| Chattanooga Times |
Controversy Pervades Yellow Deli Offerings
There are six Yellow Delis
in the Chattanooga area, and patrons of each agree that the restaurants offer
delicious sandwiches and friendly service. But the organization whose members
operate those restaurants, a group known as the Vine Christian Community Church,
has found itself the subject of increasing controversy among area Christians
and non Christians alike.
Former members have branded the church a "cult," and some have accused
its leader, Gene Spriggs of "brainwashing" susceptible young people,
isolating them from the community and alienating them from their parents. The
approximately 150 members of the group are for the most part young people who
live communally in houses owned or rented by the church. In Chattanooga, the
Vine Community owns a series of houses on Vine and Oak streets valued at approximately
$100,000. Members of the community operate the Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road
and the Areopagus. They have established branch delis and branch communes in
Dayton, Trenton, Mentone and Dalton. And negotiations are almost complete for
locating a seventh restaurant in the Plaza Hotel on Market Street, according
to Edward E. Crittenden, co-owner of the hotel.
They believe themselves to be one of the very few true churches in the United
States and probably the only one in the Chattanooga area. "There are two
kingdoms on earth," says church member Tim Pendergrass, who joined the
community after graduating from Baylor School three years ago. "The kingdom
of God and the kingdom of man." "The rest of the world, for the most
part, is of Satan." "God's not out there," he said pointing at
the window. "True Christians must be willing to give up everything for
the Lord, not just give a little on Sunday and feel saved."
But Clifford Daniels, who was the first Chattanoogan to join Gene Spriggs when
the group started in 1972, has a very different conception of the church. "They
are worse than the Hare Krishna's or the Moonies because they are so subtle,"
says Daniels, who left the community two years ago after a violent confrontation
with the other leaders of the group. "I began to realize that Gene Spriggs
is just a power hungry person," Daniels recalls. "Gene was our eyes,
our ears - we would know what to do by what he told us to do." "He
put everyone in mental anguish so that they all became totally dependent on
the group." "They became zombies." He is not alone in his criticism
of the group.
Mr. and Mrs. H. Alan Horton were so convinced that the group was a "cult"
and that their daughter Melinda had been "brainwashed," that last
year they had Ted Patrick, nationally known for his fight against the religious
cults, flown in to "deprogram" their daughter. "After they get
you in, you're taught not to think," says Melinda now more than a year
after leaving the Vine Church. "You had to submit, the guilt is so strong."
"They teach you that if you leave God will strike you dead." "It
destroys your ability to make decisions." "You become a slave - a
mental slave." "There was so much love there I felt accepted and I
trusted the people."
She was put to work in the Dalton deli and seldom allowed to see her parents.
When she did see them, she says, it was usually in the company of another member
of the group. "We worked 16 to 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, until we
were so tired we couldn't think." "But we couldn't question anything.
Any doubts that came into our minds were from Satan."
How do the leaders of the Vine Community respond to this extreme criticism?
Publicly, not at all. They refused to be interviewed by the Times, or to make
any statements concerning the charges of former members. (After these articles
had been written, three of the elders of the Vine Church changed their minds
and consented to an interview with the Times.)
"Anybody who wants to know what we believe can come by and ask us,"
says church elder Eddie Wiseman. "We're here 24 hours a day." "Our
lives are open and our hearts are open." Truth, Wiseman believes, will
never be found in a newspaper article that looks at all sides of an issue. "That's
the hypocrisy of today," he said. "Everybody is sitting on the fence,
looking at both sides, saying 'this is a little good over here and this is a
little good over there, but there are no absolutes.' "We're saying there
are absolutes. The truth is revealed by the spirit of God."
In the Vine Community, those absolutes extend to every aspect of a person's
life. Members live communally in houses owned by the church, and virtually every
action that a member takes must first be sanctioned by one of the group's leaders.
Men and women both often work up to 16 hours a day in the delis, and receive
no pay other than the right to remain in the community.
All marriages must be sanctioned by the elders and be with members of the community.
Premarital sex, drugs and alcohol are all strictly prohibited. Property is commonly
held, and the basic needs of the individual are met from the coffers of the
community. Members give their personal property, including cars, stereos and
cash holdings, to the church. An extreme example is that of Paulette Kendricks,
who inherited more than $20,000 and turned it all over to the church.
Members see themselves as making a total commitment to Christ, and quote scripture,
like the following verse from the second chapter of Acts, to justify their communal
living: "and all that believed were together and had all things common;
and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man
But former members, like Jules Laramee, see the commitment in a different light.
"You don't commit yourself totally to the Lord," he says. "You
commit yourself to the control of the elder brothers." Jules is a French
Canadian who came to this country illegally in 1975 after getting into trouble
in Canada. He somehow ended up in Chattanooga and had an automobile accident
directly in front of the Yellow Deli. "I was in the hospital for nine days,"
Jules recalls. "The people from the Yellow Deli came over to see me and
said if I was ever hungry or needed a place to stay to come and see them. They
didn't preach at all." "When I got out of the hospital, I was hungry,
I didn't have any money, and I went to see them. Nice people, free food, free
clothing." "So I decided to move in." "I was weak mind,
very submissive. Easy to bend and easy to play with." "I was the perfect
instrument for what they were then, as far as the control that the elder brothers
needed to exert." "They taught me that God dwells in the heart of
the believer through a direct relationship, but that God cannot work except
through a government." That government is the elder brothers. "I eventually
believed in salvation." "And then somehow, I can't explain how, why
or who did it, I did not learn about a loving God. I learned about a God that
if you don't behave, don't submit, He will punish you. He will cripple you neck
down, He will kill your mother." They held me through fear and fear alone."