Where members of the Twelve Tribes want to go, they don't need roads. Not only are roads unneeded, there is no need for cars or personal possessions. All the Twelve Tribes require for the journey is a community that shares — love, friendship, earthly possessions — everything in exchange for peace and salvation.
The Twelve Tribes is an “end times” Christian organization with communities worldwide; one of these is located in Vista. The group believes that humans must return to an ancient communal life, much like that lived by early Christians in first-century Judea, when the New Testament’s Book of Acts was written, in order to achieve salvation and to be one with God.
Members of the Twelve Tribes dedicate their lives and their possessions to the group. They live together, work side-by-side, and eat and pray together.
North County resident Gary Zuber, a former member who has considered rejoining the group, spent four months with them in 2009. Zuber attended weekly dinners and helped at a daily farm stand.
“If you join,” he says, “you give up all possessions. It’s a big step, but everybody there has done the same thing. They are such a community, in the true sense of the word. It’s like a real family. Everyone works for the benefit of the whole group.”
In trying to recreate biblical life, Twelve Tribes conforms to a patriarchal society, where older males are considered elders capable of making decisions for the group. In addition to turning the clock back on gender roles, the group also rejects multiculturalism. Members abhor today’s “I, me, my, mine” culture. They disagree with current Christian doctrine, which puts so much emphasis on personal salvation instead of focusing efforts on improving the entire nation, and on the search for the royal priesthood, as preached in the Bible. Nation-building, according to the Twelve Tribes, starts with them.
There are nearly a dozen chapters of the Twelve Tribes scattered throughout the U.S.; among them are groups in New York, Vermont, Tennessee, Colorado, and Florida.
In San Diego County, members are concentrated in the hills of Vista at a sprawling compound two miles from downtown. The “Community in Vista,” as it is called, has a two-story house on a large plot of land. The house is covered in vines and blocked by trees. Blinds cover the windows, preventing any glimpse into the house. Single men and single women stay in yurts on the property. Families live together.
Members keep busy when away from the house. They pass out religious newsletters at farmers’ markets or work long hours at one of three businesses: BOJ Construction, Morning Star Ranch, or two popular cafés, both called the Yellow Deli, in downtown Vista and in Valley Center.
The group follows three basic tenets: “leave, enter, become.” Before becoming a member, applicants must quit their job and give up all possessions, including houses, cars, and any cash in the bank. After being stripped of earthly possessions, they enter into a sacred covenant, similar to marriage, dedicating their lives to the entire community. Only then can they become a new person. The men adopt a new name and modify their appearance to resemble the Messiah, Yashua, the Hebrew term for the Savior.
Once the three tenets have been effected, members work at one of the businesses, do chores at the house, or watch and homeschool the children.
All work is performed in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing, much as was done in the mid-’70s, when the group’s leader, Eugene Spriggs — known as Yoneq by his followers — branched off from the Jesus Movement in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to start his own community.
After obtaining a psychology degree from the University of Chattanooga, and after three failed marriages, Spriggs, along with his future wife Martha and 50 other members of the Jesus People, moved into a house in Chattanooga in 1974. Shortly thereafter, they opened their first Yellow Deli. Within a few years, Spriggs and the others operated six cafés in the city.
Two years later, the Internal Revenue Service granted Spriggs and “T.H.E. Community Apostolic Order” 501(d) status. The designation, according to the IRS, is reserved for religious and apostolic organizations or corporations with a common treasury, “even if such associations or corporations engage in business for the common benefit of the members.”
In 1979, Spriggs and his followers sold their properties in Chattanooga and moved to Island Pond, Vermont, marking the birth of the Twelve Tribes.
The founders embraced the notion that they were descendants, spiritually speaking, from the original Twelve Tribes of Israel. The original 12 tribes lived as one people, a homogenous culture under God.
Today’s tribe is trying to relive those days, believing that it was a time when the land was the body of God, before possession by the Evil One, Satan. They have faith that restoration of a communal way of life will mark the beginning of the end — the beginning stages of the apocalypse — when Jesus, or Yashua, will return to reclaim the land from Satan.
In 40 years, the Twelve Tribes has grown. Today, the man known as Yoneq oversees ten communities, seven farms in the United States (and one in Germany, three in Canada, and one in Australia), and eight Yellow Delis. The growth of the Yellow Deli has caused some to accuse Yoneq of preying on the weak and then reaping what they sow.
In San Diego County, the tribe has been busy. In two years’ time, they’ve opened two delis. They grow produce at Morning Star Ranch, which is sold at farmers’ markets throughout Southern California, from Ocean Beach to Redlands, in San Bernardino County.
Turning the clock back 2000 years is no easy task. The tribe is embroiled in a four-year battle with the California Division of Labor Standards, after labor commissioners fined each of the three businesses for failing to pay minimum wage and for not providing workers’ compensation. After a judge upheld the fines in March of last year, the group filed an appeal in superior court.