Vista, USA - Vista residents have watched curiously as newcomers, dressed in what some describe as “prairie clothes,” spent the past year building a deli in downtown Vista.
The men with their beards, sometimes accompanied by women in shapeless dresses, arrived each day to hammer nails and install fixtures in the two-story building that resembles a funky treehouse, with its hand-carved wood detailing and a 1970s-style logo for their Yellow Deli.
The workers are part of the local community of a worldwide group called the Twelve Tribes, whose members attempt to live like the early Christians as described in the Book of Acts.
Twelve Tribes members share their income and eschew self-interest in favor of a communal lifestyle, and the group is guided by a reclusive leader known as Yoneq.
Some have called the group a cult, although its members cringe at that word. In Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Vermont, critics have drawn attention to the group’s recruitment practices, its strict rules and the lack of wages paid to members.
Others dismiss those concerns, saying members are adults who made the choice to become part of an alternative world.
The Twelve Tribes has a 66-acre farm with avocado groves in Valley Center and a house in Vista. It plans to open the deli on East Broadway in Vista on Feb. 14.
The deli will be staffed by unpaid group members who will brew coffee and its signature yerba mate tea. They will fix salads with chard and avocados from their farm — and they hope people will want to chat about God or learn about the Twelve Tribes.
“We endeavor to make a place where any person feels totally comfortable regardless of where they come from. We’re not here to proselytize people or force our beliefs on people,” said Wade Skinner, a community elder. “For us, it’s more a way to meet people and interact.”
On the wall of the deli is the slogan: “We serve the fruit of the spirit — Why not ask?”
Matthew Woodruff, 41, a San Diego community member, was in his late teens when he dropped out of what was then Point Loma Nazarene College to join the group after seeing the “love and unity” at a community in Vermont. Now married with six children, Woodruff is an elder who helps make decisions at the farm.
“It seemed like a real, sustainable life like I read about in the Bible,” Woodruff said.
The Twelve Tribes originated in the early 1970s in Tennessee, where Gene Spriggs — now known as Yoneq — and his wife ran a ministry through a coffee shop out of their home. Eventually, the group began living communally and opened a deli, the first of several restaurants and coffee shops. The group’s other ventures include farms and BOJ Construction in Massachusetts.
The group has developed traditions, such as Israeli folk dancing during the Friday night Sabbath ceremony. Members avoid TV and politics, spending their free time praying and singing.
In 2001, the group set up a community in the Los Angeles area. With crews traveling to San Diego for construction work, the group decided to buy the house in Vista.
In 2003, it established the Valley Center farm. Surrounded by hills, wooden buildings house several dozen members who work in the fields and groves.
The farm, known as the Morning Star Ranch, appeared in news accounts in June 2009 when the community unknowingly sheltered a fugitive couple and a 4-year-old girl involved in a custody dispute. A community member alerted authorities after seeing an Amber Alert.
Keturah Carlin, 25, was born into one of the group’s New England communities and lives at the farm with her husband and two children. Carlin’s days are spent cooking, sewing and teaching at the communal preschool. She also helps make the “green drink” — made with grapefruit and greens from the farm — that members sell at farmers’ markets.
As a child, she longed for makeup and designer clothes, but Carlin said she grew to accept the faith.
“My parents were able to communicate why they chose that simpler life,” she said.
Rebecca Moore, professor and chairwoman of the religious studies department at San Diego State University, classifies the group as “millenarian” because of its emphasis on the “endtimes,” referring to the return of Jesus and God’s judgment on the world.
Moore doesn’t consider the Twelve Tribes a cult.
“They have deliberately established an alternative world and way of life and expectation of Jesus’ return,” she said.
David Pike, 53, who was a member for seven years, said he believes the group is deeply flawed. Pike, who joined soon after leaving a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation program, said the structured life prevented him from drinking, but he became concerned over the use of a rod to discipline children and the “slave labor” lifestyle.
“A major factor was finding out there were similar groups that claimed to be the only ones and the only way,” Pike said. “I was seeing the possibility of it being a cult.”
Some complaints have attracted authorities, especially in the 1980s, when several members were taken by cult deprogrammers. In 1984, authorities in Vermont raided a community on child-abuse allegations, but a judge found the search and seizure unlawful, so the children weren’t examined.
Since then, communities have been accused of racism, sexism and homophobia. Members also have been embroiled in child-custody battles that sometimes involve abuse allegations.
In 2001, the New York attorney general cracked down on the group for child-labor violations, fining two businesses $2,000.
Rick Ross, who runs a religious watchdog institute in New Jersey, said the group exploits its members.
“People are basically working for room and board. … If you can staff a cafe, a restaurant or a business and have virtually no payroll cost and no benefits, you have basically no overhead, and it is very easy to make a profit,” Ross said.
He and others believe that Spriggs is building an empire. The Boston Herald reported in 2001 that Spriggs leads a lavish lifestyle, “bedding down in palatial homes in southern France, Brazil and Cape Cod while his followers lead humble lives of hard work in his many businesses.”
Cult awareness activist Steven Hassan of Somerville, Mass., said the group used to set up first-aid tents at Grateful Dead concerts to lure drugged-out youths.
“I think any group that says its leader is the sole prophet of God on Earth and he understands the Bible better than anyone else … is a problem,” Hassan said.
“They want total commitment. They want you to turn over your money and your property and your free will.”
Twelve Tribes spokeswoman Jean Wiseman said allegations that the group is a cult are “untrue and pure gossip.”
“We own what we own and share it with our friends voluntarily,” Wiseman said. “Yoneq makes no salary either. Our needs are met according to the most pressing need, as commanded by Scripture.”