The Globe and Mail (Halifax, Nova Scotia)
Clark’s Harbor, N.S. –Since last fall, when a child reported missing in the United States by her father was found living here under a false name with a Bible-based cult, a storm has been brewing in this small, tightly knit fishing community.
Local residents have split into two camps, defending or opposing the group known as the Northeast Kingdom Church. Twelve Tribes members have been refused service in local stores, boycotted for jobs and denied permission to rent space for a public meeting. A brick has been thrown through a window of one of their homes.
The community is currently waiting for a judge’s decision on a charge of truancy for keeping its children out of public schools. Recently, the Concerned Citizens Group, made up of long-time local residents, purchased a newspaper ad to announce that the names of people who hire church members or sell anything to them would be published.
Most people in the surrounding area have sided with the citizens’ group, which is trying to force the sect out of town. A small minority criticizes the group, saying group members have a right to be here.
Community members say they just want to live in peace and adhere to their strict interpretation of the New Testament.
“I hope to hell this is all settled as soon as possible,” says Michael Nickerson, the worried mayor of Clark’s Harbor, who figures he may lose the next election for not opposing theTwelve Tribes, but who thinks church members have a right to live in the community.
Tension in Clark’s Harbor is simmering now, he said, but he is afraid of what will happen if the sect and the townspeople refuse to compromise. So far, the citizens’ group has refused to talk to community leaders.
Town council is trying to set up a forum where the two groups can meet, Mr. Nickerson said. “There are those of us who would like to go down the middle and hopefully try to see this thing through in a way that both sides can be appeased. It could become violent, and I don’t think we want to see that happen.”
On the surface, Clark’s Harbor, Nova Scotia, appears peaceful. White Baptist churches and clapboard houses overlook fishing boats moored in rows off sturdy docks. Satellite-receiving dishes squat in yards along the barren shoreline, testifying to the marked form of diversion in the isolated area.
Most of the 3,500 island residents can name ancestors who settled here generations ago, from the Acadians who arrived in the 1700s to Loyalists and British immigrants. Residents describe themselves as people who usually get along well together, but one year ago a rift started to develop, centering on the new church.
Most of the 30-odd members of the Twelve Tribes, who have moved into two large wooden houses in Clark’s Harbor, are from Quebec. But church leaders travel back and forth from their base in Island Pond, Vt.
Last fall, television reports were aired about the search by American Juan Mattatall, a former member of the sect in Island Pond, for his 4-year old daughter, Lydia. Mr. Mattatall had legal custody of the girl, who disappeared with her mother Hannah and Elbert and Marsha Spriggs, founders of the church.
A Clark’s Harbor resident recognized the televised pictures of Lydia as the girl living here with a couple using a different name, who said they were her parents and were later revealed to be Mr. and Mrs. Spriggs. Townspeople called the royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment, and Lydia Mattatall was returned to her father after CBC’s The Journal filmed a dramatic midnight chase.
“The communal group had been here two or three months at that time and hadn’t caused a problem,” Mr. Nickerson said in an interview. “People thought they were ordinary hippies who had moved into a local house and set up housekeeping. But when we saw the story on the Journal about the girl and the Island Pond church group, (some local residents) thought ‘oh, my God, they’re sitting in my back yard.”
The people of Clark’s Harbor also learned that Eddie Wiseman, a Twelve Tribes leader in Island Pond, was charged with child assault in Vermont after 13-year old Darlynn Church was allegedly flagellated for seven hours as a disciplinary measure.
(Darlynn’s father, Roland Church, had left the Northeast Kingdom Church and said the girl had been cudgeled. This summer, he and his family rejoined the community and he denied on television that Darlynn was abused. The case is still pending in Vermont, although the state has lost Mr. Church as its prime witness).
James Beverley, assistant professor of contemporary religion, visited Clark’s Harbor in October, 1983. In a recent interview, he said he “told people not to react in a way that would bring shame to the community. There was a rumor of violence on Halloween night. I told them to obey the law. I also told them to be careful of the group; new religious movements are not always good, and it’s always wise to be cautious.”
During an interview in one of their homes, members of the Twelve Tribes said they simply want to live in peace. Sitting in a bare living room furnished with a wood stove and some second hand furniture, with light filtering through plastic stapled over the window that a brick smashed, Stephen Mavity blamed media reports for the church’s trouble in Clark’s Harbor. “The media is slanted – when they deal with us they’re biased.”
He said most stories about the church contain factual errors and rarely give the group’s side of the story. Over the past year, television crews have walked into their yards and filmed members without permission, he added.
“We think it’s equivalent to the witch trial and anti-Communism in the U.S. in the 1950s. I was here before the Journal program (about Lydia Mattatall) came out, and the friendliness really impressed us. Then, when the Journal came out, it was an amazing transition. One man ran a fruit market and said he couldn’t sell to us, it was hurting his business. Suddenly, the school authorities came around, asking if we were sending our kids to school.”
Church members are vague.
The goal of theTwelve Tribes, according to Mr. Mavity, is to build a kingdom of God on earth.
For the past year, Mr. Beverley has conducted research into the communal group in Canada and the United states and has written two reports on the sect. He says the rigid views of church members makes conflict with local residents inevitable.
“The Northeast Kingdom suffers from a persecution complex. They display an attitude of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they have a limited understanding of worldliness.
“They believe they are sort of like Noah’s Ark on a sea of evil, so you have to join the Northeast Kingdom, because outside the kingdom is evil. They don’t believe they’re the only Christians in the world, but they believe Christians have to be pretty much like them.”
Mr. Beverley said that despite his criticism of theTwelve Tribes, he does not consider them dangerous and believes “the group has a legal right to be there, although I understand residents’ concerns about them.”
Mr. Blades, June Smith and other members of the Concerned Citizens Group just want the church to leave. They say Mr. and Mrs. Spriggs deceived them when they moved here under false names and that they violate laws by not sending their children to school or registering births and deaths. And they are afraid that members are harming children in the sect, although they admit they have no proof.
One citizens group member, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “I don’t know if anyone has seen them discipline their children. But a friend of mine told me he saw a man tell one of the children he’d get a battering when he got home and the tone would freeze you.”
This summer, Vermont state authorities seized 112 children from Island Pond community members to examine them for signs of abuse and harm. But shortly after they were seize, Judge Frank Mahady ordered that the children be returned to their parents because of insufficient evidence.
Critics say the church does not contribute to the local economy.
“They’re an economic drain. All they buy is gas. Ordinarily more people build up an area. But they take work and put nothing back in.
Mr. Blades noted that a slump in the fishing industry has affected Clark’s Harbor and he is angered by the fact that church members work for lower wages than local residents.
Over the summer, the citizens group has intensified its efforts to make the sect leave. They are bringing opponents from Vermont here to make speeches, they have written to various government agencies criticizing the church and they have screened films about Jonestown.
The group refuses to meet church members. “We don’t want them here, there’s no purpose to be served by talking to them,” Miss Smith said. “This is a dangerous and destructive cult; they use brainwashing and mind control. Around here, people put up with things just so long – then look out.”
Asked about the reasons for their group’s opposition to the church, Mr. Blades cited “their claim to be the truth, their unyielding nature when it comes to our laws and the threat they pose to our young people.”
Elizabeth Townsend is one of the few residents if the island who does not criticize the communal group. “It’s different, and I just don’t think people know how to handle that.”
Dalhousie religion professor Tom Sinclair-Faulkner has been monitoring the fray from his Halifax office. “You can’t be even-handed in this circumstance without being condemned as an active supporter of the Twelve Tribes,” he says.
It will be difficult for the opposing groups to compromise, he warns. “Most people think of religion as private.