Religious group's plans, investment go up in smoke 26, 2002
By Drew Sterwald

A controversial religious sect has no plans to recruit in Fort Myers, although members bought the former American Legion Hall before fire gutted it earlier this month.

They don't proselytize, members say. They just want to live a Scripture-inspired life and prepare for the coming of a messiah they call Yahshua.

"In Twelve Tribes, people are here because they want to be here," said Bruce Carver, 47, a Twelve Tribes member who bought the property in February with two other members.

"We don't think our life is for everyone. It's a life of choice."

It's also a way of life that involves abusing child-labor laws and embracing racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic views, critics say.

The Twelve Tribes follow a leader who is unaccountable to anyone and believes he has the ear of God, according to Bob Pardon, a congregational minister and director of the nonprofit Institute for Religious Research in Michigan.

"That's a dangerous mix," said Pardon, whose nondenominational, Christian foundation studies religious claims in light of history, science and the Bible.

As for their Fort Myers presence, Pardon speculated the Tribes were looking for a group home or business location.

The First Street property is zoned residential, Carver said, and he and his partners had not finalized plans for its use beyond converting a portion of the 16,000-square-foot building into a duplex. A restaurant, a lodge, an educational center were mentioned as possibilities by Tribes people, if the city allowed the appropriate zoning variances.

All plans are on hold as the April 4 blaze is investigated and insurance companies and engineers assess the damage.

The State Fire Marshal's Office, which still is investigating the fire as "suspicious," estimated damage at $650,000 - about $30,000 short of what the trio of owners paid for it.

Tribes people say the 1928 building was purchased as an investment.

Carver, who lives with another member in Arcadia, said he didn't think the fire was started by someone trying the stop the Tribe, but does believe it was intentionally set.

"We have been the subject of hate crimes in the past, but I didn't think anybody there knew that we were of the Twelve Tribes or that anyone in Fort Myers knew what Twelve Tribes is about," he said.

What it's about is the Bible, according to members.

The Tribes practice a hybrid of Christian and Hebrew beliefs and rituals intended literally to reflect Scripture.

In the 1960s, they might have been dismissed as Jesus freaks. Now, post-Waco, post-Heaven's Gate, suspicions arise about cultish followings.

"Certainly we get that comparison all the time. We expect it," said Ed Wiseman, 54. "If we're really radically different and distinct, we don't expect people to swallow us hook, line and sinker. It's human nature to mistrust what you don't understand."

Wiseman and his wife, Jean, live at the Twelve Tribes' Jog Run Farm in suburban West Palm Beach, the nearest of the sect's 29 communities around the world. Most are in the Northeast states.

Like about 3,000 Tribes people, the Wisemans have given up their worldly possessions, dress in humble attire and share dwellings and earnings with other believers. Some take up new Hebrew names; Wiseman is known as Hakam, which he said means "wise man" in Hebrew.

About 50 others live at the five-acre ranch lushly landscaped with oleander and bougainvillea and palms. The group makes a living trimming trees and selling firewood, but also maintains a plant nursery, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Earnings maintain the community.

"A lot of people are attracted to the simple lifestyle," Pardon said, but "there's a really seamy underbelly."

Children are home-schooled and apprenticed to learn skills - and spanked when parents see fit.

Tribes members elsewhere have faced allegations and charges regarding treatment of children but rarely have been prosecuted, Pardon said. In 1984, a police raid took 112 children from a Vermont community for questioning but quickly released them.

"The group has traditionally fallen through the cracks," he said. "They really skirt the edges of the law in many ways."

Wiseman's teen-age son, Zebulun, left the group and complained to the Boston Herald of being beaten, having money withheld and being overworked.

To some, his accusations might echo typical adolescent rebellion.

"He's trying to find himself," his father said. "We don't raise them to mindlessly follow."

And if they want to leave the Tribes, members might try to persuade them otherwise but don't pressure them to stay, he said.

Wiseman, who joined the Tribes in 1974 at age 26, said the conformity members practice is dictated by the Bible - down to their priestly beards and natural-fiber clothes. Television's verboten; the Tribes want to remain separate from popular culture.

"We don't really have a police force going around telling people to not listen to the radio," Wiseman said.

Members travel in public places, keep up on current events and sing and dance at their Friday night Erev Shabbat, the beginning of their Sabbath celebration.

The event resembles a church social. Visitors mingle with members sitting in green resin chairs. Musicians play guitar, piano, flute and string bass while worshippers sing songs of praise. Men and women stand in the center of the gathering, clasp hands and perform simple dance steps.

At a recent celebration, a few black visitors watched the weekly rite - in apparent contradiction to the Tribes' reputed racist views. One of their publications, "In the Shadow of Collosus," features a tract condemning multiculturalism, while another seems to promote segregation.

"We're not racist," Wiseman said. "One of our basic beliefs is that salvation is available to all men."

And theirs is coming when the messiah, Yahshua, appears from heaven, they believe.

Elbert Spriggs, who founded the Tribes in the mid-1970s, is not the savior but a man who is helping them prepare for the real one, they say.

Although some critics have said Spriggs lives a lavish lifestyle supported by his flock, Wiseman said the leader does not get all the community's earnings.

"He has a lot of wisdom, great ideas, grace and understanding," he said.

"He does not lord it over people. He uses it to teach that we can grow together as a people."

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