Inside the cult cafe: How secretive religious sect 'Twelve Tribes' is running a popular restaurant just outside Sydney - using delicious food and friendly service to recruit new members

Daily Mail, UK/July 7, 2019

By Nic White

Minutes after opening, a popular cafe in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney is already buzzing with energy and has a line out the door.

The Yellow Deli Cafe is a landmark on Katoomba's main street and renowned for its delicious, wholesome food and unique hobbit hole-like decor. 

Tourists clutching cameras and weekenders from Sydney huddle against the winter chill outside as they wait up to an hour for a table to open.

What the vast majority of them don't know is the cafe is run by a cult and the flannel-clad waiters serving artisanal sandwiches and green tea are members.

The men wear their long hair in tight buns or ponytails behind intense expressions, and those behind the counter don matching overalls while cooking tirelessly.

None of them are paid for their long shifts - the profits instead flowing back into the coffers of controversial religious sect The Twelve Tribes.

The cult, founded in Tennessee in 1975, came to Australia in the 1990s and now has about 120 members living and working in communes here. 

Working in the cafe

 Those working in the cafe live in nearby Balmoral House while the rest are at a farm near Picton, about 90 minutes southwest of Sydney.

Yellow Deli just looks like a hippie cafe not out of place in the often alternative vibe of the Blue Mountains, so few people are aware of its background.

However, pamphlets promoting the group are scattered around and, though busy, staff are happy to speak generally about it.

'We're here because we felt unfulfilled in our old lives and have found a place we can belong,' one of them explained.

'We live together and work together and look after each other. We have everything we need.'

He said he worked at the cafe most days and loved the work and serving the community, some of whom he hoped would join them. 

The cafe is closed on Saturdays and shuts at 3pm on Fridays so they can celebrate Shabbat as the cult follows an amalgam of Christianity and Judaism.

Workers quickly extended invitations to visit these celebrations, which involve folk dancing and devotions, either at Balmoral or the Picton farm.

Members are given a Hebrew name when they join and don't drink, smoke, vote or watch TV and all their children are home-schooled.

The only people working there who aren't part of the Twelve Tribes are tourists doing shifts in exchange for free food and board, or those trying out life inside the group.

Staff chatted with regulars and encouraged several of them to work a shift or two at the cafe to learn more about the group.

Andrew McLeod, who manages the cafe and is an original member of the Australian branch of the group, said Yellow Deli was an important outreach platform. 

'We're a spiritual people who follow the bible, including the parts of the Old Testament that haven't been made null and void, in our opinion,' he said.

'We have a wonderful tribal life together and the deli is what we do to make a living and meet people for outreach. We want to be a light to the nation. 

'We live together and share all our money [instead of being] greedy and living for the capitalistic fantasy that everyone thinks will make them happy.'

Nearby business owners knew of the group behind the Yellow Deli, but appeared to have no ill-will towards their controversial neighbours.

'Yeah it's a cult. Not many people know as it's not really obvious, though they are always trying to recruit people,' one said.

'I've never had any problems with them though, and they're very friendly.'

Behind the friendly facade

However, former members claim that behind their friendly facade and idyllic descriptions of communal living is a more sinister reality.

Mark and Rose Ilich were members of Twelve Tribes for 13 years after meeting the group at the Newtown Festival - a fertile recruiting ground.

They said when people join the group they have to sell all their possessions - including houses and cars - and give the proceeds to the group.

Their clothes are replaced with conservative outfits and their lives become filled with long hours of work and chores in the self-sustaining community.

Mr Ilich said he worked 15 or even 20 hours a day on the farm or at one of the cult's many businesses - from bakeries to furniture making and the Yellow Deli Cafe.

'Once I helped them carry $40,000 in cash out of the Easter Show. But I never saw a cent,' he told the Sydney Morning Herald years after escaping.

The couple said they were constantly told the outside world was evil and their sin needed to be purged from their lives.

'Leaving is not an option. You have to understand how brainwashed you become. You lose the ability to think critically,' Ms Ilich said.

The worst aspect, for which the group is most notoriously known, is institutionalised child abuse from as young as six months old.

Children aren't allowed to play with toys, engage in make-believe, or any of the normal childhood activities, and must be supervised at all times.

hey must be strictly obedient and are beaten with a 50cm rod for every infraction by any adult watching them, not just their parents.

'The kids are not meant to cry. They're meant to 'receive' their discipline quietly. Then you tell them why you hit them and they say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' It becomes a ritual,' Mr Ilich said.

Twelve Tribes is open about its use of corporal punishment for children, outlined in a 267-page Child Training Manual.

'The rod removes guilt from children's souls and trains them to do good… We know some people consider this controversial but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority,' the group insists.

Children also work alongside their parents from a young age, often at the expense of education, which the group claims gives them purpose. 

Birth control is forbidden and members are told to have big families, both to boost membership and fulfill its goal of producing 144,000 'perfect male children' so God can finally return. 

However, the couple's son Daniel was considered rebellious, which eventually led to them being ostracised as 'bad parents'.

Ms Ilich said a senior member told her it was 'God's kindness' that her baby was stillborn because it would be 'evil' to give a baby parents like them.

Mr McLeod, in a rare candid discussion of Twelve Tribes' Australian operations, said allegations of child abuse and child labour were untrue.

'We want our children to have a well-balanced life and what we do and our beliefs have somehow been taken out of context to portray us as a fundamentalist cult that bashes our children, which is just not true,' he said.

'It's sad that so many people are gullible enough to believe what they believe without looking into it themselves.'

Mr McLeod instead encouraged people to visit the group at the cafe, Balmoral House, or the farm in Picton - the doors to which are always open - and even spend a few days getting to know them.

'They can see there's no horns, no cloaks and daggers, just some people with a genuine faith wanting to raise their children with purpose and purity and make an honest living and be hospitable,' he said.

The father-of-five said children were indeed all home-schooled but no one working in the cafe was younger than the legal work age of 14 and nine months, and teenagers worked on Sundays or school holidays.

'I raise [my children] strictly but honestly and openly and will admit when I'm wrong. That's why they're still here and haven't run off on a motorbike to join a rock band,' he said.

Authorities have intervened in the past. In 1984 American police raided the group's base in Vermont and took 113 children into care, but they were later released when the raid was ruled unconstitutional.

The in 2013 German police seized 40 children secretly recorded video showed some being beaten, but they were also returned.

Former members and anti-cult groups claim the group's activities have been repeatedly reported to Australian authorities, but no action has been taken.

Inside the Yellow Deli cafe

The Yellow Deli is such an institution that hundreds of tourists and Sydney weekenders include it in their itinerary.

Customers mill around the door taking in the rustic decor, described asby some as 'Hobbiton in real life', while they wait to be served.

The interior is dominated by rich, dark timber full of nooks that make its tables feel cozy and plentiful homemade knick knacks add to the homey feel.

A man with an intense stare, wrinkled shirt, and tied-back ponytail takes your name and number and gives you a wait time of up to an hour.

After joining those shivering outside for a while you are seated and friendly waiters had you a double-sided handwritten menu.

On offer is a wide variety of sandwiches served on homemade artisanal bread, salads, a hearty soup of the day, and a spectacular chili with jalapeno bread.

Staff said all the ingredients were grown on the group's farm near Picton and cooked by members of the sect.

A barista makes coffee and a selection of green teas made from yerba mate made in Brazil, where t

Other favourites are its signature 'green drink', made from silverbeet, kale, and broccoli along with yerba mate leaves, honey, and juices.

A selection of gluten-free snacks includes a green bar made from the same vegetables plus peanut butter, oats and rice bubbles.

Staff said most recipes are sent in from the U.S., where the cult is based.

The smell of chili powder hangs in the air as sounds from the open kitchen resonate through the space.

Waiters wear flannel shirts with bushy beards and their long hair tied back while cooks have matching overalls. The women are conservatively dressed in a fashion with strong Amish vibes.

Signs of the cafe's cult ownership aren't obvious until you reach the hallway on the way to the toilet where a noticeboard is packed with propaganda.

These and the few boxes of pamphlets would be easily missed or glossed over by the vast majority of visitors.

Yellow Deli was built in 2008 as Common Ground Cafe, then remodelled into its current form and renamed in 2013.

Manager Andrew McLeod said all the timbers that make up the interior, and all the other materials, were recycled.

'It's just like people with damaged lives, there's hope they can be restored and become purposeful and useful again,' he said.

'Even though they may have already made a mess of it, there's hope for a new life.'

He said the group would like to expand the deli as it's gotten so popular that there can be up to 100 people on its waiting list on busy days. 

'It's a bit rough, I feel very bad about that so we'd like to make more room so people don't have to be turned away,' he said.

What is the Twelves Tribes?

The cult began in 1975 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when former carnival showman Gene Spriggs broke away from the First Presbyterian Church after finding services were cancelled for the Super Bowl.

He and his wife Marsha earlier opened the first Yellow Deli a few years earlier and were living communally with a small group from 1972.

Twelve Tribes practices a hybrid of pre-Catholic Christianity and Judaism mixed with teachings by Spriggs.

All members are forced to sell their possessions and give to proceeds to the cult and are assigned a Hebrew name discard their old ones. Spriggs himself is known as Yoneq. 

These tribes would include 144,000 'perfect male children', which accounts for the group's obsessive and controversial child-rearing practices.

The Sabbath is observed in line with Jewish tradition, along with conservative dietary rules and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Birth control of any kind is banned, as is much modern medicine - they instead rely largely on homeopathy and 'natural' remedies.

Marriage outside the cult is forbidden and couples must go through a series of supervised talks to get to know each other. Only after marriage can they even kiss or hold hands.

The group's stated aim is to bring about the return of Jesus - whom they refer to by the Hebrew name Yahshua - by reestablishing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Children aren't allowed to play with toys, engage in make-believe, or any of the normal childhood activities, and must be supervised at all times.

They must be strictly obedient and are beaten with a 50cm rod for every infraction by any adult watching them, not just their parents.

All children are homeschooled and do not attend university as it is considered a waste of time and not a good environment.

Instead, children work in the community from a young age, sparking accusations of child labour.

Estée Lauder and other businesses cut ties with the organisation after finding children were involved in making their products.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

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