Christian Evangelical people, ya know, never really interested me,” said a voice on the phone. “But,” said the voice, the Twelve Tribes members “weren’t like them. They lived together and loved God and loved one another with all their heart.”
The Twelve Tribes is an international confederation of 12 alternative Christian communities. One of their outposts is the Maté Factor Café in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a cafe with a dark wood interior and murals of pastoral scenes on the walls. It’s open 24 hours every day except on the Sabbath, and nobody who works there receives a paycheck. Instead, their wages go to a collective fund supporting the entirety of the Twelve Tribes. They live and worship together in two big communal houses in Manitou Springs and love hosting visitors. I’ve heard them called many things: a cult, evangelical Dead Heads, and even “super-racist pagan witches.” Rumors abound, but it turns out they’re more than willing to tell you about their lifestyle if you just call them up and ask.
One Sunday evening, I did just that. On the back of their pamphlet adorned with a picture of the Milky Way and the intriguing question “Do you wonder why you were created?” was the number 1-800-TWELVET.
Andrew, the man on the other end of the line, was in upstate New York. He seemed quite surprised at my call—the 1-800 number was his cellphone—but he was happy to talk.
About 20 years ago, when he was a college student in Oneonta, New York, he went downtown to see a few Twelve Tribes members play folk music. When the performance ended, he went up to them and started a conversation. He was intrigued and, on a whim, asked if he could check out their home.
“So that was sorta crazy, and I was just like, ‘Alright!’ and just hopped in the car with them that night and took off to … I didn’t even know where I was going. It was about two hours away,” he said. “So I ended up getting there, and waking up in the morning on this beautiful farm with all these amazing people that were pretty humble, pretty down to earth—not weird and religious.”
This upstate New York settlement was (and still is) one of about 70 locations where members of the Twelve Tribes have taken root over the last half-century and run various businesses to support themselves. Founded in 1972 by a man named Elbert Eugene “Gene” Spriggs Jr. in Chattanooga, TN, the group picked up their fair share of disciples back in the day by following the Grateful Dead in what they still call a “peacemaker bus.”
“We were like paramedics and first-aid, and we just took glass out of people and made sure people didn’t kill themselves when they had too much acid,” recalls Ha Qinai, a Twelve Tribes resident in Manitou Springs. His Hebrew name, adopted when he joined the group, means “the zealot.” Wearing perfectly round wireframe glasses, he smiles and takes a sip of mate through a metal straw. “Made sure they got some mate and some good loving,” he says. He tells me that they take this approach often—following band tours, sending out pairs of missionaries, and chatting up the folks that come into the Maté Factor at 1 a.m.
“We really believe that we want to reach people. We call them lost sheep,” says Kol Levah, a single mother who joined the Manitou Twelve Tribes just under a year ago. Her name means “whole-hearted friend.” She told me that living without a partner was very unfulfilling. Late at night, after working and putting her daughter to bed, she would come into the Maté Factor Café just to talk to someone who cared.
And they would listen. After a while, they won her over. She now lives just up the road from the cafe in a communal home with her 4-year-old child. “You don’t realize how much you need people until you have them,” she explains.
So is it a cult? Unsurprisingly, Twelve Tribes members don’t use that term. Nobody decides to join a “cult”; they decide to join a “community.” And in the case of the Twelve Tribes, it’s a community that offers, as Andrew says, “a real hope for the restoration of humanity” through literal interpretations of scripture. The group attempts to recreate the first-century church from the Book of Acts, complete with preparing an army of 144,000 male virgins for the Second Coming of Christ (which, yes, really is in the Bible).
Plenty of outsiders express their dissatisfaction with the Twelve Tribes on the internet. A quick browse turns up posters of Gene Spriggs, who is “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” A host of alarming stories from former members and critics can be found on anti-Twelve Tribes blogs and forums. There are allegations of brainwashing, racism, child abuse, and corruption. Support organizations have been created for ex-members who have nowhere else to turn.
But members dismiss these criticisms as nonsense. “I was used to all kinds of negative things being said about every church that I went to,” says Ha Qinai. He had already embarked on his walk with Jesus (that is, a life of Christian faith) by the time he stumbled upon the Twelve Tribes. He says all the churches, gurus, and communities that he tried ended up the same: some charismatic leader who was “totally crazy, taking advantage of these people … making a lot of money.” But that didn’t happen in the Twelve Tribes. “We’re an open book,” he says.
Ha Qinai’s account of his previous experiences is what experts on radical religious groups often see—all-powerful leaders tricking the suffering masses into drinking the Kool-Aid of their beliefs while actually funding their extravagant lifestyles. The flow of money within the group is obscured, and the leaders use isolation and absolute authority to effectively brainwash members. “Cults are usually started by very narcissistic leaders,” explains Dr. Daniel Trathen, a psychologist in Denver, Colorado who has studied cults extensively as an advisor for the New England Institute of Religious Research. “It starts out looking like it’s very orthodox, and shifts and changes with power, when the person gets power.”
Gene Spriggs certainly is often accused of leading a cult, including rumors that he appropriates Twelve Tribes funds to live in a castle in Ireland. Kol Levah, however, tells me this isn’t true. According to her, he lives just as simply as other members and busses tables in newly established Twelve Tribes businesses. But, the group still considers Spriggs a prophet, and his teachings are a large part of daily worship.
“Lack of transparency is a real problem with money, especially with a group that takes in the levels of money that they do,” says David Clark, a cult expert who counsels those recovering from cults and contributed to the book “Recovery from Cults,” published by W.W. Norton. His stance is that once members buy into the ultimate authority of a leader such as Spriggs, outside institutions have no credibility at all in their minds, making cults a form of mind control. “It’s a human tragedy,” he says.
Ha Qinai, on the other hand, tells me the Twelve Tribes members are constantly checking themselves and one another to make sure they practice what they preach. “We do not want,” Ha Qinai says, banging his fist on the table, “to become that which we hate—a bunch of religious people who are hypocrites. We want to be free from that kinda stuff, you know?”
When I asked Dr. Trathen whether or not he thinks the Twelve Tribes is a cult, his answer was unequivocal—“no doubt about it.” No malicious intentions are required, just a self-isolating group that believes they possess absolute truth. They have what Clark calls a “no one else is the true church except us” mindset. Even if they are “an open book,” they are a cult by nature of their leadership and absolutist faith-based values.
“I think the biggest thing,” says Kol Levah, “is that [critics] are taking an outside perspective, and if they were able to come into our home, have conversation with us, and just see our hearts—then they would be able to dissipate that.”
She’s the only native Coloradan in the Manitou branch, and her four-year-old daughter is now homeschooled by Twelve Tribes members using their own curriculum (called “training”).
Kids growing up in the community do chores, attend community worships twice a day, and play like any other kid. They’re also, however, disciplined physically—a serious point of contention that has brought Child Protective Services to various Twelve Tribes communities throughout the years. Clark says that, from what he’s seen, the Twelve Tribes really do cross the line when it comes to the treatment of youth. “These children acted like little adults,” says Clark. “Why? Because they went through behavior modification training.”
Clark’s view is that they homeschool children to avoid contamination by outside ideas. He explains that “critical thinking is a threat” to the Twelve Tribes. And on the subject of discipline—“they’re going to get a compliant child, and they have to use whatever physical means it takes to get to that goal.”
Ha Qinai explains their child-rearing methods with a metaphor. He tells me how everyone says their children are different, better behaved, more polite and attentive. “For us, we know—it produces good fruit. The way that our Father intended spanking was a whole package, and you gotta have all the right ingredients,” he says. “You’d never spank out of frustration, you’d never spank out of anger. You’d never spank without forgiveness and love and restoration.”
If you’re an adult, you’re free to leave the community as you please, though you’ll be completely broke upon entering the outside world. “When you lay [your personal possessions] at the apostle’s feet, they get control,” says Clark. People leave all the time, though Clark mentions how emotionally challenging this can be, especially for those who have grown up on the inside. According to a study done by Michael D. Langone, counseling psychologist and editor of “Recovery From Cults,” there is evidence that ex-cult members experience heightened anxiety, depression, confusion, and difficulty thinking critically—not to mention unfamiliarity with basic tasks like filing taxes or applying to schools and jobs. “There are a million people who go into cults every year and a million people who come out—and not the same million.”
To combat this, nations have put up legal barriers to living the way the Twelve Tribes members do. Ha Qinai tells me that they abide by the law until it contradicts the word of God, at which point they choose civil disobedience over damnation.
Law enforcement has come after Twelve Tribes communities more than a few times. But many members understand that a brief stint in jail or a midnight raid is nothing compared to what Jesus and his disciples went through, so they take this opposition in stride. “We’re not surprised by these things, because Yahshua was the example; he warned us,” says Ha Qinai. But in Manitou Springs, the surrounding community largely seems to welcome the presence of the Twelve Tribes. Though the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs are seriously at odds with those of a modern liberal audience, they’re skilled at public relations. When they ask “How are you?” they really want to know. That must be part of why so many people are on board. The community offers friendly faces and respite from the “void or emptiness inside your soul,” as Adam said on the phone. I found myself comfortable and at ease chatting with Ha Qinai and Kol Levah in the cafe, both of whom smoothly fielded any contentious questions I asked. After spending only an hour with Twelve Tribes members, I was far more sympathetic toward them than when I had entered, though I still don’t consider myself persuaded to join.
According to Clark, certain circumstances cause individuals to be more receptive to groups like this. “In transitions,” says Clark, “You’re moving from one place to another, you’re emotionally needy.” People in need will latch on to the Twelve Tribes’ simple kindness, hippie aesthetic, and willingness to engage and forgive. “The indebtedness that comes from them helping you out of a crisis is a powerful tool in the hands of a cult,” says Clark.
Not everything about cults is bad, according to Clark. But there’s a tradeoff: “What is the price you’re going to pay for the benefits you perceive are there?” He clearly doesn’t think it’s worth it. Since they take scripture literally, the Twelve Tribes believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are sins. They also believe that women should be “homemakers.”
A life of modesty and worship as a barista, and working towards the goal of producing 144,000 male virgins to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. But, taking your drink with a grain of salt, the Maté Factor Café is certainly worth a visit for the tea and the conversation—they have no problem engaging with even the most godless of college students.
“You should go over for Friday night celebration, for the Sabbath,” said Andrew. “You—and your whole class if you want—are invited.” So if you’re trying to have a dialogue with someone whose perspective is unorthodox, you’ll find that folks at the Maté Factor Café are far more willing to talk amiably than many far-right groups in El Paso County. It may only be Grateful Dead nostalgia, but you might be shocked to find you have something in common. θ