Are the Yellow Deli folks a cult?
by Dean Arnold 5/22/08
My current challenge is to see if I can live off one gallon of gas a day. After filling up earlier this week and seeing $60 bucks on the pump, I decided to give the crunchy, shuttle, scooter, walking lifestyle a shot.
I have an office at one end of the route where I eat breakfast every morning at the Bluegrass Grill around the corner. Joan Marie, the vivacious waitress, chats with everyone while her husband Jonas cooks the eggs and biscuits or the tofu and hash, if that’s your thing.
At the other end of the shuttle route is a coffee shop and a bookstore I frequent, along with my apartment. Most importantly, the Yellow Deli is nearby, a block from the local university, where 50 some people in a local commune with long hair, beards, and women in flowery dresses serve strange teas and sandwiches and talk a lot about their religion. It’s open 24/7 and the young people flock to the place.
They’re a cult. Or so say a bunch of the locals.
No they’re not, insist a bunch of other locals. They are lovely people who take their faith seriously, live out their beliefs of following Christ with all their heart, and have simply continued the ideals of the hippie and Jesus movement of the 60s.
Mural at the Yellow Deli
Au contraire, argue the others, who are familiar with the Yellow Deli people from when they rocked Chattanooga’s Bible Belt world back in the early 70s. A number of families had to kidnap their children and then have them deprogrammed. All the fuss caused the Deli leaders to move the commune to Vermont. But last year they resolved to return to Chattanooga, the city where they once shook the dust off their sandals.
The Yellow Deli people have written a book about all the controversy entitled “Cult Scare.” The parents were the kidnappers, they say, mainstreamers simply scared by people enthusiastic about their love for Jesus. One lady in the group was captured twice by her parents, once in Chattanooga, another time in France, but returned to the commune both times and serves sandwiches to this day in the Choo Choo city whose trains stopped running in 1973 but now boasts an electric shuttle.
To me, the world seems to revolve around Chattanooga. I wrote a book about the enigmatic place a few years ago. My theory was cemented during a visit to the offices of the United States Senate in D.C. There on the wall was a picture of Andrew Jackson, Pocahontas, and some folks in the 1890s heading up Lookout Mountain, the eminence that overlooks Chattanooga. I have no idea why it hangs there.
Neither can I figure out how a small Yellow Deli group, after moving to Vermont, then grew into over 30 communes across the world and now boasts perhaps the world’s largest movement of intentional communities.
The last couple of weeks I’ve asked all kinds of people about the Yellow Deli folks. The answers are very polarized, from “you’re an intolerant buffoon to ask such questions” to “they are a dangerous cult. Beware.”
So I checked them out myself. Unlike most, I love to interact with these types. If the subject is not politics, religion or sex, I’m probably not interested.
It was midnight when I got there after a busy day and I was hungry as heck. Lots of literature was laying around and I glanced at some of it as I headed to the counter to order something. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a grey-haired guy with a pony tail inching nearer. I knew he wanted to talk, but I wanted to order.
“Are you interested in the literature,” he asked enthusiastically.
“Sure,” I said, walking away from him toward the counter. He kept following me, thinking I was another wary visitor.
Fortunately, I made it to my destination and got my sandwich order processed and sat down. There he stood.
“What’s your name” I asked.
“Ayal. It means Ram in Hebrew.”
He introduced me to the head guy who goes by “Yoenig.” I don’t know what it means, but I did know that he is originally from Chattanooga’s uninteresting neighborhood of East Ridge and was known then as Gene Spriggs. Now he’s the “apostle” for the “Twelve Tribes,” as the Yellow Deli people now call themselves.
Apostle Gene “Yoenig” Spriggs and wife Martha.
Whatever. I can deal with this. These folks are trying to love each other, live in community, and worship God. Sure, they are kind of weird, but it sure beats suburbia and prozac. Young people are energized and are living for something greater than themselves and greater than materialism. Lots of people call themselves bishop and apostle. So what? Robert Duvall was a pretty harmless apostle. There could be a lot of worse things.
I had read their mission statement. Trinitarian. Christ both God and man. The infallible Bible. All the things my father the evangelical pastor who got his doctorate in theology from Dallas Seminary would nod approvingly over. Why quibble over Jewish names and pony tails?
“We believe slavery was biblical” said Ayal.
“Our black brothers need to know this to be free,” he continued helpfully. “They are under the curse of Ham, Noah’s son.”
I scratched my head.
“Ayal, can I ask you a question?”
“Why are you bringing this up to me so quickly? I mean, isn’t this a bad PR move on your part? Why not leave this subject for another time?”
“Well, people need to be free of deception.”
Further questioning convinced me that if I had a question about their PR strategy, ultimately I’d have to ask Gene “Yoenig” Spriggs.
Down at the Bluegrass Grill, I got some interesting insights. Turns out Jonas the cook is “Father Jonas,” a priest for the local Orthodox Church, as in Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. He wears a cute little square black hat when he works in the window behind the counter and I never learned whether that’s just his cool thing or part of his priest thing. He used to be Larry. They take on new names as well.
Joan Marie and Father Jonas outside the office.
Joan Marie, who used to be Jane, told me she and Larry . . . I mean, Father Jonas . . . actually lived in a commune themselves back in the day. They were trying to act just like the early church, who, we’re told in the Bible, all sold their stuff and lived in a commune for a while. Their early church studies also told them that bishops ran the church, wore robes and hats and stuff, and conducted church in a liturgical, synagogue/temple kind of way. Apparently, the Orthodox Church today still does the same thing, and the folks in Jonas and Joan Marie’s commune eventually all decided to become Orthodox.
“What about communes?” I asked her. “Do the Orthodox still do that?”
“They’re called monasteries,” she said.
She went on to explain that communes get very difficult when children are in the mix. How does a father provide? Who gets the bike? What about college funds? She thinks the Yellow Deli people may be keeping men from being the fathers they ought to be.
Interesting contrast. Gene Spriggs the Apostle got things going a few decades ago. Jonas and Joan Marie follow a tradition that started 2,000 years ago. According to the Orthodox, the line of authority started with Jesus laying hands on the 12 disciples and never stopped. For a thousand years, councils of hundreds of bishops ruled the church and developed key foundational beliefs like which books are in the Bible, one God in three persons, the God-Man Jesus, and the Apostles Creed.
The movement got a major glitch when the bishop of Rome in 1000 A.D. or so decided he was in charge of the other bishops. “We don’t think so,” they responded, and Eastern and Western Christianity excommunicated each other. The Roman Catholic church was born. When the Protestant Reformation emerged 500 years later, it led to thousands of Christian groups today, including the version provided by Gene Sprigg’s Twelve Tribes Yellow Deli.
For the Orthodox, there’s no particular difference between Gene and the Pope: both wandered from the fold. The Orthodox have never corrupted into indulgences, papal infallibility, crusades, or slavery endorsements. They remain “Orthodox.”
The next day at the Yellow Deli, I got to chatting with “Elihav,” a nice enough young guy who served me coffee. He explained to me that the mural on the wall with lots of graffiti and painted words is a history of the entire Jesus movement. You can tell he’s proud that their group stuck with the vision, the Big Chill be damned.
After talking a lot, he asked me some questions, and eventually I shared my concerns, after talking to Joan Marie, that anyone can’t just start a religious movement. There needs to be some history and tradition over time.
He nodded with enthusiasm. “We’ve been around over 38 years.”