The Twelve Tribes has other problems. Residents in North County have called them a cult and accused them of indoctrinating forlorn youth, keeping them from reading certain material, from owning computers, and from forming individual identities. But others say the organization saves lives and allows members to open their hearts and embrace their faith.
All is on display at the two-story yellow building located at 315 East Broadway in downtown Vista.
The first sounds you hear when entering the Yellow Deli are gentle hymns streaming from wall-mounted speakers. The first items you see are bright yellow walls with large, colorful murals painted on them. One wall features people smiling. Another depicts fertile land with the words “Morning Star Ranch” written in large letters. Vines weave through a lattice above an outside patio. Patrons sit at darkly stained tables. A few feet from the entrance stands a middle-aged man with a beard, a ponytail, and a smile.
The dozen employees working the café all appear to be from a different time and place. The men, young and old, look like 1960s hippies: they have beards and their hair is tied back into ponytails. The women resemble the Amish. They’re bare-faced. Their hair is long, tied back in ponytails. They wear homemade long-sleeved blouses with dresses that flow to their ankles. Most wear sandals with socks covering their feet. An exposed forearm is a rare sight.
Workers range from late teens and early-20s to mid-60s. All move at a relatively slow pace, regardless of the bustling lunch crowd. Workers don’t rely on tips to put food on their own tables. They don’t rely on paychecks, either. The tribe provides all that for them.
In February 2008, a deputy labor commissioner conducted an inspection of BOJ Construction and found that the sole worker onsite did not receive wages, thus violating the state’s minimum-wage requirement. Elders in the tribe refused to pay the fine.
In June 2010, labor commissioners inspected the Yellow Deli in Vista. The commissioner asked to see evidence of workers’ compensation. Todd Thiessen, the host that day, said that there was no workers’ compensation because there were no employees; everyone was a volunteer. The commissioner issued the Yellow Deli a $10,000 citation, $1000 for each of the ten workers present.
Two weeks later, commissioners inspected the Morning Star Ranch in Valley Center. There they found three workers present without evidence of workers’ compensation. The tribe was fined an additional $4000.
In the appeal, the tribe argues that state labor laws do not apply, that 501(d) status designates the group a “tax exempt religious community…allowed to operate business ventures.”
The appeal reads: “[The] communities support themselves by operating businesses in various industries. The individual members do not receive any kind of remuneration, wages or the like for their work. No outsiders are employed in any operations in an employee capacity. There are no employees because everyone is a volunteer. Every member working for the Yellow Deli and Morning Star Ranch live, in their way, according [to] the early teachings of the Book of Acts — the way Christ did in the early days, all in a communal fashion.”
The court case is currently open and, says a spokesperson for the state labor division, no additional inspections will occur until the appeal is heard.
The tribe has been through similar cases in other states. In 1994, a workers’ compensation director in Vermont determined that, because of the 501(d) status, the group is exempt from workers’ compensation law.
A letter from director Charles Bond, dated November 30, 1994, reads: “T.H.E. Community Apostolic Order provides for its members the protection called for in the statute and that it is, in the eyes of the State of Vermont and of the Internal Revenue Service, a partnership which does not constitute an employer of the members.”
This exemption, however, is moot for some former members. They say that the tribe profits from those afraid to fend for themselves in the outside world.
Cheryl Lewczyk runs the website twelvetribes-ex.com. Lewczyk claims she was kicked out of the Twelve Tribes in Lakeview, New York, for being unable to work the 16–18 hour-days required by the group.
“I couldn’t work as hard or as long as all the other slaves,” says Lewczyk during a phone interview. “They put me to work in the kitchen right after joining. I did that for two and a half years, despite having herniated discs. My hurt back was never an issue for them, and I hardly ever received any medical treatment.”
Asked why she endured the work for so long, despite the pain, Lewczyk says, “We had no other choice but to work, because they teach that the community is protected by God, and if you leave, then bad things will happen.”
Elders in San Diego County’s group won’t admit to such conditions — in fact, they won’t admit to anything.
In Vista, elder Wade Skinner, known by tribe members as Mevaser, stands at the host table upstairs, holding a small notebook and a pencil. In his 60s, Mevaser is short and thin. A white, wiry beard covers his gaunt face. A cap covers his long, stringy white hair.
When handed a card and asked to comment for this story, Mevaser gives a deep, penetrating glare, as if seeking signs of malice. He says he will talk to other members before he decides.
Three days later, in an email, Mevaser writes: “We talked about your interest in doing the story on us. As you indicated, you are planning on doing a story regardless of our wishes or participation. As I told you, we have not had favorable press from the San Diego Reader, so there is a little bit of a bad taste there for us. Regardless, we have never sought publicity, but always welcomed outsiders who are sincerely interested in our faith to get to know us. We do not think we have anything to add to what we have already said in the past to reporters — and have often been quoted out of context. So we do not see any value in inviting more into our homes. So we hope you can be led by your conscience and your heart to write a balanced piece, but we will not be participating with interviews or opening our homes and gatherings for this purpose at this time.”