Religious community lives quietly in central Missouri town
The Kansas City Star/August 5, 2002
By Matt Stearns
Warsaw, Mo.– Here in central Missouri, members of the Twelve Tribes religious group welcome visitors with gentle smiles and quiet conversation. They break from dipping beeswax candles and baking bread to explain why they live the way they do: separately, simply, at odds with the wider culture- and, in some places, authorities.
Although their Missouri neighbors have had few complaints, in other states, at other times, Twelve Tribes members have been characterized as cultists, child abusers and anti-Semites and have spent years confronting public ridicule and prosecutorial zeal. They hope their explanation falls on sympathetic ears. If it does not, they make no apologies. “The devil always tells lies about the truth,” said Michael Skinner, an elder of Twelve Tribes, which derives its name from the Old Testament.
Twelve Tribes has about 2,500 members. The group, whose faith is based on its interpretation of the Bible, has headquarters in Vermont and several outposts around the world. Most of its members live in the northeast United States. Members often move among tribes communities.
About 50 disciples, as they call themselves, live in Warsaw, a town of about 2,000. About half the members of Warsaw’s Twelve Tribes community are children, most 6 or younger.
They moved here in 1998 after nine years in St. Joseph, where they operated a downtown cafe. “People wanted to know the recipe for our salad dressing, and where we got our music,” Skinner said. “But no one was like, ‘what about the hope that’s within your heart?’ It seemed like a matter of faith. It seemed our time was over in St. Joseph.”
Here, disciples are renovating the two-story Osage Hotel, on the Benton County Courthouse square. They plan to open a cafe there when the renovation is complete. One block down Main Street they sell organic foods at the Common Sense Market. Behind the store, in an old shed, they make willow and hickory chairs that are sold at other Twelve Tribes stores in the country, and in secular stores in Missouri. On a hill outside town, many live in a big farmhouse on 21/2 acres.
Local authorities have viewed Twelve Tribes, during its 10-plus years in Missouri, as completely law-abiding, if a bit odd. After some initial suspicion in Warsaw, relations are good between the Twelve Tribes and locals. “They absolutely do not bother anybody,” said Benton County Sheriff Gary Friar. “They’re model citizens. They’re polite. They don’t seem militant.” Others, though, say the Twelve Tribes lifestyle and belief system are more sinister. Accusations of mistreatment of children at other Twelve Tribes locations have dogged the group for nearly two decades.
Bill Mehr, a former member of the Twelve Tribes who now lives in upstate New York, likened his five-year experience with the group to a Marine boot camp. “They intentionally break you down,” Mehr said, “so they can mold you into a unit.”
Many of the group’s more controversial beliefs can be found in its pamphlets, which members distribute at the Warsaw store. A recent article declared “politicians who rally different races to be one are forerunners of the antichrist.” Another publication declared: “murder is the very crime which the Jews are still cursed for.”
Kevin Carlin, another Tribes elder, said the writings must be understood through a Biblical context. “We believe that God divided people into nations and tongues and races, and that generally speaking, peace has prevailed among the human race when these people have kept to themselves,” Carlin said.
Such writings caused the group to be banned from a British music festival where in recent years they had served food and tea, provided first aid services and evangelized.
Among the legal problems faced by Twelve Tribes over the years, many stem from the alleged mistreatment of children. In 1984, Vermont authorities raided several of the group’s homes in the town of Island Pond and removed 112 children after allegations of child abuse surfaced. The charges were dropped, and the children returned to the community. In 1998, a Connecticut couple who were members of Twelve Tribes pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for disciplining their children with lashes from a 30-inch fiberglass rod.
Noah Jones, 19, recalls frequent and severe beatings during his childhood in Twelve Tribes, which included some time in Missouri. “I’ve been disciplined since I was 2 years old,” he said, “spanked with a rod every day until I was like, 14. Six or seven times a day.” When he was 9. Jones said, he was locked in a basement for a month at the group’s home in St. Joseph, given one meal a day and a bucket to use as a toilet. His brothers, 7 and 12, received the same punishment. It was discipline, he was told, for their sins.
Later, Jones was sent to a Twelve Tribes home in Boston, and his brothers to Island Pond, separated from their parents for a year. Jones left the group in February and has since been outspoken about the group’s treatment of children. His father declined comment, through Carlin.
Carlin questioned some details of Jones’ recollection but acknowledged “something unpleasant happened” in St. Joseph and called it a “grave aberration.” “The leaders responsible for it were removed from authority,” Carlin said. It was a real mess.” He added that Jones’ brothers do not dwell on the experience, and he questioned Jones’ current motives. “He never really talked about those things here,” Carlin said. “But when he got out of the community, all of a sudden it became a big deal to him.” Missouri authorities never alleged a crime occurred in the St. Joseph incident.
Disciples readily concede they use corporal punishment to discipline children, but they deny abuse occurs. “Yes, we do discipline our children, we do home school them, we do try to keep the world away from them,” Skinner said. “But you have to judge the tree by its fruit…if they’re kind to strangers, hard-working people, then leave us alone.”
In September, New York authorities fined Twelve Tribes $2,000 for violating state child labor laws in an upstate community. According to the New York State Department of Labor, two 15 year olds worked as laborers in a Twelve Tribes factory. Twelve Tribes is appealing the fine.
The publicity surrounding the New York investigation cost Twelve Tribes contracts to sell its handmade wares through Estee Lauder and Robert Redford’s Sundance catalog.
Children at many Twelve Tribes communities, including Warsaw, occasionally work in the craft areas- but in a wholly non-harmful way, Skinner said. In Missouri, however, the child labor law says no child younger than 14 is supposed to work at all, other than in the entertainment industry, on a farm, in child care or on a news paper route. Children younger than 16 who work during the school year are supposed to have work certificates signed by the superintendent of the school district in which they reside.
The superintendent of the Warsaw School District has never signed a work certificate for a Twelve Tribes child, said Claudia Gott, the superintendents’ assistant. Gott said students who work at fast food restaurants generally request the work certificates. There have been three requests for them this year, out of more than 200 students in the ninth and 10th grades at Warsaw High School.
The group has other customs that some construe as harmful. Members are encouraged to share their possessions with the group- including all the money they have when they join. Carlin cites Acts 4:32 as the rationale: “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
Within the community, members are known by Hebrew names bestowed by the group, rather than their given names. The names are meant to reflect the personalities of the people to whom they are given, Skinner said.
For many cults, such renaming serves another purpose, said Marc Petrowsky, a sociologist who is co-author of a book on cults in America: it helps strip members of their past identities.
Elbert Eugene Spriggs founded what became the Twelve Tribes in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1972. It was a reaction against a mainstream Christianity that Spriggs believed had become too reconciled with modern culture, too removed from biblical teachings. “We honor him as a teacher, and trust his insight into the word,” Carlin said. Group members view Spriggs as an apostle, said Mehr, the former member. “They believe so deeply in his apostleship they believe that what comes out of his mouth is from God,” Mehr said “They call him the Anointed One.”
The group supports itself through cafes and the sale of its products, such as the candles and furniture produced in Warsaw. Disciples in Warsaw also hire out for carpentry and small-scale construction work.
While Twelve Tribes communities deal regularly with the outside world through their businesses, they do live a separate existence, home schooling their children and usually living communally in large houses- and preventing outside influences from reaching tribes members.
In a Twelve Tribes newsletter, one woman described her family’s attempt to persuade her to leave. The effort failed, and the woman wrote: “obviously, my mother (and the others) are pawns of the evil one, trapped in his kingdom, thinking the worst. I was very thankful to be driven home to my covenant friends when the ordeal ended.”
Said Carlin, as he sipped a cup of organic tea in the Warsaw store, “ultimately we want to love each other, be together, and glorify God by the way we are.”