Twelve Tribes living as one

MARK BARNA Updated: January 2, 2009 at 12:00 am • Published: January 2, 2009

Standing in a circle, a group of Manitou Springs residents holds hands and begins to gyrate in a lively counterclockwise dance dedicated to Jesus. As musicians play acoustic guitars and flute, the 30 or so members dance and sing of love and peace, their voices echoing through the spacious community house.

The Twelve Tribes' evening worship service in Manitou Springs is reminiscent of a scene straight from a hippie commune in the 1960s and early '70s, and this group does, in fact, live in a communal setting.

But the similarities end there. No drugs and alcohol are allowed in Twelve Tribes. The women wear modest, baggy attire straight out of 19th-century America. The speakers at the religious services talk repeatedly about end times. And Scripture runs their life.

Begun in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Twelve Tribes is the brainchild of Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who is still part of the tribe but has never been its spiritual figurehead. Current worldwide membership is about 2,000.

The local Twelve Tribes community ranges in age from 1 to about 60 and consists of seven families and 12 single adults. They live and worship together in two neighboring Manitou Springs homes, and strive to replicate how they believe Christians lived in the first century: chaste, pious, hardworking and living together under the same roof.
Members give up almost all their possessions to be part of the tribe.

"I came into this world with nothing, and that's how I will leave it," said 31-year-old Malak Chesed Gould - born Derek Gould - who joined Twelve Tribes a decade ago and is now a community leader.

Twelve Tribes attempts to include every member in decisionmaking, but there is a hierarchy. Each of the communities - 25 in the U.S. and about 25 in other countries - is overseen by in-house leaders, who are overseen by a tribal council in a regional office, who are, in turn, overseen by the Apostolic Council, a fluid number of elders scattered across the U.S.

Communities support themselves through their small businesses, and all profits go into a common pool.

The local Twelve Tribes runs three Manitou Springs businesses: the Maté Factor cafe, the organic-produce store Common Sense Market, and the tree-cutting business Forest Keepers. They don't proselytize to customers, but if someone inquires about their faith, they will talk about it.

Because Twelve Tribes is a 501 (d) - used by for-profit organizations with a religious purpose and a common treasury - the community pays taxes on its earnings and property.

"We want to render unto Caesar what he is owed," Gould said.


Daily life

Though Twelve Tribes has sometimes been characterized as a cult, its members say it doesn't have the negative characteristics often associated with a cult: abuse and mind control.

"We don't teach abuse," said Apostolic Council member Eddie Wiseman, who is currently living in the tribe's community in Purceville, Va. "Our safety net is that we don't silence people. This has been very effective in keeping the community together. People can also leave the tribe whenever they want."

Allegations of child abuse have been made against some Twelve Tribes communities, and some people have accused them of mind control, but the faith has never been charged in connection with either. Its biggest blemish occurred in 2001, when two of its businesses in Green County, N.Y., were fined for breaking child labor laws.

Since coming to Manitou about 10 years ago, the community has maintained a membership of 30 to 40 people, and Manitou is happy to have them.

"Their reputation is wonderful," said Leslie Lewis, executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "We've never had a complaint. They are very responsive to community needs."

A typical day for Manitou Springs members is communal worship at 7 a.m., followed by a communal breakfast. Children and teenagers spend the day being home-schooled by Twelve Tribes teachers. Some of the teens join the adults during the day to help run the businesses. Evening includes chores, a communal dinner and a worship service.

Worship is democratic and informal. After a round of Israeli circle dances, members have a chance to talk about their days and what they learned spiritually. Sometimes a member reads from Scripture. Worship concludes with more singing and dancing.

Come bedtime, each member has an appointed place to go. Married couples in the Manitou Springs community are each allotted one bedroom. Children and teenagers of the same sex share bedrooms, as do single people of the same sex.

In an effort to adhere to their view of early Christianity, Twelve Tribes members adopt a Hebrew first name and use the Hebrew word "Yahshua" when referring to God.

Their theology is based on the letter of Scripture. Their communal lifestyle is grounded in passages in Acts, and other passages justify their opposition to fornication, abortion and gay marriage, though they don't politicize their beliefs. Their main focus is universal love, self-sacrifice and the end times.

"We live for one another. We don't live for ourselves," said 28-year-old Yagar (Michael) Hiller, who, like all the men in the community, wears a beard. "We live for the satisfaction of our creator, not for our personal satisfaction."

Even the name of the denomination comes from the Bible - a nod to the end-times scenario in Revelation, in which 12 tribes are established to presage the Second Coming.


A tribal family

The emphasis on Scripture led Mark and Jennifer Funk to quit their jobs in Illinois three years ago to join a Twelve Tribes community in Missouri after hearing about the faith from a friend.

The Funks, who have two children - 14-year-old Ian, newly named Yochanan, and 16-year-old Allison, now Nogah - were disillusioned with evangelical Christianity. "It lacked good fruit," Mark Funk, 39, said. "But Twelve Tribes is the closest we have seen to the real gospel."

Everyone in the family adjusted well to community life except for Nogah, who left to stay with relatives in St. Louis for six months.

When she rejoined the family after it was transferred to the Manitou Springs community, she still wasn't OK with the living arrangement, but over the past year she's become more comfortable, said Amanah (Jennifer) Funk, 38.

Nogah, who typically wears a head scarf and old-fashioned clothing, is full of life when working part time at Maté Factor, and at a recent worship service, she beamed while participating in the circle dance.

"It is amazing to live with a whole bunch of people who have the same perspective as you," Nogah said.

Yet, Gould said, the faith is more ecumenical than it might appear.

"Our life speaks to everybody," he said. "You don't have to be religious to love people."

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CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or mark.barna@gazette.com.


MORE

Every Wednesday at 6 p.m., Twelve Tribes offers a free Open Forum for anyone interested in learning more about the faith or wants to discuss faith and social issues. For more info, call 685-3235.

 

 

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