practices and patrons of the church, he does so with kindness. He is convinced that former members, such as the Nielsen twins, "have taken on the mind" of the so-called deprogrammer Ted Patrick.
Gilbreath, who adamantly denies that mind control is practiced within his church, said he thinks that Patrick plays a brainwashing game "I know of his tactics," he said "He takes a person out to East Ridge and puts him in a house with no door knobs and the windows nailed shut and holds him for days until he breaks. I think they (former members) have been tricked and deceived by Patrick." Gilbreath said he doesn't believe that Patrick is deprogramming the members "from a cult," but is instead changing them to his way of thinking.
But what about those members who left without being "rescued" and "deprogrammed?" "I think those people who left of their own free will are just getting on the band wagon and making statements. I think they have a bad conscience about it. Most of those making statements left the church in haste, because of differences of opinion they might have had with others in the church."
He suggested that many of those who have left the church on their own simply weren't willing to be totally committed to Christ.
There are presently about 50 members of the church still in the area. Gilbreath estimated there will be about 20 or 25 eventually. Others are scheduled to transfer to Vermont.