In the shadow of a new multi-story student housing development on Princess St., a seemingly-innocuous local restaurant sprung up in the summer of 2016.
On its surface, the Yellow Deli is a great spot to grab a Reuben and a cup of tea after a busy day on campus. The eccentric décor and cabin-in-the-woods feeling might sound pretty ideal. That’s until you realize it’s run by a religious cult.
The deli is operated by the Twelve Tribes, a controversial religious community that grew out of the American South in the early 1970s. Since then, the group hasn’t only accumulated thousands of devout followers, but has opened Yellow Delis across North America and Europe.
According to Pacific Standard writer Julia Scheeres, the group’s founder Gene Spriggs “decided he was destined to restore the ancient Twelve Tribes of Israel and produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming,” giving the group its namesake.
Just a short drive outside of Kingston, the first Twelve Tribes settlement in Ontario can be found on Abbey Dawn Rd. The owners, Joy and Isaac Dawson, moved to Kingston from their former Twelve Tribes settlement in the Selkirk mountains of British Columbia.
For the Twelve Tribes, these delis provide financial stability to rural settlements that often accompany each location. The deli operators have achieved economic success by adjusting their traditional lifestyle to meet the demands of patrons looking for a hearty, organic meal.
But for years, accusations of severe cult behaviour, sexual misconduct, child abuse and death threats have proliferated and continue to dog the communities to this day.
In 2015, a former leader in the 23-year-old Winnipeg Twelve Tribes settlement blew the whistle on the group’s dangerous control over its members. He told CBC, “I didn’t realize the level of mind control I was under until I left.”
“What people don’t understand is that this group does not properly educate their children and that’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. That’s the main reason that I left,” he said.
Amidst skepticism from the Kingston community last year, the couple defended their beliefs in an article published by The Whig-Standard. They said allegations of child abuse were unsubstantiated and their lives are “completely open.”
“If I was a parent in Kingston … I’d be more concerned about what goes on in that street out there than what goes on in [The Yellow Deli],” Isaac told The Whig.
However, concerns have been raised on social media about the Dawsons choice of location for the Deli. At 647 Princess St., the restaurant is across the street from a large student housing complex, with another currently under construction across the road.
When asked if students might be at risk, Queen’s Interfaith Chaplain Kate Johnson told The Journal though many students are sure of themselves, “there are students [at Queen’s] who are hungry for some sense of family,” she said. “That can make it difficult for people to sort out what it is they`re looking at.”
Part of Johnson’s work as Interfaith Chaplain involves countering what her office calls “aggressive religious recruiting.” Johnson said that as far as she knows, the Twelve Tribes haven’t been to Queen’s campus in an effort to recruit.
“Their — we’ll call it outreach, is a very tried-and-true kind of formula,” she remarked. “They have existed as a community for a long time and have figured out what works and doesn’t work to spread their particular message, or to invite people who are a good fit for their community, from their perspective,” she said.
If students are unsure whether the religious group they have gotten into is healthy for them, Johnson said her office is always open. “We hope [students will] come here to have that conversation, to objectively help them sort out, is this a healthy group you are a part of,” she said.
“We ask people questions like, what kind of financial commitment are they asking of you? Are they discouraging you in your studies?” Johnson said.
Though it remains uncertain whether the Dawsons or others have engaged in recruiting, a student anonymously told The Journal he believes he was the target of the group’s outreach in downtown Kingston this January.
“I’m a student at St. Lawrence and was visiting the ice rink with another student, we are both first-years,” he wrote. “We were skating, and someone put two Yellow Deli business cards in my shoes, which were sitting on the bleachers next to my bag.”
The student expressed concern that a member of the Twelve Tribes community “saw me and my friend arrive at the rink, saw that we were students and decided to place their business cards in my shoe,” he wrote. “I have been given pamphlets before,
I have been asked about my interest in a certain religious group before, however no one has ever done something in such an uncanny way,” the student wrote.
“I think that this speaks to how they try to reel in new members and who they target.”
“The fact that they make the distinction between vulnerable young adults and anyone else is the real problem. People who are far from home have less of a safety net and that is premeditated,” he continued.
Across the street from the Yellow Deli is an organization called NightLight. The group is a cross-denomination Christian organization which seeks to provide a social outlet for homeless people in Kingston.
In an interview with Adam Bloemendal, Executive Director at NightLight Kingston, he said he has visited the new neighbors out of curiosity. When asked if students may be at risk of recruitment, Bloemendal said “[The Twelve Tribes] are not going for the people who have their head on their shoulders. They’re going for the people who might be pissed off at their parents.”
According to Scheeres, since the cult’s inception, they’ve focused on young people who may or may not have money to give. Since the 1970s, the group has operated on a model where “members worked for room and board but no paycheck.”
Bloemendal expressed why he thought members of his organization haven’t been targeted for recruitment. “They are not going for people in poverty, because people in poverty don’t have anything to offer necessarily. They don’t have any money to bring to the table and that’s what they look for,” he said.
On the other hand, in reference to the student housing development next door, Bloemendal said “there isdefinitely a fear for students if they don’t know what is going on across the street.”
Upon entering the deli, a wide selection of Twelve Tribes literature can be found on display. Much of it is focused on biblical teachings and condemnations of modern life. One pamphlet titled “The Plight of Man” clearly targets a student audience. It offers a host of relatable scenarios, including photos of stressed-out young people working on laptops.
“There must be something beyond forcing ourselves through school to work jobs we hate to make enough money to pay for daycare to raise our children while we’re out working, only to end up retired and medicated,” the pamphlet read.
The literature continuously trivialized modern education. It claimed “schools today have banned any mention of ‘accountability,’ undermining man’s instinctive knowledge of the truth. What was once called a bad conscience is now called mental illness.”
The same theme runs throughout each pamphlet: modern life is sinful and excessive, with the Twelve Tribes offering a way out. The sentiment is best captured in an advertisement for the Dawsons farm here in Kingston.
“Volunteer and you’ll have a chance to work with us and see the amazing life behind the farm,” the advertisement read. It continued, “come for a day or to stay … ”
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