Cambridge -- Members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel community have mostly kept to themselves in the 25 years since they started a communal farm on the outskirts of town. Now, they're interested in getting to know their neighbors better over a cup of coffee -- or yerba mate, a drink brewed from an herbal stimulant.
The group is putting the finishing touches on its new Common Ground cafe, which will open on Main Street sometime this winter. It will feature homemade, organic food, in a wood-walled space meant to be inviting.
"I think the name of our cafe says it better than anything," said Bob Racine, a Twelve Tribes member. "We want to get to know people. We want them to know why we live this way. It's too big a step to say, 'Oh, come on over to my house,' but going to a cafe is a little bit more of a neutral place."
Racine has lived in Cambridge for about seven years. His name within the group is Shoresh, which means "root" in Hebrew. Most of the members have taken a Hebrew name, because their faith emphasizes the Jewish roots of Christianity. They try to live like the early Christians by sharing all their money and possessions.
Of course, the early Christians didn't have to deal with the Internal Revenue Service.
Most churches and religious charities are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, but their employees still pay personal income tax. In groups like the Twelve Tribes, however, the employees' personal incomes and the group's business income are all combined in a communal treasury, so paying taxes gets complicated.
Twelve Tribes is a unique kind of tax-exempt business the IRS classifies as a "501(d)," under a small subparagraph of the tax code created for "religious and apostolic organizations." This means that the group's members are taxed on a "pro rata" basis of personal income, as if the treasury had been divided equally among all of them.
"It's a way to avoid double taxation," explained Racine. "We don't look to get out of paying taxes, but we do expect to be taxed justly because we are different."
He pointed out that Twelve Tribes pays property tax on its 112-acre farm in Cambridge because "we believe it's a legitimate tax," even though they could argue for exemption as a religious group.
Any income from the cafe will be added to the group's shared treasury, along with revenue from its Common Sense line of natural body care products.
Twelve Tribes has 38 communities throughout the nation and world, and operates 10 other Common Ground cafes in the United States and Canada, including ones in Ithaca and Rutland, Vt. Its Oneonta community is also planning to open a cafe, although it has run into some opposition from town officials.
The Cambridge Common Ground cafe will be located in the former King Bakery on Main Street. Men from the Twelve Tribes group have been working on it in their spare time, using natural materials like driftwood and fallen branches to transform it into what looks like a cozy mountain cabin.
Most locals said they're looking forward to eating at the new cafe, regardless of the religious beliefs behind it.
"We've gotten nothing but positive response. People in town have even stopped by to help us work on it," said Bill Johnson, a Twelve Tribes member known as Reya (friend). "It's been nice."