A joyous noise echoed over the Morning Star Ranch in Valley Center as the sun descended on a recent Friday and the faithful, after six days of labor, welcomed the Sabbath with song, dance, prayers and a festive dinner for friends, family and guests.
With few formalities or any apparent leader, group members seamlessly formed a circle under a sprawling pergola that shelters an amphitheater known as the Courts, raised their hands high and began to share prayers and thoughts of the past week.
"Thank you for the food you always provide us, and for the fish who gave up their lives for us," one man said in a prayer to God.
"I'd like to apologize to anybody I've been mean to," said another man in a moment of self-reflection.
The faithful gathered in the courts are members of an international community of Christians called the Twelve Tribes, the Commonwealth of Israel.
Followers of strict interpretations of the Bible ---- particularly passages on sharing and giving up possessions ---- members don't worship once a week at a conventional church but instead live communally in a lifestyle they say exemplifies their faith daily.
That unconventional lifestyle has resulted in occasional controversy at Twelve Tribes groups elsewhere.
Former members of Twelve Tribes communities in other states have said child discipline can extend far beyond the light spankings officially endorsed by group leaders. One community on the East Coast has been fined for violating child labor laws, and a researcher who tracks fringe groups has called the Twelve Tribes a dangerous cult that exploits its members.
Members of the Valley Center group say they are sometimes misunderstood because of the notoriety attached to other Twelve Tribes groups, but they have nothing to hide at Morning Star Ranch.
A drive up the dirt road leading to their three houses passes goats, a few cows, fields and not a single "No trespassing" sign. Strangers are likely to be greeted by someone extending a hand and saying, "Hi. What's your name?"
Off the ranch, outsiders are most likely to come into contact with Twelve Tribes members selling produce at farmers markets in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Leucadia, Ocean Beach and San Bernardino.
Others may have first learned of the Twelve Tribes this summer after Morning Star members alerted authorities that a couple and a missing young girl who were subjects of a national manhunt were living on their property. The members said they took the three in to give them shelter, and called authorities immediately after realizing they were wanted.
'Not here to proselytize'
The Twelve Tribes began in Tennessee in the 1970s, and the first California group started in the 1990s when Kevin Carlin, known to fellow followers by his Hebrew name Soreph Gamaliel, started a community in Vista after moving from another group in Missouri.
"We came to California because we thought there were a lot of lost people here," he said.
The Vista community branched out in 2003 when the worldwide group helped fund the purchase of the 66-acre Morning Star Ranch, where more than 30 followers live today.
Community members minding the Morning Star Ranch booths at the markets are more likely to play up their fresh, organic produce than to give a hard-sell about faith.
"We're not here to proselytize," said member David Alexander, who sells at the Escondido farmers market on Tuesdays and is known to other followers by his Hebrew name David Derush. "We're here to sell produce."
While the group follows Jesus, whom followers refer to by the Hebrew name Yahshua, they also recently observed the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana.
"We're Christians, but not in the modern image of Christians," Derush said. "We're Christians in faith as practiced in Acts 2 and 4."
An especially relevant passage from Acts 2:42-44 of the New Testament includes: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need."
As he gets to know regular customers, Derush said he may hand out a flier about the Twelve Tribes, but he's just as likely to go weeks without distributing any.
The flier comes with an explanation of the community's beliefs and an invitation to visit on Fridays, with directions to the ranch.
"The work is shared, the money is shared, and possessions are shared, all for the sake of the movement," the flier reads in part. "In this environment there is healing. Lives that seemed damaged beyond repair are being restored in each aspect."
The flier also states that the movement is "not some fly-by-night organization," but a community that has been growing since the 1970s when it was founded by Eugene Spriggs, who these days lives at the organization's communities he visits worldwide.
The organization reports its membership as between 2,000 and 3,000, with communities in 12 states and nine nations.
While life without possessions is a core part of the faith that permeates their lives, followers are not reclusive monks living in pure self-denial and asceticism. Life on the ranch requires secular tasks such as bookkeeping to track everyday expenses, a job handled on Morning Star Ranch by one of Gamaliel's sons.
Gamaliel said people may have a misconception that Morning Star Ranch is a retreat, when actually it is a working farm where everybody labors.
The commonwealth is not a loose-knit ideological concept, but rather a structured hierarchy with governing councils on each level.
Communities such as Morning Star Ranch are households, and groups of households are part of a larger regional clan. The western region of "Yoceph" includes Valley Center, Vista and a Washington community, and like other clans is part of the overall tribe that is united in the worldwide commonwealth.
Leaders and members sometimes meet in conferences, such as one recently held about music, and communities swap food they grow and sometimes pool their money to help in large expenses such as land purchases.
When not being home-schooled or doing chores, children are with their parents, sometimes working side by side with them. On at least one occasion, that arrangement by a Twelve Tribes group in New York was seen by authorities as crossing a legal line.
In 2001, the New York tribe was fined $2,000 for violating child labor laws after its soap-manufacturing business, Common Sense, contracted with Estee Lauder to make one of its products. The company since has cut ties with Common Sense.
The group's belief in corporal punishment to discipline children also has attracted the attention of authorities. Responding to reports of suspected child abuse at a Twelve Tribes community in Island Pond, Vt., in 1984, 90 flak-jacketed state troopers and 50 social workers seized 112 children.
The children were returned later that day, the case was dismissed and the judge called the raid a "grossly negligent misuse of state power."
But for the majority of Twelve Tribes communities, such accusations appear to have been rare over the past three decades.
No such controversies seem to have been associated with the Valley Center farm, nor with the smaller community in Vista.
"We've had absolutely no complaints or calls about them," said Sgt. Bob Niderost of the Valley Center sheriff's station. Niderost said the only contact his department has had with the group was this summer, when deputies were called to the ranch to rescue a missing girl, Haylee Elizabeth Jade Donathan, and to arrest her mother, Candace Watson, and the woman's boyfriend, Robbi Potter, who were subjects of a nationwide manhunt.
In that case, Niderost noted, Morning Star Ranch residents alerted authorities that the two fugitives and the girl were at the farm. The couple have no known affiliation with the Twelve Tribes but were invited to stay on the ranch by someone who thought they needed shelter.
Derush said he used to live with the New York group that was fined for child labor violations. Conditions there were far from the images of forced assembly-line work often associated with such violations, he said, adding that the workplace is an opportunity for parents to teach their children skills and discipline.
"I learned how to work alongside my father," he said, comparing the farm with his own childhood experience. "Our children, when they're not in (home) school, are with us, working with us ... but not doing anything unreasonable."
The ranch, he said, is like a family farm, where children do chores such as pulling weeds or milking goats.
Asked about a UK newspaper that referred to members beating children with "resin-soaked rods," Derush's brow furrowed at the unusual description.
"We use a little rod about 3/16 of an inch in diameter," he said. "It's like a balloon stick. We discipline with love. We don't have any intention of hurting the children."
Faith or cult?
A common perception of communal groups such as the Twelve Tribes is that they are cults, a term local members bristle at.
"One definition of a cult is a religion that hasn't been around long enough to have a university and a football team that's won the national championship," Derush said.
The group's Web site states that the dictionary definition of a cult as "a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist" does not apply to them.
But another common definition of cults includes having a charismatic, self-appointed leader, which the Twelve Tribes has in Spriggs.
"He's totally involved in our life, but he doesn't micromanage it," Derush said about Spriggs.
Gamaliel said it is also a misconception that the group's leaders are in some way evil, though the Twelve Tribes' Web site does acknowledge some misguided ones have brought on tragedies. An essay on the site recalls the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and describes that group's leader, David Koresh, as a false messiah and the group itself as having very different values and beliefs than the Twelve Tribes.
Not everyone sees such a clear distinction between the group and cults, however. Rick Ross, a lecturer on controversial organizations and founder of the New Jersey-based Rick Ross Institute, keeps a database on fringe groups such as the Twelve Tribes, which he has described as a destructive cult.
Ross said the group's emphasis on living without possessions has been economically devastating to some families. New members have given up their savings and retirement funds, only to be left destitute after leaving the community a few years later.
Gamaliel acknowledged that the community lifestyle is demanding and not for everybody, adding that people are strongly encouraged to think carefully before joining.
While it is understood that followers will live without individual possessions, people are not required to give away everything they own upon joining, and there is no demand that all their money be given to the Twelve Tribes, said Gamaliel, who kept his own savings after joining and only later decided to give the money to the community.
"If someone didn't want to share what they had, it would be better they keep it than be unhappy," he said.
Heather Ostrom, a 38-year-old mother of four who has been a member for 18 years, said sharing is one of the key reasons she joined the community.
"I always dreamed society could be people living together and sharing," said Ostrom, who is known as Simchah by fellow members. "It never seemed possible."