Twelve Tribes: Children beaten, denied an education and forced to work without pay?

Source: Brattleborro Reformer

Bellows Falls is home to one branch of the sect

By Julia Scheeres

Pacific Standard Magazine

Posted:   09/04/2015

BELLOWS FALLS >> Shuah Jones, 15, stuffed clothes under her bed blankets in the shape of a body, grabbed her diary and Bible, and crept downstairs. Wearing a long blue linen skirt and clunky buckled sandals, she opened the door, slipped outside, and paused to look back at her house: a historic residence in Plymouth, Mass., known as the Blue Blinds, where she lived with other members of her church.

Good riddance, she thought. On the street she broke into a run toward the only payphone she knew of, at a gas station near the center of town, half a mile away. She’d never been outside alone at night before.

As she sprinted down the main drag, Court Street, men in bars called out and wolf-whistled. She was terrified. When she reached the phone, she called her brother Noah, who told her to wait for him in a parking lot next to the Blue Blinds, so she ran all the way back. He was an hour away.

She hid in a bush, heart thumping. When at last he pulled into the lot, she leaped into his car. “Just breathe,” he told her as they drove away. “Breathe.”

Today, the Blue Blinds is a bakery, famous in Plymouth for its eggs-and-cheddar sandwich and its organic pastries. It has earned a loyal fan base by charging a little less than its neighborhood competitors for food that is consistently delicious.

But generating a profit isn’t its only objective. Another is winning souls: The bakery is the public face of an otherwise reclusive and controversial religious sect called the Twelve Tribes.

I visited the Blue Blinds one morning last summer. Business was brisk. As I stood at the back of a long line inching toward the entrance, I found myself staring at the employees’ garb. The women all wore long hair and baggy, floor-skimming dresses. The men sported trimmed beards and short ponytails, and rolled up their pants to expose their socks. A customer in front of me referred to the “cool hippie vibe” of the place. Inside, customers dined at small round tables and on dark leather sofas as peaceful Celtic flute music played.

I ordered a coffee and sat under a dramatic three-wall mural depicting stages of the Pilgrims’ harrowing journey to America. I assumed the decor was just another nod to the tourists who flock to the neighborhood to buy their colonial cranberry sauce and take selfies at Plymouth Rock, a mere two blocks away. But the server who brought out my food, a Hoosier formerly known as Jeremy Johnson and who now goes by Yashar (Hebrew for “Upright”), set me straight. A short, earnest man with warm brown eyes, he sat at my table, welcome but unbidden, and seemed eager to talk.

“We see ourselves as direct descendants of the Puritans,” he explained. He pointed to a section of the mural in which Governor William Bradford scowled in the foreground as colonists tended individual gardens behind him.

“He’s distraught because everyone’s working their own field,” he said. “They should be working together. That was the goal they had when they came over — to live the life of the early church. And they failed.”

Where the Pilgrims failed, the Twelve Tribes hopes to succeed. Members of the group, who number some 3,000 worldwide, live and work together, homeschool their children, and espouse a very literal interpretation of the Bible. Like the religious separatists who fled England in 1620 and dropped anchor down the street, the Tribes claims to practice a purer form of Christianity than mainstream churches.

After Yashar was called away, I browsed a side table filled with the group’s literature. Tucked among predictable testimonials from members who said they found purpose or “true love” in the group, one brochure stood out. Its cover featured a 1933 Norman Rockwell drawing of an over-whelmed mother pinning her small son facedown on her lap. At her feet lies a hammer, along with evidence that the boy has recently gone on a destructive spree: a shattered mirror, a broken vase, and a disemboweled clock. Unsure how to discipline her child, the mother grips a hairbrush in one hand, and a book on child psychology in the other. To spank or not to spank? That’s the question — and she doesn’t know the answer.

To read the entire story, visit Julia Scheeres is the bestselling author of “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown and Jesus Land.” Follow Sheeres on Twitter @JULIASCHEERES.

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