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Members offer a rare look inside the world of the Twelve Tribes

by Tara Giles
Sports reporter - Coos County Democrat and Berlin Reporter

Joseph, Hannah, and other members of the 12 Tribes Community in Lancaster answered some questions on Friday afternoon in their shop, Simon the Tanner. (Photo by Tara Giles) (click for larger version)
April 19, 2017
LANCASTER — The group that owns and operates Simon the Tanner in Lancaster is known as The Twelve Tribes, and some of its members extended a rare invitation to the Democrat last week, opening themselves to questions about the organization.

The organization came to town after a fire destroyed the old Butcher Block that was located on Main Street in 1987. Members decided to rehabilitate the building and turn it into a thriving business. In the late 1990s, the group operated the building as a bakery and a candle shop. After further renovations, the current day Simon the Tanner has been instrumental in changing the aesthetics of downtown Lancaster.

Tourists and residents can tell that there is something different about the folks that operate the business; however, most are too intimidated to ask questions. If they do, they keep them brief. Most people in town know them as the Island Ponders, or The Community, and often refer to them as members of a religious cult.

Members of The Twelve Tribes also own a home on High Street in Lancaster, and are often categorized as nice people who keep to themselves. A simple Google search of The Community will supply anyone willing to ease curiosities with a plethora of information both positive and negative.

The Twelve Tribes was founded in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tenn. by a former guidance counselor named Eugene Spriggs. While many of the teachings they embrace come from the Bible, a large portion come from Spriggs himself. The Twelve Tribes consists of more than 3,000 members located all across the globe, including Spain, Germany, England, Canada, France, Brazil and Australia. The tribe in Australia was established in the early 1990's by an American named Scott Sczarnecki and William Nunnally. Sczarnecki has since left the group.

The idea behind the group is to re-create the 12 tribes of Israel in hopes that Yahshua (the name given to God in ancient Hebrew) will return. The group models their lives after the Old Testament and the first church of Jerusalem, which preaches communal living, hard work and harsh child discipline. Many ex-members say that child abuse is rampant. In the mid-1980s, a raid on The Community in Island Pond, Vt. resulted in 112 children being questioned. In that case, the judge found no evidence and returned the children to their parents. In 2013, 40 children living in a Twelve Tribes community in Germany were placed in foster care after a hidden camera caught the abuse first hand. Members are quick to point out, however, that these cases were isolated, and do not reflect on the organization as a whole.

Modern medicine is shunned, as is most modern technology. Wives are expected to submit to their husbands in accordance with scripture, and couples are encouraged to have at least seven children.

Each community has an elder who is in charge, and only men can become elders.

Last Friday afternoon in Lancaster, an elder, Joseph (as he is known to the English world) willingly answered several questions.

When asked what he wanted people in Lancaster to know, he replied, "We believe in the Bible and want to go back to the early roots. We pattern our lives after the book of Acts, where they talk about the beginnings of the early church. All the disciples are together, they lived together and shared what they had in common out of simple obedience to what Jesus commanded. Loving your neighbor as you would yourself."

When asked if The Community should be considered a cult, Joseph responded with "It depends on how you define 'cult.' As far as being weird or scary religious, I'd say no."

"We try not to be too flashy and live very modestly," Joseph explained.

Men have to keep their hair long, he said, explaining that "In the Old Testament, a priest had to have long enough hair to bind back but not as long as a woman."

When asked what separates their religious beliefs to that of a member of the outside world who attends church, Joseph said, "We actually had to come out of the way that we were living before we came into a new culture. We don't think people are bad if the they don't believe the same way we do. We believe there is a God that judges everyone according to their own conscience and it's different for each person because each person is brought up in a different place."

Marriages within The Community are recognized by the state. When asked if there were occurrences of wife sharing, Joseph replied, "Absolutely not."

There are several articles on the Twelve Tribes in which ex-members describe the life as regimented and extremely sheltered. One ex-member described that wake up time was at six A.M. each day followed by a morning meeting at 7 a.m., then a full 12-20 hours of work. Each member is assigned a duty each day.

Members are discouraged from having any communication with their friends or families from the outside world. In one case in Australia, a woman explained that she was so brainwashed that she was afraid to leave. When elders caught wind that her family was coming to visit, the woman and her family were hidden and eventually moved to another community. During each meeting, members are required to come up with a sin to be told out loud in the hopes that they will renew their minds. This has caused some ex-members to judge themselves in a negative way due to the fact that the group says the only way to truly obey God is through them.

Each member is assigned a Shepard who they are to turn to in times of strife. An Australian couple who left the group told an interesting story. The husband was deemed worthless because he'd been seeking worth through other things such as performing music. The wife however used to think his music was beautiful but overtime saw it as a sign of weakness.

Asked, in view of such reports, whether members of The Community here in Lancaster are there on their own accord, Joseph answered "There are a lot of people that come and go, we don't hold anybody here. Those that are here are here because they want to give their whole heart to it."

As far as recruiting people, the group travels to events such as large-scale music festivals to find more members.

Joseph said, "We look for people who are like hearted. We don't want to force anyone into the mold of our life but a lot of what inspires people to those things is the sense of community and that's really what the Bible talks about."

Joseph said that some people are asked to leave the group if they do not follow the values of The Twelve Tribes.

A typical day, according to Joseph tends to be pretty flexible.

"We meet each others needs and live to love one another," he explained. "The needs of the day vary depending on what's going on. Some of us will teach children, some of us will cook and it'll change out."

When asked whether he has ever been bored, Joseph replied with "I have been here for over 20 years, and haven't been bored once."

Joseph said that each community is different, and that members aren't treated like prisoners. He said that members are allowed to go for walks alone.

"We do like to do things together, such as play games and go for walks or hikes," he added.

Addressing another prevalent myth about the group's reluctance to embrace modern technology, Joseph said, "We do use cell phones, mostly for business purposes. The premise that we're here is that we want to live for the common good, so what we have is for the good of the community. I might not need a car, but maybe based on what I do in order to support the community, maybe I do."

As for children, Joseph said, "We do give our children things that they can work with, but we don't want to put them in the realm of fantasy. What they do would be constructive and educational. They can play but it's not with comics and things that don't have to do with real life."

When asked whether baby dolls are acceptable, Joseph said, "We involve our children in what we're doing."

Joseph added, "It's up to the discretion of each parent so it does vary a little. But usually, we talk about things in the household to have a common understanding of how to channel our children."

Joseph joined The Community after being picked up at a Christian rally.

Commenting on the group's connection to the town of Lancaster, Joseph said, "We like to support local businesses, as well as be an asset."

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