Cult hoping expansion plans may flower with Plymouth café

Boston Herald/May 8, 2004
By Dave Wedge

Members of a controversial cult accused of racism, violating child labor laws and hitting kids with sticks defended their lifestyle yesterday as they planned to open a new cafe in Plymouth.

"We spank our children out of love," Twelve Tribes member Kevin Gadsby said. "There's so many misconceptions about us."

The 3,000-member international sect, led by elusive "prophet" Elbert Eugene "Yoneq" Spriggs, runs the Common Sense health food shop on Main Street in Plymouth and recently purchased an adjacent building where they will open an eatery. The sect operates Common Ground cafes in Dorchester and Hyannis and has several compounds in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York where members live communally.

"They're very nice people. They keep things clean," said Lynda Oehme, who runs Stevens Florist next door to Common Sense.

Ex-members, though, say the Judeo-Christian religious sect is really a brainwashing cult that preaches against interracial marriage, sucks members dry of money and property, and abuses children. In addition to hitting children with "balloon rods," the sect has been accused of locking kids in basements and forcing children to work at their factories.

The group was fined for child labor violations in New York in 2001 and has been embroiled in several child custody scandals in which members allegedly hid children from authorities. There have also been investigations into newborn deaths and accusations that children have died of preventable diseases because members aren't vaccinated or taken to doctors.

"This group is very dangerous," said cult deprogrammer Robert Pardon, who runs a Lakeville home for defectors of high-control groups, including the Twelve Tribes.

One ex-member living at Pardon's center said she was denied anti-depressants and locked in a room for six days before she fled.

But followers, who believe they are a "chosen" people who will be saved by the Messiah upon gathering 144,000 male virgins, deny wrongdoing and say they're "misunderstood."

"We don't hurt our children," said 30-year member John Howley. "We love our children and to not discipline your children is to not love them."

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