Religious 'Factor' Stirs Local Emotions

Cornell Daily Sun/May 3, 2006
By Ross Anderson

"I'm really thankful," said a man who identified himself as Lev. "I was lost and alone, and then God revealed himself to me."

Five years ago, Lev joined the Twelve Tribes, The Common Wealth of Israel, a religious group that began a community in Ithaca two years ago. The community operates a café on the Commons called The Maté Factor, which sells organic food and the South American drink yerba maté, an herbal tea.

Those who join the Twelve Tribes renounce all their assets and live communally, working for businesses owned by the Tribes. Accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, child abuse and using child labor often make the Twelve Tribes a source of controversy, as when they initially arrived in Ithaca.

"The community has been mostly very helpful and nice since we have arrived," said Zahar, another member of the Twelve Tribes.

However, some religious leaders in the community are concerned by the group's arrival. Pastor Steve Felker of Christ Chapel in Ithaca feels many people don't know what the Twelve Tribes are really about.

"They put on a tremendous dog and pony show at that forum, not the least of which was having it led by a black guy. Most folks didn't have the background on the Tribes to realize that him saying, 'we're not racist' means absolutely nothing," Felker said, speaking of an open forum the Twelve Tribes held soon after they arrived to answer questions from the community.

"Outside of internal issues of Christianity, to me one of the most odious things they stand for is just flagrant racism - their idea that the rightful place of the black man is to be servant of the white," Felker continued.

On their website, the Twelve Tribes refute this claim and say their "teachings make it crystal clear that the walls of hostility are broken down by the races, in the Son of God."

What exactly the Tribes do believe, though, is another contested topic. Some even attribute the group "cult" status.

According to its website, the Twelve Tribes "believe and follow the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, in a very real and practical way. We believe that God is good and just and will judge all men according to their deeds."

Twelve Tribes members follow many Jewish and Christian traditions, such as observing the Sabbath on Friday night and believing Jesus is the son of God who died for mankind's sins. They also believe in "The Last of Days and Coming Millennial Age," a future apocalypse.

Felker claims this isn't all the Twelve Tribes believe as, "many cults have what they refer to as internal teaching papers or internal doctrinal documents that are not for public consumption because you are unenlightened. ... However, people who have left the group have taken these [documents] with them, and the New England Institute of Religious Research has published them."

In one such document on NEIRR, the Twelve Tribe's interpretation of the Biblical story of the curse of Cham, a son of Noah, concludes that black people descended from Cham's bloodline, and thus they are cursed to be servants. The document expresses discontent with the civil rights movement of the '60s, saying, "It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. ... We are all to be servants in Messiah, but Cham is somehow given natural endowment to be a servant."

Prof. David Holmberg, anthropology department chair, notes the Twelve Tribes beliefs on race, as well as sexual orientation, are far from unique among religions. "I think [their beliefs are] probably true of some other unnamed 'churches.' You can find similar kinds of things. And while that's not an apology for anyone that's racist in their orientation, it doesn't make the Twelve Tribes distinctive," Holmberg said.

Felker also feels the "highly controlling nature" of the Twelve Tribes and its member's withdrawal from the outer world give it cult status.

Holmberg is less disturbed by the Tribes' controlling nature.

"I think the common sense popular view of a cult is that it overtakes peoples' lives to that point that people are willing to commit lots of resources and maybe cut themselves off from the world ... but you can say the same thing about lots of very legitimate forms of religious practice," Holmberg said. "Hinduism has the possibility of renouncing the world, severing all ties with ones family, severing ones identity, ones social life, leaving ones possessions behind, going begging from house to house, and [Hindus] are considered the most holy kinds of people around. This is all seen as totally legitimate religious behavior. ... It is a very American notion of religion, that it is something you do on a particular day of the week."

Steve Froelich, pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, was also troubled by the Twelve Tribes arrival. Froelich moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., the town where the Twelve Tribes were founded, just as the group was leaving for Vermont, its current headquarters. Froelich said that the Tribe's youth outreach programs in had a "very divisive influence" in the Christian community.

"They focused initially on troubled youth, the disillusioned, those frustrated with traditional church and people that had a lot of life problems, such as drugs, addictive behavior - things that are always a challenge to deal with. Once they started working with youth, it starting involving families," Froelich said.

"By the time we had got there [the Twelve Tribes] had moved out of town. The churches were picking up the pieces and dealing with the impact on the community. That was my original experience. I have friends who know people that were part of the founding group, and they were ? dismayed or sometimes angry," he continued.

Since leaving Tennessee for Vermont, the Twelve Tribes has grown, now having an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 members across multiple countries, and, according to a 2005 Boston Globe Article, "the groups businesses have been thriving over the last five years -grossing millions of dollars and enabling the community to purchase houses and store fronts all over the United States."

The spiritual role of Elbert Eugene Spriggs, founder of the Twelve Tribes, is also controversial. NEIRR claims he is an apostle within the Tribes, giving him great authority.

"One of the most significant characteristics of a cult is that it is always the Bible plus. There are often secretly discovered writings that have just now been unearthed. You have an apostle, like Spriggs, who says, 'I've got another word; I have a direct pipeline to God.' This is very contrary to historic Christianity, as the idea of Christianity is that it is nobody's private religion," said Froelich.

The Twelve Tribe's website refutes any special status of Spriggs, saying, "God speaks to every human being through the conscience about issues of right and wrong. Beyond this there is a grave danger in any leader (or any individual) thinking he hears from God on his own."

Holmberg objects to Froelich's labeling of the Twelve Tribes as a cult based on Spriggs' status.

"When people try to define cults to include things like the Twelve Tribes, cults is usually a pejorative term," Holmberg said. "I think most people who have a more unbiased approach won't use the term cult. ... The people who tend to be defining cults as 'separatists focusing on a charismatic leader' are basically declining people who are challenging their religious beliefs and religious practices."

The financing of the Twelve Tribes' businesses has created further controversy.

"Spriggs has sole control over the group's tithe - a 10 percent skim of all [profits]," according to a Boston Herald investigative report.

"This is just a way for Gene Spriggs to make a lot of money," Richard Ross, cult researcher, told the Herald. "There's no question Gene Spriggs controls millions of dollars. Where is it? Only he knows."

Froelich's concern is that the working members of the Twelve Tribes that are creating these profits are being exploited. He feels "that as is often typical of cults, [the Twelve Tribes] prey on the disenfranchised and disillusioned, people who don't have a home, people who feel like they are misfits. For someone disenfranchised and powerless, to have someone love you, embrace you and give you a home is really powerful. My sense is the majority of people that are drawn to the Tribes have been lost in the world and found a home where they are loved. My concern is that people not be taken advantage of. They feel loved and brought in, but by the way, sign over your pay check. That's troubling to me."

"Choosing to go commercial on the Commons is basically an unannounced front for a cult," Felker said. "I felt like it was important to [shed] light on what they stand for, so that the community understands what they are spending their dollars on at the commons."

"They have every as much a right to operate under the law and be here as anyone else," Holmberg said. "I think it's a very strategic decision on their part to come a very liberal community, even though they themselves are not terribly open-minded, liberal, free thinking etc. If there is any evidence of real abuse, that's a question for legal authorities. Personally, I wouldn't give them my money, but I do the same with Wal-Mart."

"In many ways they are natural fit to Ithaca. Organic foods, communal living, countercultural interests and demeanor - that's Ithaca," Felker said.

"They prey upon a very transient college population," Felker continued. "They can come into Ithaca, have [their] forum, set up their little shop on the commons and just wait for four years, and you have a complete population turnover at Cornell and Ithaca College. Your class ['09] comes in, and they see this cool, countercultural, sort of jungle mate latte on the commons, and it becomes a hang out spot. Little do they know that they're prey."

"I'm not into legislating anyone's beliefs," Holmberg said. "Although I think its imperative for people in Universities to stand for rational thought, that applies to all religious beliefs and all religious persuasions. This group should be allowed to congregate and pursue a business strategy and do whatever else they are doing, and we shouldn't intervene, but Universities have to get more out in public and engage them. We can't just be up here with teaching what we believe; there are rational ways of approaching things in the world, including religious beliefs."

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