Rumors have been circulating that The Yellow Deli, which opened about a month ago near the corner of Ninth and Pearl streets in Boulder, is operated by a religious “cult.”
The establishment that took the place of Heidi’s Deli is part of a chain of restaurants that has been both lauded for its Reuben sandwiches and chastised for its fundamentalist Christian point of view.
The group behind the Yellow Deli is an international organization called Twelve Tribes. And an Internet search of Twelve Tribes turns up all sorts of claims, including allegations of child labor, racism and homophobia.
While the group has continually rejected the “cult” label, its members have been accused of suppressing women’s rights, abusing children and sending their founder money to support a lavish lifestyle.
But a visit to the Boulder Yellow Deli reveals a group that is open and eager to dispel what they say are misconceptions about the Twelve Tribes perpetuated by the media and others.
ROOTS OF A MOVEMENT
Gene Spriggs formed the Twelve Tribes in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The group created the Yellow Deli soon after because, according to the group’s website, they hoped to create “a place where they could work for a living and still be together, learning all about their Saviour and his Teachings.” The menu proclaimed, “Our specialty is the fruit of the Spirit. Why not ask?” Over the years, Twelve Tribes has been accused of both child labor and child abuse. Members attribute it to the anti-cult movement and their homeschooling practices, which include having kids do chores alongside parents and disciplining their children by smacking them with thin wooden rods, or “balloon sticks,” adhering to a biblical passage about using “reeds” for the same purpose.
They have been accused of forcing women into the roles of subservient wife and child-bearer, and forbidding contraceptives and the use of drugs during childbirth. New members are expected to give up all of their belongings and wealth once they join the Twelve Tribes, so that the entire community can share the resources equally. Some also give up their previous relationships. According to their website, new members get “new friends, a new job, a new hairstyle, a new address and, most importantly, a new Master, who will direct every aspect of your life.”
The group is known for being a sort of hippie Jesus commune, one in which all members live together, have an equal voice, share the work and share the rewards, a community in which no one is rich or poor. They take biblical passages literally, believing that they should recruit others to their point of view, that adultery and the use of drugs or alcohol are wrong. Outside influences such as television and video games are frowned upon.
The group reportedly wants to propagate extensively, so that there are 144,000 virginal males to serve as the bride of Messiah when Judgment Day comes.
In addition, the Twelve Tribes has been accused of lying to government and court officials to protect their own. They justify it by comparing it to lying to the Nazis about the location of Jews during the Holocaust, saying that the Bible does not require the truth to be told to evil men who aim to hurt the innocent.
According to a page on the group’s website attributed to a female member of the group, “God created woman to be a friend and a helper for man. She was created to be a wife and a mother, to raise children who would in turn know who they were created to be. In this she would find peace and rest. Sadly enough today though, many women strive to be something ‘better.’ But the good news that we’ve found is that there is nothing better than becoming who you were truly created to be. In this we are learning to have true modesty, that is, a true estimation of ourselves. We are not pitiful little housewives that are bossed around all day by overbearing men, but we are happy, liberated women who willingly submit ourselves to our loving husbands.”
According to a news article posted on the group’s website, Twelve Tribes marriages are arranged by the families of the bride and groom with their cooperation, and during the ceremony, the groom does not kiss the bride — she kisses him, as a symbol of her submission.
Former members say the group is, indeed, a cult that separated them from their family and friends. Websites like www.twelvetribes-ex.com and groups such as “Ithacans Opposed to the Twelve Tribes Cult” urge against patronizing their establishments.
One would scarcely detect any of these elements upon entering the Yellow Deli in Boulder. It resembles a number of local establishments, with its herbal scents and all-natural offerings. According to custom, all of the men sport ponytails and beards; the women have their hair pulled back and are dressed modestly. The restaurant features hippie-infused religious artwork and inspirational sayings on the walls, with partial thatched roofs jutting out over booths.
Each Tribe member has been given a special name.
Zach “Chaiyim” O’Keefe is one of the managers, although he is quick to point out that there are two others, since “a three-stringed cord is hard to break.” He is joined by another manager, Joseph “Dayag” Fisher. Both have come from the Twelve Tribes’ longstanding Manitou Springs establishment, the Maté Factor, where they met. Given the perceived mistreatment the group has received from other media over the years, they confer briefly before talking with a reporter. But when they return, they openly address the ques- tions that have been raised about their group in its nearly 40-year history.
While there are several piles of Twelve Tribes publications on shelves in the restaurant, Fisher says that Yellow Deli employees are not actively proselytizing.
“People can mind their own business, and we’ll serve them and not push anything on anyone,” he says. “We’re not putting what we believe on other people.”
They say the current community lives in two houses in the Boulder area, but they are looking for a bigger spot, like a farmhouse.
Curiously, the Yellow Deli is open 24 hours a day from noon on Sunday until Friday at 3 p.m. Fisher says the schedule is not intended to avoid the party crowd, but to serve as a place where “people can go and not worry about being chased out,” even in the wee hours. In the age of artificial communities created by Facebook, Twitter and email, he says, customers are sometimes “looking for a friend or someone to talk to, instead of popping on the headphones or getting on the computer. People are thirsty for that.”
They are quick to defend founder Spriggs against claims that he takes a percentage of all profits and jetsets around the world visiting his numerous mansions.
“If he gets any money, he uses it to buy shoes for the single brothers,” says Fisher, who lived with Spriggs for four years. “He helps widows and orphans.”
If there are any mansions, he says, “we all have mansions,” and Spriggs has many members living there with him. They insist that no money is sent to Spriggs, although one Twelve Tribes community might choose to help another community if it is in financial trouble.
“This stuff is no more true for him than it is for me or Zach,” Fisher says of the claims about Spriggs.
O’Keefe adds, “He spent the last two years busing tables at the Yellow Deli in Vista, Calif.”
TREATMENT OF WOMEN
The two say that men and women are given an equal voice in the community and are encouraged to speak their minds.
“Outspokenness is what keeps this lifestyle alive,” Fisher says.
And Deborah Wolfe, who has been a member of the group for 30 years, agrees.
“I would be happy to talk to any feminist women about the choices I made by having my six children,” she says.
Wolfe and her husband, Andrew, or “Sehyah,” were the first Twelve Tribes couple to arrive in Manitou Springs, traveling from a community in Island Pond, Vt., to establish a presence in Colorado because Andrew was born in Fort Collins. (It is custom for leaders to return to their birthplace to set up a community.) They now live with the new community in Boulder, but one of their sons is a manager at the Maté Factor in Manitou Springs.
They acknowledge that natural childbirth at home with a midwife is preferred, but hospital deliveries are not uncommon, especially when there are complications, and those deliveries are completely at the discretion of the couple. Four of Deborah’s kids were delivered at a hospital, as was Fisher’s 18-month-old son, Roeh.
“Nothing in our life is forced,” Fisher says. “We’re not into condemning.”
Deborah says natural, medication-free childbirth makes mothers even more connected to their babies.
“You work hard for that baby, and it helps that bonding process,” she says, adding that there are many alternatives for making childbirth more bearable, from relaxation techniques to having the support of family and close friends present.
As for contraception, Andrew Wolfe describes it as “limited, not prohibited,” and Deborah adds, “We want children.” Natural forms of contraception are used, they say, during the months immediately following childbirth, for instance.
When asked about the goal of creating thousands of virginal males to serve as Messiah’s bride on Judgment Day, Andrew says the idea is to have a critical mass of followers by the time Jesus, or “Yahshua,” as they call him, returns. It goes back to a biblical verse about the rest of the world witnessing disciples’ love for one another on that day of reckoning, he says.
They agree that while homosexuality is discouraged, gays are not expelled from the group. The group has had members “struggle” with homosexuality, they say, and gays have joined the group in the past, although their sexual orientation, like their belongings and wealth, is something they are expected to leave behind when starting their new life.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
While the Twelve Tribes doesn’t subscribe to the strict biblical idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old, they don’t believe that man evolved from apes. They teach their home-schooled children about subjects like physics and biology, but special emphasis is placed on music and communication skills like reading and writing.
Twelve Tribes members use computers for things like communication, bookkeeping, research and shopping, but not for getting the latest celebrity news.
“Sitcoms are for people who don’t have an entertaining life,” Fisher says, explaining that his community gets satis faction from discussions, music, dancing, hiking and other wholesome activities.
Asked about the allegations of child labor, Fisher says the group “abides by the laws of the land” and that some have misinterpreted the Twelve Tribes custom of involving kids in chores at an early age, just as was common on farms in past decades.
As for the child abuse claims, Fisher says the group disciplines youngsters not out of anger, but to provide guidance. The word discipline, he says, refers to “being discipled, or being brought along by a master or a teacher. It’s not a punishment, it’s a correction, and it’s gaining access to the heart and the true bond made between student and teacher, parent and child.” As an example, Andrew Wolfe describes a 3-year-old who is told not to run into the busy street in front of his house. When the child heads for the street anyway, a quick slap from the thin wooden rod, or what he calls a “spanking,” is appropriate.
“The consequences of getting spanked are much less than getting hit by a car,” he says.
He adds, however, that the smack is immediately followed by a hug, reassuring the child that he or she is loved. The rod is used instead of the hand because the hands are used for love, for the hug that follows, he says. Deborah adds that a spanking might also be warranted when a child takes cookies that he or she knows are being saved for social time.
Spriggs has been accused of saying inflammatory things about Martin Luther King and about slavery being a result of the biblical curse of Canaan. Twelve Tribes leaders readily admit that they discourage interracial marriages, even though they say they welcome non-white family units to join their group.
Spriggs reportedly said King could not offer true freedom to blacks because of the biblical curse, but according to Andrew Wolfe, Spriggs simply meant that joining the Twelve Tribes is the only real path out of racism.
“We see this life of love as the ultimate way to do away with prejudice, and other efforts are not going to cut it,” he says.
Fisher says the Twelve Tribes has had some interracial marriages.
“If it’s true love, no one is going to stand between them,” he says.
But Andrew acknowledges that the group prefers to have blacks marry blacks and whites marry whites. He is quick to add that a black or Asian family is welcome to join the community.
“Our solution to the race problem is not to inter-marry everybody,” he says.
Fisher adds, “Our goal is not to create one gray human being. The creator allowed man to be so diverse for a reason.”
As for other, non-restaurant occupations that are acceptable to the group, Fisher lists wood-working, produce delivery, construction and tree care as vocations that have been held by community members.
What about being a lawyer? A professional athlete?
“Our life is a life of living for each other,” Andrew says. “We glorify one another, not ourselves. We wouldn’t all be able to be on your team if you were a football player.”
And while the Twelve Tribes dismisses all other denominations, Andrew says, “we do not believe we are the only ones who will have eternal life.”
People will be judged on their own deeds, their own conscience, how they treated others, he says. Fisher adds that it will be about what is in their heart. The group doesn’t subscribe to the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy, instead believing in “three eternal destinies,” including a “lake of fire” for the “filthy and unjust.”
But Fisher says those who are not members or who have never even heard of the Twelve Tribes are not necessarily headed for that lake.
“They’re judged on the highest standard they’re aware of,” he says.
Asked about whether members are expected to sever ties with their nonconforming family and friends when they join Twelve Tribes, Fisher points to his in-laws in an adjacent Yellow Deli booth, who do not belong to the group but remain part of his family’s life. He explains that joining the community requires you to put Yahshua ahead of everyone else, so that sometimes causes problems with people who used to exercise authority over you. In addition, he says, members sometimes don’t see their extended family and friends as much as they used to before joining the group.
If it gets to the point that family members are destructively set against Twelve Tribes, an individual may have to sever ties, they agree.
“Relationships with family are encouraged, unless the family is dead set against us,” Andrew Wolfe says.
His wife adds, “If it’s not bearing good fruit.”
Andrew delivers one final message, asking people to avoid judging Twelve Tribes on what they read online until they’ve had a chance to come into the Yellow Deli.
“We encourage people to come meet with us themselves,” he says.
Besides, Fisher concludes, one recent customer described their Reuben sandwich as the best in the world.
Divine, in fact.