They came together to set the record straight, ask questions, tell stories and exercise their First-Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
They, of course, are the members of the Twelve Tribes community.
Last night, they held an open forum in the Holiday Inn on South Cayuga Street, attracting approximately 50 people from various parts of the city.
Rarely can the arrival of a religious group shake a city as that of the Twelve Tribes in Ithaca. Since the group moved in, local newspapers and community leaders as well as college students and professors have questioned its political, religious and economic practices and, perhaps most damaging, called the Twelve Tribes a cult.
At the core of the argument seems to be a discussion of the relationship between freedom of religion and one city's unspoken moral code.
"In the popular sense of the word, they're not a cult. You could say that the Armed Forces or the Catholic Church or a football team is a cult. The term doesn't mean anything. It's used by people who would want to denigrate a particular group, and especially new religions," said Prof. Richard Robbins, anthropology, State University of New York at Plattsburgh, who has been "working with" the group for 12 years.
And so, last night the group called together interested members of the Ithaca community to participate in an open forum on "Who are the Twelve Tribes?"
The air in the inn's Cayuga Room was fraught with tension as people waited for the forum to begin. Stories of friends of friends who knew people who had to be "deprogrammed" flew in whispered tones around the four concentric circles set up to facilitate discussion, as a Twelve Tribes member promised that the cookies and maté at one end of the room were "free and all made from organic ingredients," and a mildly Semitic flute-and-guitar duet tried to soothe restless nerves.
The group, led by moderator John Stringer, a member of the Twelve Tribes, fielded questions of why they are in Ithaca, what their real motives for holding the forum was, whether or not they would fit in with the existing businesses and philosophies of the city and how they interact with each other within the walls of their own building on the Ithaca Commons and with members of the greater community.
The group said they decided to hold an open forum after Harvey Fireside published an editorial in the Ithaca Journal which they found damning. Brianna Fireside, the writer's wife, who was in attendance though her husband could not be, pointed out that they hold such open meetings in every town they come to.
"Free speech is alive and well," said one excited community member.
"No one in this room is not in a cult. Our leaders are Oppenheimer, Edison, Marconi and Disney," he added.
"If they qualify on kindness and respect, hopefully that can radiate out, and we will learn that all people should be treated with respect," said one woman who identified herself as an "old hippie."
"This is Ithaca. Ithaca prides itself on diversity. Well, this is diversity," said Guy Gerard, who told the group he was part of the "hippie migration" to Ithaca in the early '70s.
Others were less enthusiastic. Perhaps most contentious was the group's sentiments on gay and lesbian issues.
"We're not anti-anything, but we are very pro-family. We believe that women and men should be together. That's normal. People do all kinds of other things. We hope that we can live a certain way and inspire them to see what we see," said Twelve Tribes member Matthew Roller.
"That bummed me out. When you talk about normal vs. not normal. Those are words that are frightening and scary. It rings of Nazi Germany or the DSM listing homosexuality [as a mental illness]. I wanted to welcome you folks. ... You can see why I have a little bit of sadness," said Nina Danzer, who identified herself as a mother who has a female partner.
Community members also expressed concern at the group's proselytizing techniques, or rather that they proselytize at all.
"If you believe in what you're doing, then you want to pass it on," said one Twelve Tribes member.
"They proselytize," Robbins said.
Community members also voiced concern about the group's feelings on multiculturalism, sentiments that some consider racist.
"Legally enforced multiculturalism doesn't work. Multiculturalism has to come from within," Stringer said.
Robbins pointed out that to call the group racist is somewhat ironic.
"The only community that ever had problems was in Knoxville, Tenn. The problem was that they were interracial, which didn't sit well with people in Tennessee in the late '70s," he said.
Other issues included child labor, for which the group has received national attention and from which it allegedly got the type of funding it took to buy not only the Home Dairy, where it is opening a Maté Factor cafe, but also the Ithaca Fitness Center.
During the forum itself, members of the group found it difficult to answer the questions, but Robbins explained, "Their funding comes from their industries. Each community basically decides how to fund itself on its own. They live on very little. A family of four or five or six will live on $5,000 or $6,000 a year. They tend to pick industries where they can keep their children with them. People who join are asked to give up their possessions to the Twelve Tribes, but they can give [them] to relatives instead. I would say, however, that they take more people who are in debt than who give them money."
"Ideas do have consequences," one community member warned.
At the end of the forum, Stringer gave each person 30 seconds to say something "without rebuttal" at which point the Rev. Steve Felker of the Christ Chapel said he was disappointed because "a lot of direct questions were never answered. I'm not comfortable. I really don't feel like we got answers. We got squishy answers and fuzzy stories."
Ultimately, of course, the questions are, will this group survive in Ithaca and will Ithaca welcome them?
"Groups of this kind tend to be very short-lived. There is a history of new religious movements in this country, and most of them last two or three years. This group is very successful. To have survived this long is itself a testament. They have 2,500 to 3,000 members and 30 communities worldwide. I think Ithaca will welcome them because they are good citizens," Robbins said.