"A tribe like no other: An African-American woman sets out to learn organic farming and gets more than she bargains for" Bellows Falls -- From a balcony overlooking the pristine flow of water at the base of rolling Fall Mountain, I observe a swirl of colors and register a happy cacophony of sounds.
It is the first farmers’ market of the season in quaint Bellows Falls, Vt., and below my perch, near a historic train station, there are booths set up in rows representing organic farms from around the area, children playing and laughing, and jubilant bluegrass sounds tinkling from performers on a makeshift stage. What emanates is a distinct sense of solidarity in liberal consciousness, residents having come together to celebrate and support simpler ways of living, and living in accordance with the Earth.
In the far right of this scene, I see a tented booth for Basin Farm, looking as normal as any other — tomatoes, cucumbers, onions in piles. And standing behind that booth are two scruffy, ponytailed men who fit right in amongst the oft-stereotyped gaggle of organic farmers in seeming hippie regalia.
Yet these two men, Lemuel and Nadiv, are oceans away from the other farmers milling about — they are oceans away in thought, intent, self-conception, and purpose.
This I know from experience.
They represent a darker note this afternoon, on a brilliantly sunny day in a liberal hotbed corner of New England whose penchant for the eccentric is regularly exploited for their gain, unbeknownst to patrons taken in by smiles and genteel talk of God.
They are members of the Twelve Tribes, the most notorious religious cult in Vermont, and perhaps in the country, which has dozens of communities stationed throughout the world, yet considers this state its home. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the infamous raid on their Island Pond headquarters, wherein 90 state troopers and 50 social workers seized 112 children in the pre-dawn hours of June 22, 1984, on allegations of horrific child abuse.
Before any children could be examined for signs of abuse, Judge Frank Mahady dismissed the state’s claim due to lack of evidence prior to the raid, despite it being headed by John Buchard, then the State Commissioner of Social and Rehabilitation Services who initiated investigation due to eyewitness accounts of ex–Twelve Tribes members who’d gone to the media with their stories.
Though the children were returned the same day, “Vermont’s cult” suffered an irrevocable stigma worse than the cries of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and general negativity already leveled against it since its 1972 inception.
Looking at the market below, I am suddenly perturbed, thinking of the dollars being spent in support of a cultural institution opposing the basic fabric of anything steeped in liberalism. Much has been written about these people, much speculated, much abhorred, and much defended. I do not offer this to add to any general clangor of assault. I offer this as one of the saga’s hidden songs.
* * *
I LOOKED AT a clock. The sterile red numbers offered an interminable amount of minutes left in a square beige world of e-mails and placation. I was in Chicago, my hometown, working at the fifth-largest U.S.-based publishing house in the country, Publications International, Ltd. An editor in the general interest trade book department, I was both the only African-American in the department and, at 26, the youngest editor.
Despite this modicum of success, i.e. corporate drudgery, I couldn’t escape my desire for pure moments, adventure and life lived as philosophy. I decided to quit my job, give up my apartment, and start traveling. I’d heard a bit about an organization called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, wherein people traded a few hours of labor per day in exchange for room and board in beautiful, remote locales around the world. Arundel, Quebec was my first stop. Cape Breton in Nova Scotia was the next.
Yet, in the tiny entry port of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, a fiasco of racial and class profiling prevented my re-entry into the country, and I was deported to the U.S.
With no home to return to and much baggage in tow, I had to come up with a plan quickly. I’d spent some time between farm adventures with a friend in Rutland, Vt., and thought of an offer from the staff of the Back Home Again Café there.
At the Back Home Again Café — a rustically decorated, earth-toned grotto with a welcoming feel, and one of the many restaurants, delis, and other businesses owned by the Twelve Tribes to finance their communities — I had befriended two of the “employees.”
They seemed jovial and peaceful, and more than happy to talk during a tumultuous period in my life. I knew their establishment was religiously affiliated, as there were pamphlets here and there, but in observing the men’s ponytails and the women’s flowing skirts, I assumed they were simply “Jesus hippies.”
During a talk about why I was in Vermont and where I was headed, I revealed to my older male “friend” that I was somewhat seeking direction from the universe and was WWOOF-ing, on my way to Nova Scotia to volunteer on an organic farm.
“Oh, no! Don’t go to Canada,” he said. “Our community has a farm right here in Vermont, in Bellows Falls. We take WWOOFers and would love to have you there. You can stay as long as you like.”
At the time it was made, the offer was a cute little something for the back of my mind, as I was dead set on exotic Cape Breton waters. Now, in a Yarmouth hotel room under armed guard, it seemed a fated perfection.
I called the Back Home Again Café and was directed to Aviva at Basin Farm, a woman with the charge of acclimating those who the Twelve Tribes call “single sisters.” She was ecstatic to hear from me, and we arranged for an on-call pick-up from the Bellows Falls Greyhound station following my return stateside.
* * *
AFTER A RAMBLING couple of weeks taking full bohemian advantage of the unexpected leisure period, I found myself pulling into a tiny bus stop of a hamlet I would have never known existed, feeling completely open to the next chapter of experience. Aviva was right there, smiles, optimism in tow, baggy pantaloons blowing in the wind.
Here I received my first hint of something a tad “off.” As we navigated twists and turns in her ancient car, at one point it seemed as if it might stall. She tapped the dashboard and said, “Come on, Abba! Abba, please!”
“You name your car, too? I have a lot of friends who do that,” I offered, trying to make small talk.
She paused and became very serious. “No, Abba is the name we have for our God, our father. ‘Abba’ is the Hebrew name for ‘father.’ Likewise, all of the brothers in the Twelve Tribes are called ’Abba’ by their children, and the children call their mothers ‘Imma.’ Hebrew was the language of the original followers of Yahshua [Jesus], so we use it to be a pure as possible, hence the names we’ve chosen to take on.”
Wow — okay.
I thought of how my past couple of weeks kayaking off the coast of Maine and squatting with punk rockers hadn’t really prepared me for such severe religious banter right off the bat. I tried to change the subject.
“My back is so stiff from chucking these bags around. I can’t wait to relax and maybe do some yoga. Do you have a library at your house, by chance, perhaps with some yoga books?”
Aviva looked at me as if I’d asked her if my face was painted chartreuse. I decided to quiet down.
We drove down a lonesome country road on the outskirts of town. A turn down another even-more-remote road marked the descent to a sprawling farm with one large main house, several fields, and outbuildings, all with a picturesque tributary of the Connecticut River running down the mountainous property’s side. There was no sign denoting the property because local people had long since defaced and torn it down, explained Aviva.
Upon arrival I felt like a foreign thing to be scrutinized. The entire community of perhaps 25 members had come running out to eye the mysterious new visitor, and they gathered on the grass like a pool of solemn-faced jurors, staring.
I later learned that along with two other young people who had arrived only a week or so prior, I was the first volunteer farm laborer who was not a “spiritual seeker.”
My two companions-to-be from the outside, Jonah and Mary Ann, were a devout Catholic couple wanting to learn organic farming to prepare for their upcoming marriage and randomly stumbled upon the place. Jonah’s father delivered goods to the Tribes’ farm in Island Pond and had recommended them as seeming like “good-natured religious folk,” so Jonah got in touch.
Basin Farm, in fact, was not a member of WWOOF; I’d been lied to. In the tumult of my situation, I hadn’t checked.
It was disconcerting how everyone looked exactly the same. All of the males, young and old, had a full beard and a ponytail of the exact same length, chopped to mid-nape. The women all had very long ponytails and wore either baggy dresses, a baggy skirt with a tunic and vest, or bulky pantaloons that gathered at the ankles.
The children seemed abnormally silent and submissive for such a large group, and the women kept quiet as the men sent orders around — these two young boys, take my bags upstairs; these two ladies, fix me some yerba mate; this young girl, go prepare my bed. And big smiles from the men — always the vacant smiles.
* * *
THE FARMHOUSE is airy and old-fashioned. There is a large common space for twice-daily religious services, teachings from the “elders,” meals, and all other indoor activities. There is an office with a computer, although only two men deemed in charge of administrative and business activities, Naboth and Kharash, were allowed to use it, lest the Internet unleash its evil.
There is no private space. No library (the women and children are not allowed to read anything from the outside world). No play room for toddlers (young children are strictly disciplined not to be “foolish,” as the adults say, meaning they should possess the strength of will and physical control of their bodies to stand like small adults during religious services, which a mentality of play would not encourage). No recreational areas for activity outside of sun-up-to-sun-down work.
Married couples have their own bedrooms, with separate bedrooms for their children, and “single brothers” and “single sisters” share cramped quarters filled with bunks.
On my first night Aviva suggested politely that I not wear my own clothes while at the farm and that perhaps I might find some I liked among the assortment of pantaloons and tunics laid on my bed. As time went on I realized that such “suggestions” from my hosts were very passive-aggressive: they were not suggesting, they were implicitly demanding under the cover of humble approach.
Likewise, on my third day, while huddling in a corner of the foyer for some semblance of privacy and using my laptop to check MySpace, the Joe Cocker song “Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” wafted quietly from a friend’s profile. Suddenly, as if shot like fire from the depths of an underworld, a woman appeared at the top of the stairs with a distressed look on her face as if she’d heard the scream of a dying child.
She suggested, out of breath, that I only use headphones to listen to music, and that it preferably be listened to off of their grounds, as their children only hear the community’s own songs of worship and we wouldn’t want to poison, confuse, or inappropriately influence them, would we?
The next incident of this sort happened soon after. After starting to work in the fields, I occasionally needed to lift buckets of harvested cucumbers, tomatoes, and the like. Once while in the cucumber patch, Nadiv, the thoroughly unsettling ex-Deadhead and former alcoholic in charge of field hands, came barreling over when he saw me lifting a full bucket.
“Clara Rose, wouldn’t you like for me or Jonah or one of the boys to carry that for you? You wouldn’t want to hurt your belly, or what’s inside,” he said, panting.
“Well, we believe that women should not carry anything heavier than their own child. A uterus is a delicate thing, and we wouldn’t want it ripped because of farm work. You may be one of us one day,” he said with a wink, “and we must make the numbers of our kingdom strong! Let me get that for you.”
He eased the bucket from my hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
* * *
I CONSIDER MYSELF a student of people, situations, and experiences, and I initially thought of Basin Farm as merely an interesting conglomeration of individuals adhering to a thought-out way of life that was vastly different from mine, and thus stood entertained. When Mary Ann once made a joke in the fields about “adhering to the cult,” suddenly a switch flipped on in my head. I hadn’t even thought of that word.
But things started falling together under that concept.
We visitors were expected to attend their 7 a.m. religious service — no exceptions — despite us having no interest in their religion but rather wanting to learn agriculture. After inquiring about my spiritual persuasion, various members would smile condescendingly, as if to say, “Isn’t that cute,” and proceed to lecture me on Zen Buddhism’s complete meaninglessness in the real world.
Being a sociable twenty-something, I desired to explore the surrounding town, and even have a glass of wine or two somewhere (no alcohol is permitted on community grounds), but literally felt terrified of being “caught” when sneaking back into the house one evening wearing jeans and a tank top and holding a copy of a Truffaut biography with Cabernet on my breath.
It became clear that the community had no previous exposure to women working in the fields or anywhere outside of the kitchen, and Nadiv and others began to show their disapproval with subtle side comments.
The women, who were the cooks, prepared only light tofu-, grain- and vegetable-based dishes, and it was easy to get hungry again fast. Yet between-meal snacking was looked upon as “greedy” and “undisciplined.” Once Mary Ann and I felt near fainting under the midday sun but had to toil with the rest.
“Keep us dependent. Keep our bodies and minds weak so we need you,” Mary Ann joked. By that time, with only a week passed, it didn’t seem like a joke to me at all.
* * *
I DREW THE LINE at being casually told at breakfast that as a black person I should still be enslaved.
I sat at a long, communal-style table in the common space, spooning unspecified gruel into a bowl with peaches. During my stay I tried to enjoy the children, though it was hard since I felt sorry for them, and was having a funny conversation with a boy about the mysteries of my long dreadlocks, the likes of which he’d never encountered before.
A man came and sat next to me. He cheerfully offered his hand and asked if I’d ever been down South.
“Oh, yes,” I replied. “I have a lot of family in Virginia, Georgia, and Texas.”
“Really? Well, you should visit our farm down in Tennessee. Lovely people,” he said, quickly tacking on: “You know, the Twelve Tribes believes that the South was right in the Civil War.”
He continued. “How much better off were the blacks in servitude, learning about God and lifting their curse, than in the jungles of Africa?”
Needless to say, what followed between him and me was not pretty in the slightest. Before things could get violent, as we were indeed at a breakfast table, I cut him off and marched to my room.
In passing, I heard Kharash say to the man, “She’s not here to be preached to.”
He didn’t say, “How could you speak such utter ignorant filth?” No, he simply admonished him for “preaching” their doctrine.
Adah, one of the older women, came rushing up after me. “He completely exaggerated our beliefs,” she offered in supposed comfort. If that was simply an “exaggeration,” I needed to get as far away as possible from these terrifyingly ignorant, self-righteous cavepeople.
* * *
MEMBERS OF the Twelve Tribes have an intricate network of beliefs handed down exclusively from their leader, a man named Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who they call “Yoneq” and who purports to be the second coming of the biblical prophet Elijah. They worship Jesus, calling him “Yahshua,” but that’s where any similarity to Christianity ends.
Yoneq is a textbook definition of a cult leader who lives in luxury on his several private properties while his minions slave away in the cramped communities without pay, offering all of their worldly assets to the Tribes upon joining. He stays in obscurity most of the time but occasionally hands down a new law that “came to him” through divine intervention.
These laws oversee every aspect of members’ lives, from how many times they should brush their teeth, to how they should defecate, to the size of the switch to use to beat children being “foolish,” to the relations of the races.
On March 19, 1991, Yoneq sent out the written decree “Châm and Servitude,” detailing the supposed plight of the African-American race.
The Twelve Tribes believes that Noah’s three sons represented the races of man: Châm’s descendents became the black race, Shem begat the white race, and Japheth begat Asians. According to Yoneq, once when Noah was drunk aboard the ark, he passed out nude and Châm happened upon his father and neglected to cover his loins for him.
Because of this disrespect of his white father, black people are forever cursed in servitude to white people to eternally pay for this misstep. For African-Americans, it is our destiny which slavery was a righteous part of, Yoneq preaches, and only through knowing our place and joining the Tribes can we be saved.
The 1991 decree reads: “Châm is a unique race. If they could only know. Whoever of Châm’s seed learns respect from his servitude to Shem, the curse will be lifted from them. No blessing was mentioned in regard to Châm in Gen 9:24-29, but only a curse… The glory will be on Châmite slaves for their submission to unjust masters. There is no other way for Châmites to inherit the nations than to fulfill the covenant of Genesis 9.”
Here’s the best part: “Martin Luther King was filled with every evil spirit there is to say Châm doesn’t have to serve Shem. All manner of evil filled that man. It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations.”
During my stay with the Tribes, an eight-year-old boy called me a Châmite to his mother. I didn’t know what it meant at the time.
* * *
I SPENT THE NEXT WEEK securing a room for rent and a job in Bellows Falls. I had my friend from Rutland pick me up that weekend, under the pretense of going camping, slipped out, and never returned.
Freedom of religion is a right in this world. But I have a hard time accepting the freedom to poison helpless minds. I have a hard time accepting the freedom to hurt, to restrict and to bastardize and annihilate self-worth.
And now, on this, the 25th anniversary of a shameful incident that brought this group of people to the cultural consciousness, I’m not sure what definitive statement to give to assess their current state. I do not know what should be done. I simply do not know.
This article originally appeared at www.commonsnews.org
More information on cults is available in the book "Cults"
by Marc Galanter. It's available at local public libraries and locally-owned bookstores, or from www.amazon.com.