By Sarah Stuart-Sikowitz, Staff Writer
It was a shock to many when the Maté Factor, an eccentric tea and juice bar on the Commons, closed in February of 2016. This left many Ithacans longing for a restaurant to find Yerba Maté tea and to attend weekly rap sessions. However, relief came to many due to the complex world beyond the cash register: the store was owned and operated by the highly controversial Twelves Tribes religious group, more regularly known as the Twelve Tribes cult.
No notice of a change in ownership was announced until recently. A yellow flowered sign appeared on the front window last week, dubbing the new owners as the “Yellow Deli.” The chain deli, which has a storefront in Oneonta, NY, is known for its banana milk and healthy sandwiches. At first this may seem exciting, new and inviting, but upon further investigation, the Yellow Deli is yet another business owned by the Twelve Tribes.
After the Maté Factor opened in 2007, there was a call for an immediate boycott of the tea shop due to its direct link to the proselytizing Twelve Tribes, known for its homophobia, racism and advocacy for child abuse. Its existence was highly protested and continued to be argued by Ithacans until its closure last year. However, many people in the town disagreed with the protests, stating that religious freedom should be upheld and that they posed no threat to the community.
“We know about our reputation,” Tehera, a Twelve Tribes community member, explained. “But at the time, it was important to us to keep pushing on, as our God commanded. And we did. That made us stronger.”
The group’s presence in many small towns all around the country has been known to cause issue. In Oneonta, the Twelve Tribes’ business created suspicions throughout the town of whether to trust the group due to their controversial beliefs, way of life and recruitment tactics.
“We wanted to open a store that was well known among our community,” Tehera said. “The Yellow Deli is all around the globe. We wanted to feel more connected to our people by having a store that was more recognizable to them.”
The religious group has over 30 “communities” in 13 states and dozens more all over the globe in countries such as Australia, Germany and Argentina. Their numbers are estimated at around 3,000 and continue to grow. The group provides Christian extremist texts on their website such as “Restoring the Ancient Way of Genesis,” “Back to the Garden” and “Three Reasons Why Jesus Didn’t Come Back on October 21, 2011,” which explain some of their beliefs. In the Twelve Tribes’ belief system, there is a fight between sodomites and the godly. Filling themselves with peace and the Creator’s guidance will create more believing disciples and help fight against sodomites, according to these texts. As their manifesto states: “If we will love one another and love being together like He has always wanted … our Creator has the power to reach deep within our souls and make real changes.” This is not unlike most sects of Orthodox Christianity, Judaism or Islam, however, this group is highly fundamentalist.
“Fundamentalists often claim–wrongly, in my view–to be orthodox,” stated Pastor John of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. “Fundamentalists tend to be isolationists, keeping themselves free from the surrounding modern culture as much as possible. It was a modern movement as a reaction against scientific and historical evidence undermining literal interpretation. Fundamentalism holds that the Bible was dictated by God to the biblical authors leaving no ground for interpretation. To myself and many other religious leaders, it is not considered useful.”
The group was founded in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1973 by Elbert Spriggs as an alternative to the militant Protestantism in the area. Initially, they created a restaurant headed by local hippies until Spriggs founded the Northeast Kingdom Community Church. It was there he began to preach the benefits of child abuse, female submission and slavery, which have permeated the belief system of the group since its origins in Tennessee. Since then, they have promoted the teaching of creationism in schools (but not sex education) and the discrimination of gender, race and religion.
In the book “Alien Ant,” one of the cult’s many publications, it is stated that multiculturalism “increases murder, crime and prejudice” and equates tolerance to loving sodomites. On the group’s website, there is a claim that Jews are cursed by the murder of Jesus. Additionally, the practice of beating children has been seen in a multitude of the Twelve Tribe’s communities all over the globe. Examples of this are the infamous raid in Newport, Vermont in 1984 where 114 children were seized by protective services due to child maltreatment, and in Bavaria, Germany in 2013 50 cases of child beatings were recorded on camera. For the tribe, this is considered discipline and is done in accordance with the Bible.
The Ithaca Twelve Tribes community has never had an issue with law or justice. However, they are unfortunately connected to the historically badly reputed global Twelve Tribes community, whose image has been tainted for many reasons. Few religious leaders in Ithaca have an opinion on the group, other than wariness of their fundamentalist ideas and the mere existence of their tea shop.
The group has offered Ithaca’s community a restaurant with a calm and welcoming atmosphere, good tea and baked goods. To call them anything other than a fringe religious group would certainly misrepresent them; they are only called a cult due to their small numbers and recluse attitude.
The opening date for the Yellow Deli has not yet been set.