By permission of the author, here is an unedited version of an article by John Sullivan that originally appeared in the January 2007 Ithaca Community News.
In Ithaca many people consider the consequences of how and where they spend their money. My wife and I have friends who can tell you why they refuse to buy products from several manufacturers as well as from a local big-box retailer or two.
So in the summer of 2006 when we learned about the history, beliefs and practices of the Twelve Tribes religious group that owns and operates the Maté Factor on the Commons, we were surprised that fellow Ithacans had yet to organize any kind of public awareness effort. Knowing little about the Twelve Tribes, we’d eaten there several times and had enjoyed the experience. The proprietors, who in appearance resemble a cross between flower children and the Amish, seemed harmless enough. The food was good, the décor interesting and the ambience inviting.
I’d like to explain why we with other Ithacans have since begun an organized boycott of Maté Factor and why we invite you to join us in this effort.
First some background on the Twelve Tribes. In the early 1970's a former carnival barker named Eugene Spriggs founded the group now called Twelve Tribes in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Spriggs began teaching his own brand of fundamentalist, millennialist Christianity in which followers give up all personal possessions and prepare for the biblical apocalypse in emulation of the first Christians described in the Book of Acts. After wearing out their welcome in Bible Belt Tennessee, they relocated to the small town of Island Pond, Vermont. In the past two decades they have established 24 communities in the U.S., six in upstate New York (including Ithaca), as well as in France, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. According to the Boston Globe, the group has nearly doubled in size in the past five years (to between 3000 and 4000) and has prospered financially from opportune real estate investments. They give themselves Hebrew names, practice Israeli folk dances, and have adopted the name “Twelve Tribes” to reflect their belief that they are God’s newly chosen people. They preach that only they offer salvation and that baptism within other faith communities is worthless. According to defectors, Spriggs still maintains complete control of all communities. He and his wife reportedly shuttle between estates near Twelve Tribes communities in the U.S., France and Brazil and live in considerably better conditions than do their flock.
Our objections to Spriggs and the Twelve Tribes are not directly concerned with their religious claims or belief in an approaching apocalypse. Instead, we object to their promotion of racist, misogynistic and homophobic doctrines that have a long history of hurting people: doctrines that are in fact at the root of the greatest modern crimes against humanity. Additionally, we object to their exploitation of young adults and——to us the most disturbing——their advocacy of child mistreatment.
Spriggs, known as “Yoneq” inside the group, teaches that slavery of people of African descent and the social order of the Jim Crow South were ordained by God, a result of the biblical curse of Canaan. According to Spriggs, “Martin Luther King could not offer true freedom to [African-Americans] when he was a slave of the curse himself” and “Martin Luther King was filled with every evil spirit there is to say [blacks don’t] have to serve [whites]…All manner of evil filled that man.” Race mixing and multicultural society are anathema to Spriggs. Literature the Twelve Tribes disseminates for the public and potential recruits only slightly softens Spriggs’ teachings with more veiled references to race. For instance, in their publication “Multicultural Madness” you will read:
“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.”
From another entitled "Alien Ant":
“Multiculturalism increases murder, crime and prejudice. It goes against the way man is. It places impossible demands on people to love others who are culturally and racially different. This is unnatural, like trying to love sodomites.”
Spriggs has written that (real) Jews suffer under their own curse for crucifying Jesus and that homosexuals “deserve the death penalty.” He is adamant that women unquestioningly submit to the authority of their husbands. But central in Spriggs’ teachings concern their children. On them all their hopes depend since in a generation or two they must produce 144,000 pure and virginal boys to be the bride of the Messiah as described in the Book of Revelation. Any deviation from devout focus on this goal endangers everyone’s salvation. And so he admonishes his followers to begin beating disobedient children with switches from before they can walk. According to Spriggs, a beating is not sufficient until “blue wounds” appear in the child’s flesh. Punishable offenses include engaging in make-believe.
Children in the Twelve Tribes are home-schooled to only a rudimentary level and are prohibited from acquiring a high school diploma or G.E.D. (After all, what use have breeding stock for an education?) They are put to work at an early age in the group’s cottage industries. We have no information on how children are treated in the Ithaca community other than what the parents tell us. Normally, no one mandated by New York state law to report signs of abuse—doctors, teachers, social workers—ever see the children. However, none of the local Twelve Tribes adults with whom I have spoken have disowned Spriggs’ teachings on child discipline (or those on any other subjects). On the occasions I went to the restaurant, I regularly saw children working behind the counter. New York State fined two Greene County Twelve Tribes businesses for child labor law violations in 2001.
The group largely recruits directionless (but fertile) twenty-somethings, often at rock concerts. They take, and under no conditions return, all the financial resources of those who have any. Accounts from people who have left Twelve Tribes describe a culture based on psychological manipulation, suspension of individuality, and total dependency on “elders,” all of whom are male.
Somehow, because their doctrines and practices come wrapped in religious convictions, they have been immune from the kind of criticism that would otherwise be marshaled against them. We suspect most people eating at Maté Factor on any given day would say that they find nostalgia for slavery and patriarchy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and child beating rather revolting. We think most would choose to spend their money elsewhere if they were aware that Twelve Tribes exploits people and promotes these things. I see people eating in Maté Factor who are probably among those concerned by sweatshop labor in Bangladesh and who protest human rights abuses in Tibet. We could all benefit by being more aware of what is going on in our own backyard.
Our group, Ithacans Opposed to the Twelve Tribes Cult (IOTTC), came together initially to counter a Twelve Tribes recruiting rally on the Ithaca Commons on August 12, 2006. At that surreal event were treated to a black Twelve Tribesperson (yes, there are a few) explain how the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56 was a misguided effort, among other things. We handed out a pamphlet containing the words of Eugene Spriggs to over 300 passers-by that day and, I think, successfully frustrated their efforts.
The members of the Twelve Tribes who have settled in Ithaca and work at the Maté Factor should not be insulted or harassed. Many are themselves victimized and may have not fully understood all of the Spriggs’ teachings when they joined. As one ex-Twelve Tribesperson wrote us “a lot of them have a hard time stomaching the teachings like the Ham teaching [on race] and the child discipline stuff, however they are between a rock and a hard place, and it's not worth it for them to rebel against those teachings because their survival depends on their submission to authority.” We should feel compassion for these people and offer them assistance to leave TT. Any that choose to do so will need our help since they own nothing but the shirt on their back. However, by eating at the Maté Factor your dollars empower the Twelve Tribes organization to maintain their hold on these adults and their children, and to recruit others.
Some confuse the right to free speech and belief to which we are all entitled with a supposed right to not be criticized. This no one has. When an ideology promotes homophobia, misogyny, racism and mistreatment of children we have an absolute obligation to speak up. Yes, the Twelve Tribes are for now a small group with fringe beliefs. Every one of us has a real interest in keeping things that way. Please help us boycott Maté Factor.