As investigators continued to probe the cause of devastating fires last week which levelled more than 1,000 structures northwest of Denver and burned 6,200 acres, they were zeroing in on a specific site - which is home to members of a fundamentalist fringe group called The Twelve Tribes.
The Twelve Tribes describes itself on the group website as “an emerging spiritual nation”.
“We are a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, made up of self-governing communities,” the website proclaims. “By community, we mean families and single people who live together in homes and on farms. We are disciples of the Son of God, whom we call by His Hebrew name Yahshua.
“We follow the Old and New Testament Scriptures, and live like the early disciples in Acts chapters 2 and 4. With all of our hearts, we want to do our Father’s will, which is to love one another and be a light to the nations; so that they could see our life of love and know how much their Creator loves them.”
The organisation was founded in the early 1970s in Tennessee during burgeoning Jesus movements and has been known by a variety of names including the Vine Christian Community Church, the Messianic Communities, Yellow Deli People and the Community Apostolic Order.
Since its founding, the Twelve Tribes has expanded to communities across the United States, South America, Europe and Asia.
In Boulder, Colorado - where the community has drawn considerable attention in recent days given its alleged association with the most devastating fires in state history - an estimated few dozen members run a business called the Yellow Deli, taking its name from a Tennessee restaurant started by the organisation’s founder more than 40 years ago.
Many of the communities focus on farming, with the group’s site stating that members “live together like an extended family, sharing all things in common, just as the disciples of Yahshua did in the first century ... For the most part, our farms are small-scale operations.
“We mainly grow food for ourselves but, sometimes sell our produce at our own farmstands or farmer’s markets. All of the income from our various endeavors goes into a common purse, from which all our needs are met. We don’t have our independent income or debts to carry by ourselves, except for the debt of love we owe to our Savior, which we repay by loving and caring for one another.
“Our farms are sanctuaries… a safe haven… a peaceful refuge… an anchor for the soul in the midst of a society drifting dangerously off course.”
The Twelve Tribes has come under fire for its teachings on race and homosexuality in addition to its treatment of children.
According to a 2018 article in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, the organisation is “a Christian fundamentalist cult ... little-known to much of the country”.
It continues: “Beneath the surface lies a tangle of doctrine that teaches its followers that slavery was ‘a marvelous opportunity’ for Black people, who are deemed by the Bible to be servants of whites, and that homosexuals deserve no less than death.
“While homosexuals are shunned by the Twelve Tribes (though ex-members say the group brags about unnamed members who are “formerly” gay), the group actively proselytizes to African Americans, yet one of its Black leaders glorifies the early Ku Klux Klan.
“The Twelve Tribes tries to keep its extremist teachings on race from novice members and outsiders, but former members and experts on fringe religious movements who’ve helped its followers escape paint a dark picture of life in the group’s monastic communities — especially for Black members, who must reconcile the appalling teachings on race with their own heritage and skin colour. “
On top of that, the group has been under investigation in the US for child labour violations; no charges were filed but the organisation did lose various contracts after questions were raised about its use of juvenile members in work. In Germany, the Twelve Tribes has butted heads with authorities over its practices and homeschooling, which is illegal in the country except for rare circumstances.
Members of the Twelve Tribes’ Boulder-area community live on land that has emerged as a focus of investigations into wildfires last Thursday that were the most devastating in Colorado history.
Despite initial reports that downed power lines had sparked the blazes - which swept through the region thanks to hurricane-force winds and dry conditions - Colorado authorities said over the weekend that telecommunications lines, not power lines, had been found.
Instead, video footage of a burning shed - combined with eyewitness accounts - raised questions about whether the fire originated on Twelve Tribes’ land.
Neighbour Mike Zoltoswki told Colorado Newsline that he saw a blaze and went to the sect’s property, meeting two men and seeing about seven children and five women, “where he estimated 20 to 25 people on average live at any given time”.
“When I went over there to help them, their entire field was on fire,” Mr Zoltowski said.
Given the tinderbox conditions, authorities had banned burning of any kind.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle on Sunday said: “We have a video of that shed burning.”
“But was it primary, was it secondary? What were the sequence of events? Those are all a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said.
He added: “We don’t want to point the finger anywhere, because the stakes are huge. The risk to anybody from the anger in the community, the financial aspects, it’s enormous. So we’re going to move really slow and be really cautious and get the right people to help us as far as expertise.”
A woman who answered the Twelve Tribes number listed on the website Monday declined to give her name to The Independent but said the organisation had no statement as it waited for results of the investigation.
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