When I asked to view the Internal Revenue Service form 1065, which should be available for public inspection, Mevaser responded via email. “This is not something we have on file here in California. We file our taxes with all of the other communities in the United States as one legal entity.” He then provided an address for a post office box in Hiddenite, North Carolina, and gave the name of the treasurer, Caleb Long.
Labor issues aren’t the only problem for the Twelve Tribes in San Diego County. Some North County residents are offended by the group’s radical newsletters and by racism expressed on the twelvetribes.com website.
Many refer to the group as a cult.
The associated stigma is evident at the Yellow Deli in Valley Center on a mid-August day. An older man in baggy jeans and a worn T-shirt, with a salt-and-pepper beard and ponytail, brings food to an outside table, where three women and a young boy sit. After the man leaves, the boy, prompted by his mother, bows his head and says grace. Moments later, two cyclists — one an older man in a bright fluorescent-yellow jersey, the other a middle-aged woman in matching gear — pedal past the deli.
“You know that place is run by a cult,” shouts the man to his fellow cyclist.
She murmurs something inaudible. The man repeats himself.
“That yellow café is run by a cult.”
The group is also accused of racist attitudes toward other cultures.
An essay on twelvetribes.com states: “Let’s face it. It is just not reasonable to expect people to live contentedly alongside of others who are culturally and racially different. This is unnatural, and sometimes forces people to go against what they instinctively know in their conscience.”
“Trent,” a 34-year-old who wishes to remain anonymous, urges people to refrain from dining at the Yellow Deli and from buying other products from the Twelve Tribes.
“It bothers me to see these companies, this deli and ranch, make so much money off of people who are clueless about their beliefs,” Trent said during a meeting at a local coffee shop. “They take money from people from all cultures, but they don’t believe cultures should mix. It’s total hypocrisy, false advertisement.”
Trent accuses the group of preying on young people struggling with drugs or depression. He slides two newsletters across the table.
“Forever 27” is one title. On the cover are pictures of dead rock stars Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix. The stories attempt to connect heavy-metal music to a selfish way of life, and, as was the case with the Nirvana front man, it to suicide.
The second newsletter, aimed at hopeless youth, has a photo of the Clash’s breakout album London Calling on the bottom of the front page. At the top is a photo of a top-hatted punk, the emblem for the popular ska-punk band Operation Ivy.
One of the articles says: “It’s either that we get our friends together and smoke ourselves into a little stupor and cynically joke about anything containing even a notion of sincerity. Or we buy into the system and sit in misery through four or five years of college, hoping one day at the end of it, that somehow we’ll be happy, and if not happy, at least secure.” The article claims that salvation can only be reached when communal life is restored.
Despite being labeled a cult and called racists, some former members have only positive things to say about the tribe.
“A lot of people want to call them a cult. Well, I think they are, but they are a good cult,” says former member Gary Zuber. “I’ve only had positive experiences with them and do not feel like they are doing anything but good for one another…nobody gets paid but everyone’s needs are met.”
Neither did Zuber see any racism during his time with the group. “They try to live biblically. I took a homeless guy, a black guy, off the street, and took him there, and he is still a member of the community. I just saw him the other day.”
Rebecca Moore, PhD, professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, also believes the tribe has been treated unfairly. She says they are not much different than most fundamental religious groups.
“The Twelve Tribes are an apocalyptic Christian group. Most, if not all, of their beliefs are well within traditional Christian doctrine. They expect Jesus to return imminently. The difference between them and other evangelical Christians is that they take their belief to the next level. ‘Live tomorrow’s life today’ is the way they approach life. They are living the life that they believe will have people ready when Jesus returns, so that they can be part of the anointed, or chosen, people. They take their interpretation of the New Testament to a different level. They have to live it out, quite literally.
“This is America, and we have the principle of religious freedom. There are many fundamentalist Christians, or Muslims, or Mormons that share belief in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, at least in my personal opinion, that is not unusual. We can say, ‘This is not my cup of tea, but people can and will believe what they want.’
“I respect the people in the Twelve Tribes because they made a commitment to their Lord and Savior that requires them to give up what the rest of the world thinks valuable. That’s not a choice I would make. On the other hand, when you look at parts of the Bible, and Jesus says, ‘Give all you can to help the poor,’ or ‘Give up everything to follow me….’ There are all sorts of passages that people don’t want to take literally. I feel that the members of the Twelve Tribes have done just that, and they see it as a good choice.”