Peacemaker ship crewed by religious sect seeking to live simple lives

Wilmington Star-News/April 3, 2009

The young men on the ship wear their long hair tied back at the base of their neck. The older men on the ship wear full beards. The women and girls wear full-length skirts or loose pants with their long hair pulled into ponytails.

Their appearance is a hallmark of their religious beliefs as part of The Twelve Tribes of the Commonwealth of Israel, a Messianic sect that believes in communal living, working, eating, schooling and worshipping. They model their beliefs, modest appearance and lives after the early church in the Bible, striving to "restore the way the first church was when it was called The Way," said Lee Philips, one of three captains on the ship. "You share everything with one another and take care of one another. We want our life here on the ship to be the same as life on land."

The Peacemaker's crew hopes to use the tall ship as an extension of the hospitality of Yahshua, their name for Jesus, at each port it visits. The ship is offering free tours at its dock on Water Street through April 11.

Some Twelve Tribes communities have been involved in controversies including violating child labor laws or allegations of child abuse. In 2001, a New York Twelve Tribes community was fined $2,000 for violating child labor laws after allowing children to work in Twelve Tribes businesses. In 1984, Vermont state officials seized 112 children living in the Island Pond community alleging child abuse for the tribe's use of spanking as punishment. The charges were later dropped.

Philips said his community has not been accused of labor violations.

Though the Wilmington area does not have a Twelve Tribes community, there are communities in Asheville and Hiddenite, N.C.

Twelve Tribes consists of about 2,000-3,000 people living in communities worldwide and began in the 1970s in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Tribes expects its members to give up all their possessions to join the communities.

But the aim of their ship's tour isn't overt evangelism.

"We live the life we live," said 18-year-old crewmember Ayin Philips, "and if people are interested we tell them about it, but we don't press it on anyone."

Young men in Twelve Tribes communities can do apprenticeships in navigation, woodworking, piloting, rigging and sailmaking on the ship.

But trying to maintain your religious mandates while talking with hundreds of tourists each day on the ship can be difficult. The group doesn't worship in a formal church, but come together twice each day in the morning and at night for prayers and singing praise songs they've written.The group cites scripture justifying every element of their way of life including the way they eat - focusing on whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables. Children are homeschooled and work alongside their parents on land and in their chores on the ship and are not allowed to watch television. The three girls in the Philips family help their mother fix meals each day.

Lee Philips was raised in Catholic and Assemblies of God churches and joined Twelve Tribes in 1985.

"But the altar calls I answered never seemed to work. It didn't bring me out of one kingdom and into another," he said. In Twelve Tribes, "I saw that their life, their faith, what they did day-to-day was all the same. That struck a chord with me."

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